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Battersea power station set for public opening after 10-year development

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

A pair of peregrine falcons are nesting in one of the distinctive white chimneys rising from the vast edifice of the revamped Battersea power station, unperturbed by the construction work.

Ten years and several prime ministers after developers first broke ground at a ceremony attended by David Cameron, Europe’s biggest brick building is set to open to the public on 14 October, with 254 apartments, as well as restaurants, bars, offices and a glass elevator that takes passengers to an eyrie on top of the north-west chimney.

Immortalised on a Pink Floyd album cover that featured flying pigs, and on screen in The King’s Speech and Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the building is an enduring feature of the Thames skyline but until now its interior has been off limits to most visitors.

A free “festival of power” will celebrate its latest incarnation, bringing to an end a long period of speculation during which developers variously proposed turning the derelict site into a giant theme park or a stadium for Chelsea football club.

For half a century, the power station burnt coal to generate as much as a fifth of London’s electricity, keeping the lights on in Buckingham Palace (codenamed Carnaby Street 2 in the control room) and the Houses of Parliament, before puffing its last plumes of smoke in 1983.

Now it is the centrepiece of a 42-acre site, nestled beside apartment blocks designed by the US architect Frank Gehry in his distinctive style with fragmented forms, and one large, bendy structure designed by Foster + Partners.

The project is owned by a consortium of Malaysian investors led by SP Setia and Sime Darby Property, which bought the site in 2012 for £400m after its owner had gone into receivership. They embarked on a £9bn revamp, divided into eight phases. About 1,600 of the planned 4,000 homes have been built so far.

The vast, cavernous spaces of the two turbine halls are now filled with restaurants and shops including Ralph Lauren, Mulberry and Reiss, as well as Uniqlo, Mango, Superdry and Swatch. A floor above Levi’s, the former control room B has been turned into a slick bar, which has the original stainless steel control panels and switch dials for managing the flow of electricity.

Apple will relocate more than 1,500 employees from offices around London to its new UK base inside the boiler house, across six floors. Its chief executive, Tim Cook, who had a private tour of the building last week, said: “Once a source of energy for much of London, the transformation this building has undergone honours London’s past and celebrates its future. We’re so glad to be a part of it.”

IWG, which operates the office rental brands Regus and Spaces, will welcome tenants on flexible lets from next April in the art deco-inspired Engine Room, with river views. It expects “high demand” from hybrid workers.

Luxury apartments line both flanks of the main building, above the shops, and 90% have been sold. They start at £865,000 for a studio, while the 18 sky villas – three- and four-bed penthouses with private terraces arranged around a communal roof garden on top of the building – cost up to £7m. With only a handful of the villas taken so far, the marketing of these pricier homes is still at full pelt.

The man in charge of bringing in the buyers is Simon Murphy, the chief executive of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, which was set up by the Malaysian consortium. “The ones that are left to sell are the bigger units, which always sell at the end,” he said. “In the past 18 months, we’ve sold over £600m of residential, largely to Brits.”

The first residents moved in during May 2021, and the new Battersea Power Station tube stop, which sits on a spur of the Northern Line, opened in September last year.

When the site is complete, it is expected to house 25,000 people and attract 25 million to 30 million of visitors every year.

It is a big bet during a cost of living crisis. “We continue to be confident,” said Murphy. “We’re not blind to the fact that the world is in a difficult space at the moment and has been for a long time.”

The Malaysian owners expect to receive £100m a year in commercial rent from the first three phases of the project.

When architects WilkinsonEyre embarked on the redesign a decade ago, the power station had been reduced to a shell, without a roof. There was grass growing on the ground in the middle. Sebastien Ricard, the project director, said: “We were stunned by the scale of the building and wanted to retain it. We didn’t want to over-restore it.”

While the four chimneys had to be replaced, with reinforced concrete replicas, many of the original features of the power station were retained – including the two control rooms, one with art deco flourishes and herringbone parquet floor, the other in more brutalist, 1950s style, as well as ceramic wall tiles, exposed steel girders, remnants of staircases and the former directors’ entrance. Cranes have been incorporated into the design, with one holding a footbridge spanning Turbine Hall A.

Critics point out that there is little affordable housing, and none inside the power station. Aside from the luxury pads, the developer has built a block of 386 affordable homes, some distance from the power station on the other side of the main road. They make up less than a tenth of the total planned for the site. They range from studios to one- and two-bedroom flats, a mix of social rent and shared ownership, and are managed by Britain’s biggest housing association, Peabody.

Not everyone is impressed. Keith Garner, an architect based in Battersea, said: “Forty years to create a shopping mall! Battersea power station should have taken its place alongside other great cultural institutions of London: British Museum, South Kensington museums, Tate Britain and Tate Modern.

“But to achieve that they would have needed a different business model, a more hybrid solution involving trust ownership that would have made it eligible for lottery funding alongside commercial tenants.”

Instead, alongside the shops and offices, there will be a boxing gym, cinema and private members’ club, and a glass elevator dubbed Lift 109 for the height of the chimney it serves. Passengers are meant to stay inside once it reaches the top, looking at the view for a few minutes, before descending again.

However, when reporters were given a sneak preview, the lift rose and then shot straight back down (twice). Something to do with the wind, apparently. The developers will want to fix that before the grand opening.