Reflective facades at a large apartment building by Simpson Haugh are a respectful response to neighbouring Battersea Power Station, finds Chris Darling

Buildings.

Words
Chris Darling

Photos
Hufton & Crow

Thirty-five years ago, the vast turbine generators of Battersea Power Station slowed to a standstill, shut down and flickered out. There followed decades of dereliction, argument and debate – and not least flying pigs. However, the long-awaited first phase of what has become one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects has recently completed. Simpson Haugh & Partners’ 17-storey sinuous apartment building signals an intriguing portent to the development’s emerging architectural identity.

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Providing 752 apartments together with retail and new public realm, the building is located on the western arc of Rafael Viñoly’s 2010 masterplan – the site being defined by the railway approaches into Victoria Station and the western flank of Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station. Indeed, the building’s footprint, stepped massing and height were all largely predetermined by the masterplan, being driven by the clear requirement to preserve views of the power station and to be no higher then the plinths upon which sit the four iconic chimneys. This produces a 350-metre-long linear block, 17 storeys at the highest point and stepping downwards and angling westwards towards the river frontage.

Site plan; masterplan

Much detailed work and negotiation with the local, and indeed national, stakeholders went into this process, and the result is, by and large, successful. As viewed from along the river, for example, the building holds its own relative to the power station, but does not intrude or overwhelm. Given the responsibility of being first out the box and so signalling the future design quality of this vast project, how good is Simpson Haugh’s response?

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Circus West lies on the south bank of Thames, between the former Battersea Power Station, currently undergoing redevelopment, and railway tracks. The 327-metre-long building rises to 17 storeys, providing a total of 90,112 square metres. Alongside 752 homes (one-, two- and and three-bedroom apartments, townhouses and penthouses) the scheme incorporates residents’ lounge facilities, a gym and spa, a private courtyard garden at first-floor levels with commercial units at ground-floor level opening onto adjacent streets.

The answer is in the positive. The design challenge of developing an architecture that does not detract from or conflict with the visual strength and drama of Gilbert Scott’s ‘temple of power’ has been deftly met, principally through wrapping the building in an uncompromising glass skin. However, this is no iceberg-like monolith. Instead, the architect has sliced the block along its length into a series of segments by way of slots opening onto the lift and stair cores. This approach is further developed through the device of grouping the building vertically into four-storey sections. The clever bit is that these are subtly misaligned, in such a way that the building appears fragmented into multiple components. A carefully specified reflectance component to the glass provides numerous mirrored glimpses of the iconic chimneys and contrasting masonry detailing opposite.

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The new Circus Park West street, which might easily have been canyon-like, is instead an interesting and dramatic space, being defined by such wholly contrasting typologies. However, to achieve this purity of elevation, the composition does depend heavily on the device of winter gardens. There are no unsightly balconies, balustrades or the like. Instead, each apartment has a full-length and continuous 1.5-metre-deep enclosed semi-external space. The thermal line is placed on the inner skin which, being around 50 per cent glazed, can achieve the necessary thermal insulation and mitigate overheating.

These spaces, being neither fully internal or external and with corridor-like proportions, are arguably less successful. While some residents have furnished them as you would an outside terrace, many have used them essentially as storage, wardrobes and the like. This is an unsightly and an inefficient use of space. If the apartments need more clothes storage, this should be provided at the heart of the floor plan, and not take up valuable window space. Views outwards from within the living areas, which are through two separate glazing systems, are also to a degree compromised.

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Cuts in the facade correspond to circulation areas which have distinctive plan-forms to aid orientation within the building and provide views of the river and power station to residents whose own apartment is on the garden side. Vertically, facades are articulated as four-storey-high “horizontal glass ribbons, gently overlaid and rippling towards the river”, says the architect. “The double-skin glass facade is alive with reflections. Its faceted panels, fissures and overhangs create a play of light, shadow, geometry and void.”

Internally, the cranked geometry has produced many variants within the flat layouts, which is to be welcomed. Finishes are contemporary and of high quality, though somewhat anodyne – but in fairness, this is what the market generally demands. The common hallways and access lobbies are beautifully designed, with small inset gardens affording views out and light into the corridors. There are the obligatory residents’ spa complex, amenity lounges and concierge facilities, although these interiors (by other designers) do feel somewhat dated.

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Circus West wraps around two sides of a private triangular residents’ garden at first-floor level. The third side is formed by Faraday House, designed by dRMM, which flanks the railway line and provides 113 apartments, also for market sale. The long slim block, clad in hand-finished copper alloy, is formed from a stack of through-apartments orientated east-west that shift in response to the curve of the railway.

Adjoining and to the west of the building at podium level is a private residents’ garden. This space works well despite the height of the buildings: the gardens are landscaped and planted to a high standard and the space feels sunny and pleasant. To the west, these gardens are bounded by a lower residential building occupying a sliver of land between the garden and the railway viaduct. The developers commissioned dRMM for this, and the decision to appoint two architects for what is essentially a single urban block has worked well. The smaller building, with its sparkling brass cladding and more solidity, provides a welcome counterpoint to the glass facades opposite.

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Every apartment has a 1.5-metre-deep winter garden, whose incorporation made it possible to meet energy performance requirements in a fully glazed building that would deferentially reflect its landmark neighbour. The winter gardens respond to the London Design Guide requirement to provide amenity or balcony space, exceeding its space standard while providing more useful and flexible space than balconies, suggests the architect.

The courtyard garden incorporates a large opening sliced through to the ground level spaces, which are activated by a series of shops and restaurants. These have been let to individualistic, sometimes quirky local retailers with some interesting and exciting restaurant designs. Starbucks was apparently discouraged. The public realm and associated landscaping is of a very high standard, both in design, materials and execution. This is to be applauded, given how these aspects are so often overlooked or cut back in scope. And the result has been economically successful: within months of opening, visitors – and locals – have flocked to this new destination.

Encouragingly, the developer has launched Battersea with a strong and distinctive building. While Simpson Haugh’s approach is essentially ‘neutral’, this is a fair response to the challenge created by the proximity of its iconic neighbour. Working in juxtaposition with a high-quality public realm, and an interesting retail and restaurant offer, there is little doubt that Circus West succeeds in achieving a pleasant and potentially inspiring place to live

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Credits

Architect
SimpsonHaugh
Structural engineer
Buro Happold
Services engineer
Hoare Lea
Costs
Gardiner & Theobald
Interior architect
Johnson Naylor
Landscape architect
LDA Design
Client
Battersea Power Station Development Corporation