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Battersea Power Station gets its first hotel

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For almost 40 years since the four chimneys of Battersea Power Station last belched out smoke, Londoners have watched the slow-motion decline of a hulking monument to the coal age. Viewed from the train into Victoria, or while driving along the other side of the river, the building had begun to look like an increasingly sorry ruin.

On a cloudy morning in December, I’m inside the power station for what must be one of the strangest experiences in heritage tourism. Standing in a giant, drum-shaped lift with a glass ceiling and walls, I gaze up upwards at a steadily growing circle of grey sky. The new elevator, branded as Lift 109, is ascending inside one of the chimneys.

Soon, in a flash of light, a swift deceleration and a collective gasp from its occupants, the lift rises out of the chimney’s opening, 109 metres above the Thames.

Where once electric power generation spewed its polluting spoil upwards, wide-eyed tourists now emerge, after the £9bn regeneration of a vexed 42-acre chunk of prime riverfront. The newest view in London unfolds before me on either side of the shimmering waterway.

Clusters of skyscrapers loom over the City and Canary Wharf. Through the steel and glass forest I can just about pick out the tip of the square chimney of Bankside Power Station, another coal-burning ziggurat, which reopened in 2000 as Tate Modern.

Map showing the Battersea Power Station in London

But it’s the view of the sprawling development below that I’m most intrigued to see, having grown up as a south Londoner, waiting for something to happen here. The site is able to accommodate 250 shops and restaurants, 2,000 homes, two cinemas and a theatre, desk space for more than 3,000 Apple employees and a new Tube station.

Not long after my reverse Santa-up-the-chimney, I stand in the freezing open air before dinner, for what is arguably the second-best view at Battersea. I am among the first guests to check in at the art’otel. The development’s first hotel, it is also the first UK outpost for the European group, owned by Radisson, which already has addresses in Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam and Budapest.

The 164-room hotel occupies the end of a snaking new building by Norman Foster that also houses luxury flats. Beyond the 16th-floor rooftop bar, which is due to open early next year, a blue infinity pool leads the eye over its edge towards the towering south face of the power station. From what feels almost like touching distance, golden uplighting throws into glorious relief chimneys that were conceived as fluted Doric columns. Six million bricks, newly sandblasted and pointed, almost shimmer in the moonlight.

Hotel lobby features a large sofa, a portrait of a polo player, shelves and orb chandelier
The art’otel’s lobby © Ben Broomfield @photobenphoto

The hotel is part of a development whose roots go back almost a century. This mile-long stretch of riverfront, on the south side of the Thames between Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges, was once devoted to industry. There were wharves, a gasworks, rail depots, goods yards and — on the power station site itself — a waterworks.

In the 1920s, London decreed that its patchwork supply of privatised electricity should be centralised — and celebrated. Battersea actually comprised two power stations, A and B, each with two chimneys, built with almost identical exteriors either side and joined in a cathedral of power that is bigger than St Paul’s. Power station A was begun in 1929 and completed in 1935; station B, delayed by the second world war, did not come on stream until 1955.

The renowned architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott worked alongside J Theo Halliday. Scott, who is credited with the art deco, brick-clad exterior, had designed Liverpool Cathedral and the red telephone box. He would later work on Bankside Power Station.

A bird’s eye-view of the Battersea Power Station in 1934

No expense was spared inside, either. I take a tour of Control Room A, the nerve centre for the older half of the power station. I walk in via the old directors’ entrance, through art deco bronze doors featuring muscled male figures to personify the promise of energy.

The control room is a steampunk fever dream of Bakelite switches and dials with a newly restored parquet floor the size of a tennis court. The ornate glazed ceiling would not have looked out of place in the Titanic’s ballroom.

Oriel windows overlook Turbine Hall A, where hulking machinery once turned heat into motion. Today, the hall’s fluted pilasters with original tin-glazed tiling still hold up steel crane gantries. But the vast space, like its less ornate postwar sister on the other side of the building, is now given over to the generation of retail profits for brands including Breitling, Nike and Mulberry.

