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Pop Goes the Bubble
Vinoly scheme to cover part of London's Battersea Power Station with ecodome goes over like a lead balloon

COURTESY rafael vinoly architects

Its four Doric chimneys bounding a sombre, elegant brick quadrant, the enormous Battersea Power Station is a beloved industrial relic on the London skyline. Disused for over 25 years, the building passed into cultural history when it appeared on Pink Floyd’s album cover Animals in 1979, replete with giant pig suspended between the two front chimneys. Its notoriety is about to get another chapter, however, as Londoners seethe over a newly-released masterplan by Rafael Viñoly.

The features of Viñoly’s scheme are dizzying: landscaping of the 38-acre site that incorporates a six-acre riverside park, a pier restaurant and continuation of the westward Thames river walk, and a separate water feature. The station will, for the first time in 25 years, regain its original function, generating power from a biofuelled heat-and-power plant underground. The restoration will accommodate a luxury hotel, an Energy Museum, housing, public gardens, and a riverside balcony above two floors of vital retail space; the station itself is flanked by residential development, including affordable housing. Ambitious as this may sound, it is dwarfed by commercial property on a former brownfield to the south. That campus of office buildings and gardens, comprising 2.5 million square feet of office space, more housing, and a transport link extending the London Underground system—is enclosed in an extraordinary transparent “ecodome,” the largest and most advanced sustainable development in the U.K. Crowning this re-imagining of the Fullerdome will be a transparent ventilation chimney that rises to 984 feet, symbolizing the city’s commitment to sustainability.

The principle behind this giant greenhouse is simple. At a recent public lecture, Viñoly explained, “it’s like a giant oven.” The transparent ETFE material and interior geometry of the ecodome use solar power to create a convection flow of air released through the massive chimney, resulting in a controlled, naturally ventilated environment. The outcome is a projected reduction in energy demand for air conditioning from the enclosed buildings by up to 67 percent, and an estimated annual saving of 16,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

However, it is the design’s visual analogy to science fiction, rather than its basis in science, that has drawn gasps. Ex-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects George Ferguson deemed the scheme “a menace to London”; critic and ex-director of the Architecture Foundation Rowan Moore bristled with indignation in an article titled “A Towering Affront to Common Sense,” in which he calls the scheme “spectacularly, riotously, extravagantly nuts.”

Viñoly is swift to counter opposition concerning the form of the ecodome as evidence of ignorance or denial of the green technology employed. “We experimented with two chimneys, shorter chimneys, thinner chimneys; this is what works, that’s why it is the way it is,” he maintains. The developers opine that climate change has not been adequately addressed by their industry and on this, London’s largest single development site, they certainly make no bones about bringing that most seductive of credentials to the forefront of their agenda.

With planning permissions yet to be granted, the developers would be right to be wary. London’s newly appointed Conservative mayor Boris Johnson and his crony, councillor Sir Simon Milton, are notoriously unsympathetic toward any affront to London’s skyline. Mulling it over could take up to three years—jeopardizing both the estimated completion date of 2020 and the disintegrating old power plant. London’s architectural sophistication has made enormous strides in the last decade, but this may be a step too far.

Shumi Bose