Battersea Power Station opens: light shows and lift experience at London landmark

Building, which has stood empty for 40 years, finally opens its doors after a decade-long restoration

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Battersea Power Station will finally open on Friday, allowing the public to set foot inside for the first time in 40 years.

Visitors will be able to discover the power station’s Turbine Halls, which have been meticulously restored back to their former glory after it was bought in 2012 by a Malaysian consortium.

Dozens of shops, restaurants and a lift experience inside one of the four chimneys make up the latest attraction for London.

It will open with a five-day festival of power featuring Arcadia’s Lords of Lightning, a multimillion-volt duelling spectacle plus a programme of live performances, family friendly activities and installations.

Earlier this week, the king and queen of Malaysia visited Battersea Power Station to officiate the opening ceremony and unveiled a plaque to mark this historic moment.

“Battersea Power Station is a shining example of the positive power of foreign investment,” said Lord Johnson, Investment Minister.

“The £5bn investment to date by the Malaysian Consortium has not only helped regenerate an iconic London landmark but also massively improved transport connections in Wandsworth.

The public will be able to set foot inside for the first time in 40 years. Photo: John Sturrock

“Most importantly, the development created thousands of local jobs, across construction, retail and hospitality.”

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “As a lifelong South Londoner, I am particularly delighted to see the iconic Battersea Power Station opening its doors for the first time in 40 years.

“This redevelopment of a 20th century London landmark has already helped to deliver new investment, vital transport links and jobs for local people. Battersea Power Station will now breathe new life into this part of London — attracting more investment and boosting our economy as we build a better London for everyone.”

What is Battersea Power Station?

The building has been a prominent feature on the south bank of the Thames for about a century.

Work began in 1929 and the first power was generated in 1933, initially from only one Turbine Hall with two chimneys.

As the need for electricity grew in London, Battersea Power Station expanded, with Turbine Hall B powering up in 1944 and the fourth and final chimney completing in 1955.

At its peak, Battersea Power Station supplied a fifth of London’s electricity, including to buildings such as Buckingham Palace and the houses of Parliament.

The building was decommissioned in 1983 and during the years that followed, several failed attempts were made to redevelop the site.

What has happened?

It has undergone an extraordinary makeover. Its four corner chimneys were taken down and rebuilt brick by brick, its two turbine halls (one art deco from the 1930s, the other brutalist 1950s) painstakingly restored and its boiler house, which stood open to the elements after its roof was removed during a previous initiative, stripped back and turned into a grand atrium with more than a nod to its industrial past.

What does Battersea Power Station offer?

After £9bn spending, its owners hope it will form part of a new “town centre” for south-west London, replete with 250 shops, restaurants, office space and luxury apartments. A new underground station serving the area opened last year.

British and international brands opening new stores today include Nike, Mulberry, Theory, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Aesop, Space NK, Hugo Boss, Jo Malone London, Uniqlo and Mango.

A new neighbourhood bookstore, Battersea Bookshop, from specialist bookseller Stanfords, and Curated Makers will host more than 40 local independent small businesses selling homeware, candles, clothing, artwork and more will also be opening within the Power Station.

Further brands will open through 2022 and 2023.

What is the Battersea lift experience?

For visitors, the experience that may set it apart from other shopping destinations is the chimney lift, called Lift 109. At 109 metres, it is not as high as the London Eye but is taller than Big Ben.

A specially designed lift takes guests up the inside of its north-west chimney, allowing them to pop out of the top to be given a panoramic view of the London skyline and a new take on the power station’s past and present. It has a glass ceiling and sides, with the lift mechanism hidden so it does not spoil the view.

The experience lasts for around seven minutes and takes approximately 15 people at a time. An immersive experience about the power station has also been created.

The chimneys are described as the “DNA” of the power station site.

Half a century expelling flue gases from one of the largest coal-fired power stations in the world had taken its toll and the chimneys needed to be replaced.

They were rebuilt to the precise specification of the original structures, using architects’ initial plans, to ensure they looked identical with the original but also meaning they will have the same lifespan as the rest of the restored building.

Place in London's history

Visitors to the rejuvenated power station will still see strong elements of its industrial past, from equipment that now stands as art, cranes and gantries that have been retained and even doors to the directors’ offices, which were found behind a reception desk still featuring the Greek symbols for power and energy.

Six million bricks were used to construct the site, with 1.75 million new ones ordered from the original makers as part of the restoration.

Control room A, which featured in the multi-award-winning film The King’s Speech and will now be used as an events space, retains its original circuit display panels showing how 20 per cent of London was once powered.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Carnaby Street appears three times — the second and third displays were actually code for Buckingham Palace and the houses of Parliament.

Simon Murphy, chief executive of Battersea Power Station Development Company, joked: “If you pulled the wrong lever for Carnaby Street, you would have turned off the kettle at Buckingham Palace.”

Battersea Power Station — old control dials for the streets of London. Paul Carey / The National

The power station's instantly recognisable chimneys were used by British pilots during the Second World War as a signpost that they had reached home.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its key role in powering London, it was not the target of German bombers as they also used it to navigate. One bomb did land in Turbine Hall A but did not explode.

Battersea Power Station — also notable for featuring on the cover of Pink Floyd album Animals — closed in 1983, leaving its future uncertain but locals insistent that the building should remain in some form.

A string of doomed initiatives to find a new purpose for the building followed, including an amusement park and even a potential home for Chelsea FC.

Mr Murphy said the Malaysian consortium that bought the crumbling building in 2012 had proved the doubters wrong.

“Any number of people said they would fail as well,” he said, but pointed out that a lot of action in the first few months had proved key to success.

He remains confident that the project, which currently stands at 90 per cent occupancy for retail and 96 per cent for office space, will power through the cost-of-living and energy crisis as it had during the disruption caused by Covid-19.

He said that apart from a focus on tourists, the development team hopes to harness the spending power of locals, suggesting that 80 per cent of Wandsworth borough residents' spending takes place out of the area, “a £1bn a year leak”.

Up to 25,000 people will live or work on site. Apple has taken up the biggest share of office space, although it does not include an Apple store, while apartment blocks have been designed by Foster and Partners, and Gehry Partners.

An architect's dream (or nightmare)

There is no doubting the project was an enormous challenge. It was one of the largest brick buildings in Europe. St Paul’s Cathedral could fit inside the boiler house alone.

Architects WilkinsonEyre set out to pay homage to its heritage and the vision of original architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the New Bodleian Library in Oxford and Liverpool Cathedral.

The project’s lead architect, Sebastien Ricard, said: “We didn’t want to over-restore the building, but keep the industrial feel.”

He is clearly proud of the restored 1930s art deco half, which involved removing every marble tile, fixing the 90-year-old parquet floor and scraping off decades of pigeon faeces.

But when asked which turbine hall he preferred, the almost Soviet-style hall B gets the nod.

“Art deco is more photogenic,” he told The National. “But B is quirkier, you could do more with it. Nothing is symmetrical, we had to work with that and make sure it didn’t look like a mistake.”

Mr Murphy said: “Opening the building to the public for the first time in history in just a few days’ time is a monumental moment for the project. We can’t wait to welcome the first visitors and show the local community, Londoners and the rest of the world the historic beauty of the Grade II-listed building.”

Updated: October 14, 2022, 11:15 AM