June 25, 2008 A controversial development proposal now under consideration aims to turn London's iconic but defunct Battersea Power Station into a carbon-neutral biofuel power plant. The proposal also includes a 300 meter-tall residential tower featuring solar powered climate control and a glass 'eco-dome' that would allow residents to grow tropical roof gardens even in London's distinctly non-tropical weather. But is it a revolutionary plan to revitalize an old collapsing fossil fuel plant with a new green lease of life, or simply a grandstanding attempt by a property developer to build an ultramodern skyscaper in old London town?

The Battersea Power Station, one of the world's largest brick structures, was built in 1939 and operated as a coal-fuelled electricity generator until 1983. It was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the man who designed the popular British red telephone box, and for 70 years it has been one of London's most iconic buildings. Yet since its closure, the plant, its famous 4 towers and its enormous site on the South bank of the Thames river have been largely unused, except as a location set for films - everyone from the Monty Python team to MacGyver, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Doctor Who and the recent Dark Knight Batman film have used the station's extravagant art deco interior and imposing exterior for photo and video location shoots.

In the last 25 years, several redevelopment proposals to revitalize the area have been tabled, but none have borne fruit. The most recent is by Real Estate Opportunities (REO), an Irish consortium who purchased the station and surrounding grounds in November 2006 for €595 million. After recruiting famous Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, REO began putting together its plans for the site, which were finally released earlier this month.

Recognizing the power station's place in the hearts of Londoners, as well as the structure's Heritage listing, Viñoly has put together a plan in which the power station, including its 4 towers, will be rebuilt according to original architect's drawings, but will be converted inside to generate power from biofuels and waste instead of the original coal. Under the UK£150 million plan to restore the station, the key historic spaces in the building will be restored and made open to the public again.

Beside the new generators will sit a 300 meter-tall Chimney tower, which many are already referring to as the "spark plug" which will provide high-class apartments to house around 7000 people. The top 60 meters of the spark plug will be glass, which the developers are hoping will blend with the sky to reduce the building's visual impact on the London skyline.

Extending from the lower third of the tower is a glass "eco-dome" covering a large area adjacent to the main building and powerplant. This area will host several retail and commercial buildings, as well as a six acre park area shielded by the dome. The eco-dome is shaped and centered around the chimney tower specifically for natural ventilation. Air will be drawn up from the dome section through the higher towers to cool the higher residential apartments, which REO estimates will reduce energy demand from air conditioners on hot days by as much as two thirds.

The 38 acre, UK£4 billion development is bound to meet with significant opposition, as have previous plans for the area. The modern design is likely to mobilize traditionalists, and the decision to use biofuel in the rebuilt generator will be difficult to defend given the emerging school of thought that says large-scale biofuel use does a lot more harm than good. Then there's the fact that the area itself is poorly served by public transport, which might require a 2-stop extention of the tube's Northern Line, to the tune of around UK£347 million. It will be interesting to watch how the Lord Mayor reacts to the proposal.

Loz Blain

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