June 24, 2010 / 1:53 PM / 9 years ago

Just a Minute With: Architect Rafael Vinoly

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Rafael Vinoly, the architect behind the designs for the proposed revitalization of London’s Battersea Power Station on the River Thames, is undaunted by the size and scale of the project.

A rendering of Rafael Vinoly's design of the Battersea Power Station is seen in an undated handout picture.

The massive brick structure with four white chimneys, which in 1977 was pictured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album “Animals,” is managed by Treasury Holdings UK on behalf of Real Estate Opportunities Limited. Since it fell into disuse in 1983, several attempts to redevelop it have failed.

Vinoly won a competition to create a masterplan for the area surrounding the heritage-protected power station, which was designed by English architect Giles Gilbert Scott and completed in two stages in 1933 and 1957.

Vinoly is speaking at Southwark Cathedral on June 24, as part of the two-week London Festival of Architecture, a biennial event held since 2004.

The New-York based architect is also constructing a controversial high-rise tower in the City of London at 20 Fenchurch Street known as the “Walkie Talkie.”

Q: What drew you to the Battersea Power Station project?

A: “It’s an extraordinary opportunity with a very grim story behind it after several previous attempts to refurbish it and incorporate that incredible site back to the usable areas of the city. Also the fact that it’s a real challenge — as it’s proved to be — a very serious one. It’s an extraordinary chance to bring back the power station to a new interpretation or a new use.”

Q: What are your plans?

A: “What is planned for the area is a new center of mixed use in which there is a large component of residential housing and a component of retail and commercial. The power station is brought back to being a power station again with renewable resources. The plans basically create an urban space around the building so that it can be appreciated and seen without being cluttered by new buildings attached to it.”

Q: What makes this building appealing?

A: “It’s interesting primarily because it’s so massive and so large and when you think about the opportunities of having an envelope which contains so much volume. The building has become a part of the imagery of London itself, not so much in terms of its immediacy, but more from long-range. It’s part of the image of the city, it’s very visible even from Westminster, it would be rather difficult to imagine it just erased.”

Q: What challenges does it present?

A: “The most important challenge is that to work, the project has to be feasible financially and also in terms of urban regeneration. It’s the kind of thing that has a number of implications — you can’t think about architecture without thinking about transportation, you can’t think about those items if you don’t think about environmental impact, you can’t think about that if you don’t have an idea of how to create a neighborhood that is sustainable in the long run — that makes the site not just a novelty, but a functional place that creates a character, a destination. It’s a combination of programing and high-end archi-engineering guided by the notion of how you create a new urban center.”

Q: Has the financing been taken care of or is it uncertain in the current economic climate?

A: “You can’t say that it’s been taken care of, but it has been very thoroughly studied. You can never be sure that you have all your eggs in the basket until you have an approved plan, but the potential is enormous. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the developers.”

Q: Do they have the funding in place for it?

A: “Funding for a project that will take probably 15 years is something you would have to work out in phases, but definitely the project has its funding and it’s running very much as an ongoing concern.”

Q: Why would you say other attempts to renovate it failed?

A: “I think it’s because of the fact that people tend to fantasize about the potential of both the existing building and the density required to create that kind of sustainable new community. You really need to increase the density, you really need to ensure you can pay the heritage costs. The building has not only its own expenses and cost of the land, but it has to be afforded to bring back to life a building that is practically in a state of self-destruction. The building needs essentially to be rebuilt.

“Add the fact that in order for those things to happen you need a clever solution for transportation. The site is incredibly central but there is no public transportation available. The project also affords a plan for the creation of a new subway (underground) station and the construction of it by private means. It’s highly complex financial engineering that the company has designed.”

Q: How would you say that you are the person qualified for this particular project to succeed where others have failed?

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A: “I think the crux of architecture is that you are operating in a very real environment in which requirements, restrictions and limitations are basically the elements of your vocabulary. I don’t think it’s the kind of practice in which you can detach yourself from the conditions under which the project can be possible. So managing those things is something we’re very comfortable with — I am a realist.”

Q: Is there a completion date yet?

A: “All of this hinges on the planning approval and that is in the making. We probably will know more clearly by the end of the summer. Once that is in place I think the project will immediately start, which I think is much more important than when it finishes because that will depend on how the market works and on the construction of the project.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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