by Helen Bowman
‘It is what it is’ – Donald Trump, 2020
‘It’s just a big box – this should be easy’ – former colleague, English Heritage
Solving the Battersea ‘problem’ has exercised many creative minds over the decades. Cedric Price’s ‘Bat Hat’ (1983) is a lot of fun, embodying a raised eyebrow at the conservation movement, querying attempts to preserve. Price suggested retaining the chimneys on steel supports, so they appear to be floating, while demolishing the rest and using the site for housing. Any John Outram idea is worth attention and his hyper-colourful 1997 proposal for a hotel conversion has a sense of 1960s psychedelia about it. Rafael Viñoly’s 2008 grandiose scheme included a 300m-tall glass chimney and dome and succeeded in annoying almost everybody. The sustainability credentials were hazy, and the masterplan caused considerable pearl clutching. It was a scheme produced in (pre-financial crash) heat: an international architect, grand ecological claims and over-confidence. Later revised, including the loss of its supposedly essential eco-elements, but with more new residential units, the masterplan was approved in 2010. It was a vision for the site that Wandsworth became regrettably welded to.
In 1993, and after a fair amount of legal wrangling, Parkview, a family-run property company headquartered in Hong-Kong, purchased the site for approximately £10m plus debts. Parkview’s Victor Hwang always asserted his reverence for the building, but this was rather undermined by the sheer number of ideas he played with over almost fifteen years. Some of these mixed-use schemes were promising but even when planning was secured, Hwang would be distracted by new ideas. Hwang did not place enough emphasis on the most important rule of development: once permission is secured, damn well get on with it. Procrastination is death in planning. However, Hwang’s critics contend that sitting on the site and waiting for the most profitable point at which to sell was always the plan.
Whether through mismanagement or design, it all came to nought. In 2006 Parkview sold the site to Irish developers Real Estate Opportunities (REO) – in the tale of Battersea, often referred to as Treasury Holdings (TH); REO was a subsidiary of TH. Two years before the world financial crash, and dizzy with Celtic Tiger intoxication, REO spent a swollen £400m on Battersea. And with that kind of unfathomable outlay, it is unsurprising that REO concluded that Hwang had been naïve, and the development needed to intensify, making greater use of the land surrounding the former station, lessening the supremacy of the building. A weary Wandsworth agreed in principle. However, the somewhat ‘overloaded’ REO was always going to be vulnerable to any financial tremors, and so it came to pass. As Ireland’s bloaty boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s overheated and turned into a recession, their substantial loans and debts were called in. The ready supply of money, so crucial for this project, disappeared. The Irish agency established to deal with bad debt had lost patience with the company who had reputation for flashiness. The former station, or perhaps more specifically the land she sat on, was still categorised as an asset and, for a time, it was placed in administration and in the hands of the Irish government and state-owned banks.
Did this status offer the opportunity to end the harmful cycle of sale and purchase? Could a scheme with a greater sense of public purpose – perhaps a potential heritage lottery project, which had been mooted before – come forward?
Into this context, architect Terry Farrell proposed something different. His design is often placed in the somewhat misleading ‘romantic ruin’ genre, yet given it involved both significant intervention and demolition it was hardly fluff. Perhaps best described as an active and permeable folly in the landscape, Farrell placed more value on the sense of volume provided by the scale of the building, rather than retention of all of its fabric. He proposed demolishing the side walls to form a type of colonnade, creating a huge public park in and around the building shell. Luxury flats would be accommodated in the remaining station spaces and residential blocks in the wider site, but lower and less dense than the consented Viñoly scheme.
When the idea was doing the rounds in 2012, I recall the response was generally that it was pleasant but unrealistic, although Farrell was (is) hardly a naïve upstart and he would have been aware of the realities of the site. Some suggested that the fabric loss proposed would have been a deal breaker in heritage terms and I suspect that is likely. After so many years of defending the retention of the basic box structure, to lose two sides would have been confronting for many, even if it meant securing a scheme with greater public benefit. And yet concessions were made for the Viñoly scheme; the brickwork of the flanks have been cut into to enable glazing and light for commercial and residential units. But for this compromise, there has been no quid pro quo in terms of less intensive and dense enabling development. And as a side thought, it also seems unlikely that Wandsworth would have enthused at the prospect of a new public amenity – the park – to maintain.
However, the philosophical strength of Farrell’s approach was, and remains, I think, forceful. Unpicked, the demolition proposed was not mindless, malevolent or an easy win, but aggressively purposeful – one last attempt to step back from the edge of overt commercialisation. It utilises the building as a structure to provide a sense of place, as a starting point, rather than, a space to fill, a means to an end, which had been the driver since the 1980s. It is notable how many of the proposed total or partial uses proposed for the building over the years have now lost or are losing their place in society — ice skating rinks, mega cinemas — so the response of a partial but dynamic folly is cognizant of the truth that how we live changes, but that buildings or structures can provide continuity and focus. I’m not indulging in whimsy because Farrell is by no means a faultless architect; but in his approach to Battersea, I think a very difficult balance was struck that could have resulted in something powerful.
Ultimately the idea was not tested in the planning system so we cannot know how it would have fared under scrutiny. Farrell asserted the viability of this approach and he drew it up to appeal to any of the developers responding to the tender process which ensued after REO’s implosion. However, this is when the ‘pack it all in’ approach reasserts itself. Bids that made a commitment to the form and scope of the Viñoly scheme, favoured by Wandsworth, would be strong contenders. There was no political will for a different solution, only fatigue.
In the end, a bid by a Malaysian consortium, composed of developer SP Setia, Sime Darby (Malaysia’s largest conglomerate, much into the problematic production of palm oil[i]) and the Employees Provident Fund, the country’s biggest pension fund, won. They would work with what had been approved and importantly, they had very deep pockets. Usefully for the new owners, the wider Nine Elms strategy, including the new American Embassy (another visual Thameside blight) was now also moving apace, providing an even more aggressive context for development at Battersea.
Is part-ownership of the site by a foreign government an issue? Yes, if devoid of scrutiny. Recent reporting on corruption within the Malaysian government is extremely discomforting.[ii] However, given that the impact of what may be referred to as legitimate overseas investment in London development is too little interrogated for its consequences, it is unsurprising that money washing into the capital from ‘untested’ sources and ending up in high-end development seems to bother our decision-makers only superficially.[iii] When he was London Mayor, Boris Johnson was an enthusiastic patron of Malaysian investment in London property and development.[iv]
In 2013 it was reported that almost all of the 866 properties in the then unbuilt Circus West village part of the development, had been sold off-plan to overseas investors.[v] The exercise of off-plan purchase is also problematically linked to the market distorting practice of ‘flipping’, where investors purchase property before the completion of construction looking to flip them for a profit through resale. And into this already complex property picture, the real implications of the pandemic are unfolding. Puff pieces assert that the building of the Battersea ‘community’ continues to flourish but it clear that overseas sales remain key. Of the £150 million in residential sales over the last 12 months, 50 per cent sold to international buyers.[vi] The number of ‘affordable’ homes, a mix of shared ownership and affordable rent, has also been slashed in half (from 636 to 386, just 9% of total units), waved through by Wandsworth in response to the usual developer protestations.[vii] And as far as I can tell, all of these homes are all being built on Sleaford street which few could argue is within the Battersea site. Beneath the gloss and PR sheen, it all feels rather empty and perhaps a little grubby.
In her conclusion, Helen considers what more than forty years of planning psychodrama at Battersea tells us about the values we place on our built environment.
Catch up on the previous chapters of the Battersea Saga: