City & Country: Bringing Malaysia to Battersea Power Station

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IT seems like only yesterday when the consortium of S P Setia Bhd, Sime Darby Property and the Employees Provident Fund made the headlines across the globe with its acquisition of the iconic Battersea Power Station (BPS) in London.

A little more than two years down the road, the then derelict BPS is well on its way to becoming a world icon. Situated in the heart of Nine Elms on South Bank, the 42-acre former industrial brownfield site is being restored and transformed into an £8 billion (about RM43.1 billion) mixed-use development comprising homes, cafés, offices, shops and 18 acres of public space.

The consortium, headed by Tan Sri Liew Kee Sin, saw the potential of the site from the very beginning.

“It is a site with lots of potential, bearing in mind its strategic location on the south bank of the River Thames with its river frontage and the fact that it is just across a bridge from Chelsea — one of the most highly desired residential addresses in London. We also realised at the same time the challenges involved, not least being the need to have the UK government commit to the extension of the Northern Line and the technical challenges and costs of rehabilitating the derelict Power Station building itself,” says Liew, who is chairman of Battersea Project Holding Co Ltd.

Despite the challenges, the progress of the development has surpassed shareholders’ expectations.

“The market was with us over the past two years and the speed of sales for the first three phases took us by surprise. The UK government, in November this year, approved the Transport and Works Act and main contractors have been engaged, which means that the Northern Line extension is finally happening,” says Liew.

Now, he and his team are set to mark another milestone with the building of a public square in the heart of BPS, aptly named Malaysia Square.

A piece of Malaysia in London

The idea of Malaysia Square came from Liew and his team’s observations of famous social and commercial gathering places around the world.

“Many great cities around the world have squares that serve an important purpose as a social and commercial meeting place. London has Trafalgar Square, New York has Times Square and Kuala Lumpur has Dataran Merdeka — to name but a few.

“Inspired by how these city squares become focal points for positive and vibrant commercial activity and community engagement, the shareholders of BPS wanted to create such a place within the development,” says Liew.

However, as Malaysian owners, they wanted an avenue to not only showcase the uniqueness of their country’s fascinating culture, rich diversity and heritage but also to commemorate its progress and historical bond of friendship with the UK.

According to Liew, the original proposal was to name the square after the British architect who designed BPS in 1930 — Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

“Understandably, any Englishman would be proud of his heritage and history but we managed to reason with the project team. Our rationale was firstly that it was a Malaysian consortium that took the bold decision to develop this site where for 30 years others had tried but failed,” he says.

“It was Malaysians who had the entrepreneurial spirit to plough resources and money into this investment. Besides Malaysian banks funding the project, the EPF, which has 20% equity interest, represents millions of Malaysian contributors whose savings are part of the money that is going into this development, which means every working Malaysian has a stake in Battersea!

“Last and most importantly, it is to celebrate the bond between the UK and Malaysia, where once upon a time history portrayed one as a world power and the other as a colony but now both are, as our prime minister magnanimously proclaimed, ‘partners in prosperity’. This is probably the reason that won over the UK team and I am glad that there is now a consensus to turn this vision into reality.”

Thus began a worldwide search for the best idea via a design competition. A total of 15 designers were shortlisted, and the list was then narrowed down to a few who have done notable commemorative places of international renown. Eventually, it came down to three designs.

“Tan Sri Mohd Bakke Salleh, president and group chief executive of Sime Darby Bhd, Datuk Shahril Ridza Ridzuan, CEO of EPF, and myself unanimously came to one final choice and decided to show it to the prime minister for his comments and blessings. After all, it is the Malaysia Square and he must have the final say. When it was presented to him, he endorsed it without any hesitation. He was visibly moved by how the square perhaps reflected his own wishes for the nation and its deserved place in the world,” says Liew.

The project was awarded to Copenhagen and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). The design was unveiled by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Mayor of London Boris Johnson on Dec 1 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.

Earlier that day, Johnson, Kuala Lumpur Mayor Datuk Seri Ahmad Phesal Talib and British High Commissioner to Malaysia Vicki Treadell participated in a dialogue session, entitled A Tale of Two Great Cities: KL and London. Johnson also visited parts of KL and even took a short bicycle ride with Liew and Ahmad Phesal.

Malaysia Square will link the southern entrance of the restored Grade II* listed Power Station that has been re-imagined by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and the top of the new Electric Boulevard high street that runs between Foster + Partners’ Battersea Roof Gardens and Gehry Partners’ Prospect Place. Other contributors to BIG’s winning design team include structural engineers AKT II, lighting specialists Speirs + Major and artist Jeppe Hein.

Designing the heart of BPS

BIG had expressed interest in the project even before the design competition was announced.

“We first met the BPS team at a French developers’ conference in March. We told them of our interest in getting involved in the project. We are architects and we have built a lot of buildings, so the interest for us was how to design a space that is the heart of BPS,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner in BIG.

The first thing Bergmann and his team did was to look at how the space would look and how people would move through it.

“We looked at the flow of people moving through the area. That created natural openings, which became very organic. And once we looked at the organic quality, we explored what in Malaysia has the same quality.

“Then we came across the stunning caves of Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak [a Unesco World Heritage site], which have these wonderful shapes. You can see different layers of rocks that have been formed over centuries. That’s where we got the idea of taking one stone from each Malaysian state to London to build Malaysia Square,” says Bergmann.

Malaysia Square will have a two-level urban canyon with integrated bridges and stairways that are inspired by Malaysia’s landscape and geology. The spaces will be clad in limestone, granite, marble, sandstone, gravel and dolomite striations, which can all be found in Malaysia’s geology. The sculptured form is reminiscent of the caves found in Gunung Mulu National Park. Materials from the reclaimed Power Station chimney will be added to the cladding to symbolise the links between Malaysia and the UK.

“We will mix the stones from Malaysia with the chimney dust. So, we are combining the history of BPS and parts of Malaysia,” says Bergmann.

Sitting in the central amphitheatre will be a fountain designed in the shape of Malaysia’s national flower, the hibiscus. “There will be five ‘petals’, each representing one principle from Malaysia’s founding philosophy, Rukunegara. It’s an interactive fountain where people can relax and children can play,” he adds.

There will also be spaces for public events, and lights and landscaping will also play an important role in Malaysia Square.

“We will have landscaping with planters, trees and vegetation from Malaysia that can survive in England’s climate. There will be benches around them with light elements within, so they act as lanterns. This way, there is no need for lamp posts everywhere,” says Bergmann.

Work has already started on the square.

“It’s a fast-track project. Elements like the bridge have to be built now and we have to quickly scrutinise our project and make sure that it fits into all the decisions that are being made. As Phases 1 to 3 are already being constructed, we also have to work with the other architects to make sure we can fit into all of their plans as well. Malaysia Square should be completed in 2019,” Bergmann says.

While he acknowledges that the timeline will be a challenge, he is confident of completing on schedule.

“I feel a sense of commitment from the prime minister and the shareholders. It will be very [high] quality work and a space that is respectful of the history of BPS and celebrates the qualities unique to Malaysia.

“Many cities are inspired by different cultures and the different times we live in. I think this is the time when Malaysia is looking more globally and its investments are moving into other parts of the world. BPS is a huge investment and the policy of the prime minister is to find a good symbiosis between the east and the west. I think it’s extremely important to build bridges that will last several lifetimes.”

As for Liew, he wants Malaysia Square to be the first place Malaysians in London think of when deciding on a place to meet. More importantly, he wants all UK citizens to know that a former colony has become a cornerstone investor in their capital city.

“And everyone from different parts of the world who visit Battersea will come to know that it was resuscitated by Malaysians and if they don’t know much about Malaysia, they will be intrigued enough to find out more,” he concludes.

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 8 - 14, 2014.