Gehry Partners’ Prospect Place housing at Battersea Power Station

Gehry Partners’ Prospect Place housing at Battersea Power Station

We may be accustomed to that in world-class cultural buildings, but at Prospect Place, the architect’s signature style is unconventional in the extreme, says Hugh Berman

“Battersea will open in 1990, the culmination of seven years of careful planning, generating excitement, excitement, fun and enjoyment in a safe, weather-resistant environment – ​​a new palace of entertainment for London.” So shows off the glossy 1988 brochure I’ve kept all these years.

The predecessor of The Battersea was John Broome, businessman and tourism advisor to Margaret Thatcher. He owned the Alton Towers theme park and wanted to convert the redundant power station to a southern counterpart. The matter was merely removing the roof of the place to get the machines out before rising costs killed the project. This left it a roofless, crumbling ruin over the following decades as owners and plans came and went. But in the end, a big-pocketed developer and a mixed-use formula stuck around – miracle of miracles – Battersea Power Station is now starting to feel like a proper part of London.

  • The Gerry Blocks as seen from Grimshaw Tube Station.
    The Gerry Blocks as seen from Grimshaw Tube Station. Credit: Hugh Berman
  • View down the side of the power station, restored and modified by Wilkinson Eyre.
    View down the side of the power station, restored and modified by Wilkinson Eyre. Credit: Hofton + Crowe
  • East Block.
    East Block. Credit: Rebag
  • A possible location viewed from the southern entrance to the power station.
    A possible location viewed from the southern entrance to the power station. Credit: Rebag

Of course, I have to throw in a bunch of warnings. Because of London’s insane land values ​​and the need to cross-subsidize the enormous cost of restoring the dilapidated, brick-clad power station with its carefully reconstructed chimneys, the site had to be filled in with lots of high-end new buildings. Although there is a fair amount of ‘affordable’ housing for locals by London standards, this is not on the prime site, but rather a converted New Mansion Square development across the busy road to the south.

So, there is no escaping the fact that the main event will be for the affluent international real estate investment market. And once again, we can all go there – something made easy by the opening of the Northern Line extension across the Nine Elms with its Grimshaw-designed stations. The site of Battersea Power Station is open, permeable through and along the riverbank, with the usual shops, cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues. Of course, all this is really private, but the illusion is acceptable. They need us there for our trade, and the place in general is unusual enough not to be typical of developers in London.

  • Frank Gehry, meet Giles Gilbert Scott.  Deliberate contradiction.
    Frank Gehry, meet Giles Gilbert Scott. Deliberate contradiction. Credit: John Sturrock
  • Stacks of winter gardens mount on the facades.
    Stacks of winter gardens mount on the facades. Credit: Hofton + Crowe
  • Windows and bays are perforated with a touch of Nash's lightness.
    Windows and bays are perforated with a touch of Nash’s lightness. Credit: Hofton + Crowe
  • Pale aluminum cladding, meet brick.
    Pale aluminum cladding, meet brick. Credit: Hofton + Crowe

Which brings us to the Gehry Partners-designed apartment and townhome complex known as Prospect Place, just south of the power plant. The modeling is classic Gehry, the most distinctive style, love it or hate it. The first pair of 15-storey buildings have now been completed, arranged on either side of a raised residents’ park. A skirt of steel and glass awnings protects the retail units at street level — single-height on Upper East Avenue, and double-height on lower Electric Boulevard, which will be the main pedestrian entrance and “Main Street” on the overall site.

This is Gerry’s first major development project in the UK, and he and partner Craig Webb have paid close attention to the project, both outside and inside. The first thing they did was to dismantle their portion of Rafael Viñoly’s master plan, from a broad, defined crescent into five separate pieces, three of which had not yet been built. For comparison, there are only two Foster-designed buildings surrounding the Gehry property on the other side of Electric Boulevard: the Foster is a massive, long, winding residential building with a rooftop garden, including a hotel and a smaller office building, separated by its larger slab-to-slab elevations.

  • site map.
    site map. Credit: Geary Partners/Battersea Power Station
  • Roof plan.
    Roof plan. Credit: Geary Partners/Battersea Power Station
  • Shed floor plan.
    Shed floor plan. Credit: Geary Partners/Battersea Power Station
  • Located
    The duplex townhouses are located on the third and fourth floors. Credit: Geary Partners/Battersea Power Station

This Gehry/Foster neighborhood is the third phase of the Battersea development, with the renovation of the actual power station being the second phase, although both will come to fruition at the same time. The danger in breaking up a large, defined block into smaller pieces as Jerry did in this way is that the whole thing becomes susceptible to substages. One can only hope that the other three Giri complexes will be built – and soon. All five are designed to function as an overall composition, with a central ‘star’ building more vertically arranged.

