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Battersea Power Plan -- is Rafael Viñoly a menace or a sustainable design hero?

Posted by: Helen Walters on June 25, 2008

Battersea_View-from-North-Bank_lores.jpg Architect Rafael Viñoly’s plan to redevelop the Battersea Power Station site, is certainly causing a stir. The proposal sees the iconic power station, which has loomed over the south bank of the River Thames since 1939 (and which memorably featured on Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals album cover) recast as a vast mixed use complex, with the eight million square foot plan including residential, retail, hotel and office space as well as an open-air park and an extension to the Northern line on the underground. The iconic masonry smokestacks will be back in business in the new environmentally sensitive locale, “employed to exhaust water vapor produced by a new biofuel-powered, co-generation plant located in the basement.”

But the element of the design that’s got the likes of former RIBA president George Ferguson dubbing Viñoly a “menace” and flapping about the “crazed plan” is the accompanying Eco-Dome and the nearly 1000 foot high Chimney that the team has designed to sit next to the old power station. The Dome would house commercial entities beneath a transparent canopy that doubles as a solar-driven ventilation system. As air heats up inside the dome, it rises — and pressure draws it up and out of the Chimney. Cool air is drawn in at ground level, eliminating the need for interior climate control or air conditioning. Viñoly claims it will decrease energy demands by some 67%. Critics complain the structure will decrease the beauty of London’s skyline by about a similar figure.

I chatted with Viñoly about his bold design, the 21st century mandate for sustainable architecture, the challenges of working with an architectural icon and much more. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Projects to revitalize Battersea Power Station have been proposed before, but always failed. Why will your plan succeed?
This is a development proposal that requires a very significant amount of infrastructural investment. It calls for upfront investment of £150 million just to stabilize the building, before one square foot of production or revenue-generating area is created. In our view, previous projects have failed because people misinterpreted how significant this component is.

Battersea Power Station is an iconic fixture on the London skyline. As an architect, how do you respond to the challenge of redeveloping the site? How much are you beholden to what is there — and how much can you be prepared to forego the old in order to forge the new?

It’s an amazing reserve of land. It’s occupied by obsolete, industrial infrastructure with enormous sites bound by train tracks. That’s how technology worked before. But it’s not a grid to respect or an urban fabric that makes sense to continue. You have something that made sense at the time but now it makes for a very difficult site. Other projects haven't failed because people didn't want to develop there, but because it requires a self-confident approach at scale. If you are not self assertive, this building swallows you. Then you have no site -- and then you have no building because no one would pay for rebuilding it.

You certainly seem to have asserted yourself with the Eco-Dome and the 1000-foot tall Chimney! How do these balance with the existing towers of the Power Station?
The building is clearly very iconic. It’s also incredibly potent relative to the environment in which it was set. If you say an issue of scale or of balance in mapping terms should be at play in an issue like this, then clearly [the power station] shouldn’t have been built in the first place. The lack of equilibrium with its own context across the Thames was built into this idea. But inequality in scale is not a recipe for disaster. You can get accustomed to it. And most importantly [the Chimney] is not something that dwarfs the station. It's not a project that is trying to overcome the perception [of the existing station] but counterpoint it.

Were you briefed to focus on sustainability with this project? Where did the Eco-Dome and Chimney idea come from?
Treasury [Holdings UK, the site’s developer] feel very strongly about trying to integrate a vision of sustainability into their property development. And so together we set out to produce the first truly reliable carbon zero emissions development plan.

Truly reliable? Are you suggesting that some green projects are not all they claim to be?
What’s at stake is not to put 5% energy production biofuels in your building. That’s nothing but tokenism. It’s like you you put three or four checks in boxes and you’re “green” because you’ve reduced the energy consumption by 1% or less. We’re going to convince tenants that we won’t have air conditioning at all. We set out to ensure the environment has completely controlled climate conditions based on natural ventilation. It doesn’t have dual mount systems. We’re not checking the green box but also giving you AC and then transferring control to you as the tenant. This project doesn’t have two ways of being operated, only one. If you really want to save 80,000 tons of Carbon Dioxide then you need to have this natural machine.

So how does it work?
It’s not that complicated to understand. It works on the same principle as your fireplace. It really is a chimney. I hope people can zero in on the fact that this isn’t a symbolic gesture; it’s not simply geared towards generating height. We’re very excited. It’s an extraordinary, interesting proposal with a great deal of issues that are touching upon a number of sensitivities but for reasons that are easy to explain. Either you buy in or not but you’re not confused.

So you’re not bothered by some of the criticisms that have met the project?
If you really get to know the history of the power station then you quickly realize that it was as hated when it was built as probably some people will hate this proposal. You can't rely on the public’s perception of what deserves to be hated to make a decision like this. People will try to transform it into politics. People may tell you that you are creating a hoax or lying about the physics, but luckily that’s a matter for the scientists. When you look at this from a technological point of view, it does work. It’s not the only way to tackle the problem, but it’s a very clever way of living up to what we have promised to do.

Aerial view of the proposed development

Images (c) Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

June 25, 2008 8:32 PM

Noble goals and all, but does the Chimney have to look quite so Blade Runner-ish?


June 26, 2008 3:08 PM

Yes. Yes it does.


June 28, 2008 3:46 PM

blade runnerish? good lord, are we really condemning this on grounds of a weak association?


June 30, 2008 1:59 PM

I used to commute into Victoria St. coming from Battersea and believe me, what's been built on the left hand side of the tracks (between the green and the rail lines, on the picture) is already horrible enough. After that, likely anything they do with the power station will either leave the area as ugly as now or, hopefully, improve it.


July 6, 2008 8:26 AM

That's a very insightful interview, these plans are certainly generating a lot of interest! I also came across a website that has more information on Battersea Power Station and the proposals.


July 30, 2008 10:41 AM

This is the kind of big thinking that will minimize if not eliminate our impact on the climate. Are domed cities next? No more umbrellas. :)

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