The power station’s control room featuring parquet floors, ornate glazed ceilings and a wall of switches and dials
Control Room A, which has been reimagined as an events space © James Parsons

As Britain weaned itself off coal, Battersea’s purpose faded. Station A shut down in 1975 and station B in 1983. By then the government had given the buildings protected status. Owners with grand schemes came and went. There were plans to build a theme park, a circus big top, a biomass energy plant, and a stadium for Chelsea Football Club. In the meantime, the building attained a cultural significance as a movie location and — most famously — on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, for which the band floated a pig-shaped blimp between the chimneys.

In 2012, a consortium of Malaysian investors bought the site in a deal worth £400mn. Their master plan included new buildings by architects including Foster and Frank Gehry, and a state-backed extension to the Northern Line. In 2016, Apple signed a deal to occupy most of what is effectively a giant new building, hidden behind restored facades that link the two turbine halls. This central former boiler house also includes a full-height, riverside entrance to the shopping centre, where features retained on the interior include the white tiles and plumbing shadows of ripped-out bathrooms.

The chimneys had to be rebuilt, using original materials and methods, but for the addition of Lift 109, which launched in November. Vapour produced by new heating systems now rises cleanly out of the south-east chimney. The shopping centre, which stands beside lawns and a river taxi pier where coal barges once docked, opened to the public in October.

Two round mirrors shaped like eyeglasses hang above a hotel bed
A bedroom at the art’otel © matthewshaw.co.uk

The hotel, which opened last Monday, includes Joia, a 14th-floor bar and restaurant that is due to start serving Instagrammable cocktails in time for summer. Its double-height bar has a pastel-coloured theme that makes it feel like a box of Parisian macaroons, and enormous windows on to the power station. I eat at the all-day Tozi Grand Café on the ground floor, where I’ll put the inconsistency of the vaguely Mediterranean cooking down to first-night jitters (a “sugar pit bacon chop” is saltier than the Dead Sea).

With interiors and contemporary artwork by Spanish artist Jaime Hayon, the art’otel is fun and bright and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Double mirrors shaped roughly as spectacles are hung above the beds, and arresting portraits of water polo players greet visitors to the basement spa. Other touches border on self-conscious while the millennial blush pink trend is evidently still alive. The bigger rooms include retro Roberts record players and a stack of brand new vinyl, including Bowie, Winehouse, Tong and Moby. None of it feels very rooted in South London, or in the heritage of the power station, but any hotel with those views seems likely to become a destination in its own right.

Smaller rooms start at £400 per night, up to more than £2,000 for the 14th-floor Masterpiece suite, prices which mean the art’otel will do little to assuage critics of the whole development. Controversy has come with the territory; the power station completes a transformation of that mile-long industrial riverfront. Just to the east, the neighbouring Nine Elms neighbourhood in particular, including the forbidding new US embassy, has come to symbolise London’s supercharged regeneration as a haven for soulless luxury flats and “poor doors”, by which tenants are granted access to a minimal provision of affordable housing.

Brightly coloured furniture in a bedroom of a hotel
Bright and bold colours in a bedroom at the new hotel

There were fears that Battersea would deliver more of the same when it turned out that the local council had permitted a reduction in overall affordable housing to 9 per cent of the final amount, rather than the 15 per cent allocated in the planning application. Moreover, the 386 affordable flats here have been wedged into a site at the back of the development, hard up against railway tracks.

The rebirth of the power station itself as a monument to commerce, retail and luxury living, with rooftop “sky villas” on sale for up to £8mn, also seems to compare poorly with, say, Tate Modern. And it says a lot that the finest space at Battersea — the gloriously restored Control Room A — is now reserved as a private events space (a public shopping mall bar has been shoehorned into the more utilitarian Control Room B).

“It was impossible to access this building, and now it’s free for anyone to come and enjoy,” says Sam Cotton, who is in charge of retail leasing at the site, when I put these criticisms to him in the newer turbine hall, where a suspended gantry has been turned into a giant 3D ad for a Korean electric car. “You don’t have to spend any money to come here, but it’s also delivering a destination that south-west London was missing.”

Battersea Powerstation hall which has been converted into a shopping centre

Cotton points out that, while shops and restaurants dominate, there are also exhibition spaces, a theatre and the cinemas, and loose plans to host heritage tours and public open days in Control Room A. The developer later tells me that the affordable housing has been completed ahead of schedule and makes up 20 per cent of the homes finished so far, though declines to tell me how many of the rooftop villas have been sold.