Speaking to Craig Webb in Gehry’s Los Angeles office, the origin of the design became clear. First, they wanted it to contrast clearly with the large brick mass of the power station. Their source was Nash’s balconies in London with their cream-painted facades. Jerry pointed out – as Cedric Price did years ago – that these terraces are at their best on a foggy, dull winter’s day in London. “They glow in the diffused London light,” Webb said. Likewise, they rejected the fully glazed curtain wall approach as seen in the first phase (‘Circus West Village’ by SimpsonHaugh), preferring the more domestic feel of perforated windows and bay windows. Meanwhile, the private raised garden between the two buildings is a modern interpretation of the key gardens in London’s Georgian and Victorian squares.

  • The townhomes have small, fenced front yards.
    The townhomes have small, fenced front yards. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Roof terrace and enclosed winter gardens.
    Roof terrace and enclosed winter gardens. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Roof terrace and enclosed winter gardens.
    Roof terrace and enclosed winter gardens. Credit: Taran Wilkho

They considered painting La Nash, only to rule it out for maintenance reasons – repainting every four or five years was not an option. Finally, they chose an aluminum cladding system painted in a soft mottled white – semi-gloss, not too glossy. They worked with a preferred cladding contractor, Italy-based Permasteelisa, which used to work with Gehry’s office’s vast computer power to produce many of the non-standard panels required. The interlocking stacks of large windows (the “winter gardens”) feature a contrasting light grey.

Likewise, no two Prospect Place apartment floor plans are alike, although as Webb points out, while the perimeter writhes this way and that, there is more uniformity than you might think in the center of the plan, in the kitchens and bathrooms especially. The deep modeling of the facades makes room for a number of roof terraces on the upper floors, with balconies below. Structurally, the blocks are framed in concrete, but not perpendicular: columns pass through the apartments at sometimes unexpected angles and, rather than being hidden or boxed in, are celebrated. At the ends, the penthouse apartments’ roof terraces appear.

  • Overlooking the affordable housing component across the road.
    Overlooking the affordable housing component across the road. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Double height interior design of a detached house with dark palette.
    Double height interior design of a detached house with dark palette. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Overlooking the central park.
    Overlooking the central park. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • What do people who wear flats think we're going to do with all those cushions?
    What do people who wear flats think we’re going to do with all those cushions? Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Typical kitchen.
    Typical kitchen. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Spiral staircase designed by Gehry.
    Spiral staircase designed by Gehry. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Typical bathroom.
    Typical bathroom. Credit: Taran Wilkho
  • Jerry was heavily involved in the interiors.
    Jerry was heavily involved in the interiors. Credit: Taran Wilkho

This is part of Gehry’s insistence that architecture must go all the way. Battersea’s development director, Tom Cazalet, confirms that there are intense levels of dialogue around the interiors. These were eventually reduced to two main palettes: a darker (possibly smokier) “London” palette and a lighter, brighter “Los Angeles” palette. There are some chunky wood touches like the kitchen counters, and raw wood finishes on the closet doors and elsewhere in the common areas, as well as the duplex’s elegant spiral staircases, but nothing to spook the horses. I enjoyed seeing the apartments – even here – had the standard London developer covering detail of small panels: I was expecting something a little more exaggerated.

Cazalet says the overall construction costs for the Foster and Gehry buildings are comparable, despite the Gehry Building’s greater exterior complexity — something he attributes to Gehry’s famous computer power.

Total? We may be accustomed to this for cultural buildings internationally, but in the London residential market, Gehry’s sculptural approach is unconventional in the extreme. I don’t find it as sharp as some do. It has been distinctively and intelligently planned, and the power station toward which it is oriented, along with its gardens, remain the center of gravity of everything here. I like the fact that people will be able to easily recognize their home from the outside. Given the money, would I choose to live here? I pulled into the subway station, and somewhat to my surprise, yes. As a young person, you understand that.

In numbers

Role 308
Blocks 5, two built so far
Shops and restaurants on Electric Street 40
Total site area 17 hectares
Final population (entire site) 25000

Credits

client Battersea Power Station
structural engineer Jerry’s partners
Structural Engineer Robert Byrd Collection
Construction Director Sir Robert McAlpine
Landscape architect LDA design
Surveyor amounts AECOM
Electrical and mechanical engineering consultants Chapman/Condals
Dressing contractor Permasteleza

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