HE'S GOT THE POWER; Battersea Power Station, One of London's Great Landmarks, Has Been Left to Rot. Charlotte Eagar Investigates the Reclusive Hong Kong Tycoon Who Owns It and His Plans for a [Pounds Sterling]1 Billion Xanadu on the Banks of the Thames
Byline: CHARLOTTE EAGAR
There is something wrecked about Battersea Power Station. All those Art Deco tiles and brass fittings evoke the golden age of ocean liners: the marble floors of the control room of Turbine A, the vast wall of dials, brass handles and control desks whose walnut veneers still shine proudly through the thick pall of dust. The dials are labelled 'Direct Coupled Exciter', 'Main Reactors', 'Standby Exciter'. 'We're thinking of naming our cocktails after them,' says Ian Rumgay, communications director of Parkview International, the Hong Kong-based firm which bought the power station 11 years ago. 'This area is going to be a restaurant.' After 22 years slowly crumbling away, Battersea Power Station at last seems to have found a rescuer. Restoration is expected to begin in May.
'We've finally had approval of all our plans. We should be finished by 2008,' says Rumgay.
Outside, through bay windows edged with Thirties faience tiles, the vast brick structure soars four storeys up. Designed in 1927 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, creator of the red telephone box, it stares out across the Thames like some deposed queen - pointlessly grand, since it stopped pumping power into London in 1983.
Light pours in through the gutted roof. Plumb in the centre of London, it is strangely quiet; with the gulls from the Thames wheeling overhead, you could almost be drifting at sea.
The man who hopes to save Battersea Power Station is Victor Hwang, one of four brothers whose father made a fortune in the post-war property boom in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Hwang, 49, won't talk to the press and dislikes being photographed, apparently due to some Chinese superstition. Friends say that, unlike a lot of rich people who insist they want to be alone but stalk the paparazzi, Hwang genuinely loathes publicity. A small, intense man, he lives in London with his wife Leila and their two young children.
They spend a lot of time in the Far East and the South of France, where they own a hotel, Le Beauvallon, near St Tropez. Hwang seems to like cars: he is said to own a Lamborghini and to have spent [pounds sterling]30,000 customising a Mini Cooper. The one thing everyone who has met him agrees is that he is infatuated with Battersea Power Station.
'Victor Hwang would bowl you over with his enthusiasm.
He's obsessed,' says Steve Mayner of Wandsworth Council.
Like all great love affairs, there is a history behind it. As a small boy, Hwang was sent to school in North Wales, far from the steamy heat of Taiwan, far enough from London to keep him out of trouble. But instead of falling in love with an unsuitable girl, Hwang fell for something far more expensive: the power station he would glimpse from the train.
When Hwang heard the building was for sale, in 1993, he went to his father and insisted the family buy it. They got it for a reported [pounds sterling]10.5 million, from the creditors of the funfair magnate John Broome, who had tried to turn it into London's Alton Towers before running out of money. The [pounds sterling]10.5 million price tag may sound cheap for one of the largest brick buildings in the world, but the cost of the development is rather more - [pounds sterling]1.1 billion for the Xanadu that Parkview is planning. Apparently, Hwang's father thought it rather a lot of cash to find, but since he died last year, his reservations no longer matter.
'The building itself is an icon. Its footprint is the size of Trafalgar Square. We have a master plan and detailed planning approval,' says Sir Philip Dowson, former president of the Royal Academy, who, as director of design, has been co-ordinating the plan. It has taken so long that, at 80, he is now semi-retired. 'The whole site is 38 acres. We have to do justice to the last big site on the Thames.
This is reconstructing a city. But the biggest problem is to let that structure stand, like a huge great secular cathedral, a space on its own. …