There is precious little evidence of activity in any of the luxury apartments at Battersea, as I look down on them from Lift 109. But the public areas are buzzing. More than 250,000 people poured in here on opening day, compelled by a curiosity that has built up in Londoners for four decades.

Battersea may lack the cultural integrity of Tate Modern, but it is a credit to the vision of its original architects — and the painstaking work of restorers — that, after four decades of decline, the newly gleaming power station more than holds its own on such a contentious, regenerated riverfront. After coming back to earth, I decide that the addition of a glass lift in a chimney is so mad it’s brilliant.

Simon Usborne was a guest of art’otel, which has doubles from £400, including breakfast (artotellondonbattersea.com). For more on Battersea Power Station see batterseapowerstation.co.uk

Five more big hotel openings in London — by Claire Wrathall

BELGRAVIA Located between The Lanesborough and The Halkin, on the opposite side of Hyde Park Corner from the InterContinental, The Peninsula London will open in a monumental purpose-built block by Hopkins Architects that includes not just a hotel but 25 residences, an arcade of nine shops and, at its heart, a courtyard garden. Its 190 bedrooms and suites will be some of the largest in London (the smallest are 56 sq m) and have been designed by Peter Marino, best known for his stores for Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Spring, rates not yet set, peninsula.com

MAYFAIR Just as there are two Mandarin Orientals in Hong Kong (the original 502-room grande dame that faces Victoria Harbour and the newer, smaller, hipper, more contemporary Landmark on Queen’s Road Central), so the brand’s venerable hotel on Knightsbridge is getting a little sister. Strikingly designed by the late Richard Rogers’ practice Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the forthcoming Mandarin Oriental Mayfair will have just 50 rooms. Its restaurant will be overseen by Akira Back, a Korean-born, Aspen-raised chef (and former professional snowboarder), whose Seoul restaurant Dosa won a Michelin star. There will be a bar on the roof and the spa will run to a 25m lap pool as well as a balneotherapy one. Due to open in spring; double rooms from £750, mandarinoriental.com

WHITEHALL In 2014, the Hinduja Group announced it had bought a 250-year lease on the Ministry of Defence’s splendid Old War Office building, a gesture the then defence secretary, Philip Hammond, noted would save the MoD £8mn a year in running costs. More than eight years and a reported $1bn later, its 1,000-odd rooms and two and a half miles of corridors have been reconfigured as 85 residences and a 120-room hotel, Raffles London at The OWO. It promises nine restaurants (two of them overseen by Mauro Colagreco, whose Menton restaurant on the Côte d’Azur has three Michelin stars) and three bars, one on the roof. There will be signature suites named after Winston Churchill and, less predictably, the secret agent Christine Granville (1908-52), who was born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw, worked for the Special Operations Executive and on whom Ian Fleming is thought to have based the character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, a novel he was inspired to write by his time working as a naval intelligence officer in the building. Spring, from £1,100, theowo.london

CROUCH END About five miles north of the West End, Hornsey Town Hall was deemed surplus to the council’s requirements in 2000, by which time this distinguished Grade II*-listed brick building was on Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register. Hailed as a masterpiece of 1930s Dutch modernism, it was designed by Reginald Uren, a New Zealander. Thanks to Winnie Chiu of Hong Kong-based Dorsett Hospitality International (whose other inexpensive London hotel was converted from a historic cinema on Shepherd’s Bush Green) it will soon reopen as Dao by Dorsett Hornsey Town Hall, with 68 serviced suites and apartments, along with co-working spaces, a screening room, restaurants, bars and a roof terrace. Spring, rates not yet set, daobydorsett.com

SOHO Martin Brudnizki, a designer whose portfolio ranges from the Academicians’ Room at the Royal Academy of Arts to the fantastical interiors of Annabel’s private members’ club, says that for the new Broadwick Soho he channelled a “’70s hedonistic disco pop meets your eccentric godmother’s townhouse” vibe. Independently owned and managed and “ingrained in London culture”, the hotel will have 57 rooms, a Sicilian restaurant, a rooftop lounge, a “speakeasy” bar and will strive, says one of its developers, Jo Ringestad, who comes from a family of French hoteliers, “to redefine what a modern hotel can do”. Autumn, from £450, broadwicksoho.com

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