The man who will wake the monsterChris Blackhurst
Towards the end of our chat, Rob Tincknell says: "I've got the Land Rover ready, do you want to take a look?" I joke that it sounds like a line from Jurassic Park. He laughs - the comparison is not so ridiculous.
Tincknell, 41, is in charge of redeveloping the vast dinosaur located on the south bank of the Thames known as Battersea Power Station. It is a project of breathtaking, epic scale. From the road, the familiar red-brick structure with its four white chimneys looks big. But close to, it is simply overwhelming.
As we make our way across the wasteland that fronts it, our car seems very small indeed. As we pull alongside, the sky darkens - the biggest brick building in the world is blocking out the sun.
We drive in, through the permanently open temple door. Inside is a shock.
There is no roof. A space that would comfortably swallow St Paul's is covered in weeds and debris. The walls may look sound from a distance but near inspection shows them to be crumbling - a slab of concrete fell down recently and missed a visitor by inches. On the far side, it is possible to pick out the Art Deco tiles that still grace what was once the control room.
"The cathedral of the electrons" is how HJ Massingham described Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's edifice, with its bronze doors showing figures representing Power and Energy opening on to a marble turbine hall.
Sadly, and disgracefully, most of this superb detail that caused the writer Felix Barker to liken Battersea to the great church of Sainte-Cécile at Albi in the south of France has gone - obliterated by decades of neglect.
It's desperate. Great iron props that are being used to shore up the walls are themselves rusting and look as though they, too, need supporting. The roof was removed by John Broome, an entrepreneur of extraordinary ebullience and optimism.
The brain behind Alton Towers in Staffordshire, Broome wanted to repeat the trick in SW8. So confident was he of transforming the plant that ceased generating electricity in 1983 into a theme park that he took the roof off, ready to build a fairground. He even booked Mrs Thatcher for the opening - at 2.30pm, precisely, on 21 May 1990.
But when the appointed time arrived, the services of the then Prime Minister were not required: costs had risen from £35 million to £230 million and Broome was in trouble.
He scaled down his scheme but to no avail: he ran out of money and in stepped Victor Hwang and his three brothers. That was in 1993.
For the next 14 years, their Parkview company kicked around a multitude of ideas and plans. There was talk of a "Covent Garden in the air", a shopping mall suspended between the chimneys. There would be Britain's biggest conference centre, a cinema complex, a Disney theme park, a sports centre - the list of uses went on and on.
In the end, Hwang simply gave up, selling the structure in 2007 to Treasury Holdings, a company controlled by Irish property developers Johnny Ronan and Richard Barrett, for £400 million. The duo, two of the richest men in Ireland, have charged Tincknell with managing their investment.
Since then, though, there has been little sign of anything about to happen.
But all that, says Tincknell, is about to change. "We're in the middle of finalising the details of our masterplan. We've had our heads down, we've been extremely busy."
When I can't hide the fact that I'm thinking we've been here before, with Broome and Parkview, he says: "We want to come to the market with something spectacular and deliverable."
Next month, he promises, is when the vision of the star architect they've appointed, Rafael Vinoly, will be unveiled.
Uruguayan Vinoly, who likes to work on a grand scale - he designed the Tokyo International Forum, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and is creating the proposed "Walkie Talkie" tower in the City - is keeping his plans under wraps.
If form is any guide, they will be special, but all Tincknell is saying is that they will envisage a range of uses - offices, shops, leisure and apartments.
"The mix is important to us," says Tincknell. "We want to build an environment that is both a community and is sustainable."
There is, he maintains, "a fundamental difference" between Treasury Holdings and the others. "We're a reasonably sized international real estate company with a solid track record of performance and delivery. We've a track record of doing large-scale projects."
He adds: "And I have a track record of doing large-scale projects."
Tincknell is not without confidence. He was born in Essex and went to Brentwood School before his family moved to the West Country. His father founded Connaught, the stock market-listed facilities management business, now run by his brother Mark.
He went to a variety of schools - "boarding, prep, comprehensive, I've done the lot". He left and came to London, working for a year as a stage electrician on the Cliff Richard musical Time.
A thyroid operation made him review his life and he did a degree in land management. He worked for the family firm while he tried to find a job in property - but it was 1992, during the last housing slump.
"I wrote 500 job applications to every surveying firm in London and the South and I got only two interviews," says Tincknell.
While reading Estates Gazette, the industry journal, he saw that Berkeley Group had reported record profits. He wrote to its head, Tony Pidgeley, to congratulate him and to say he'd like to meet him. It did the trick.
"I saw Tony and said: 'I want to work for you. I'll work for nothing for three months. At the end of that period, if you like me I can stay on. If not, I will go - no hard feelings.' Tony said: 'You can start on Monday.'"
Tincknell worked on a range of developments for Berkeley. Then Pidgeley bought Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth harbour, a 32-acre area of the docks that was in need of refurbishment. Tincknell drove through the design that saw it turned into an award-winning retail, entertainment and marina complex.
"It had a huge impact on Portsmouth. It gave me a taste for large projects that can make a massive difference," says Tincknell.
Then Ronan and Barrett got in touch. He went to work for the Dublin-based developers as their commercial buildings director. "One [Ronan] is all passion, the other [Barrett] is more of a thinker. They'd assembled an unbelievable portfolio of land and acquired interests in all sorts of projects," adds Tincknell.
One of those was Spencer Dock in Dublin. They handed the 52 acres of derelict Dublin waterfront to Tincknell to regenerate. "The new Spencer Dock was like Gunwharf in that it had a significant positive impact on the city," he says.
Ronan and Barrett were diversifying outside Ireland and in 2006 they sent him to China to oversee the construction of the Dongtan Eco-City at Shanghai.
He moved with his wife Rachel and their two young children. "China was extremely challenging but it also went extremely well - within two years we'd become the largest Western real estate investor in China with £1 billion of property under management."
Then, late last year, he was asked if he wanted Battersea. Back he and the family came. In a neat twist, they live in a Gilbert Scott rectory, which they're refurbishing, at Babcary in Somerset (in the week, he uses a flat at Chelsea Bridge Wharf, next door to the power station).
When I say that Ronan and Barrett do not enjoy the best of public images - they never talk to the media and they can be confrontational in their dealings
(Barrett, a lawyer, once said "certain opponents of ours have underestimated our ability to cause legal chaos to their detriment") - Tincknell's boyish, tanned face creases into a frown.
"We're the largest real estate investment group in Ireland and we do get opposed and challenged regularly," says Tincknell. "We do feel that we have to take a defensive stance."
This is a polite way of saying, "mess with us and you will get a hard time".
He adds: "We're very passionate about property and about the quality of what we do." In other words, they're sorry if you come off second best but they're not going to dwell too long on the apology.
In all, he says, Ronan and Barrett are investing £4 billion in Battersea.
In the past, there were accusations levelled at Broome and Parkview that they were prepared to let the listed structure rot in the hope that one day it would simply collapse and they would not have to repair it. The claims were denied but time did drag on and the fabric did worsen.
But since taking charge, Tincknell has been spending money - £2 million only the other day to stop water getting in through a wall.
WHILE the building is iconic - it's appeared in countless photos and on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals album with a pig floating in the air above it - it is also a nightmare.
The clay that supports the foundations is weak and liable to shift. The ground is contaminated with sulphur. There has also been asbestos to contend with.
The irony is that the property is now protected even though it was built to last just 60 years.
Another irony is that the developers have pledged it will be a carbon-neutral environment - on the spot of what was once the biggest polluter in London.
There's also the river frontage, which Wandsworth council has decreed must remain an open space.
And, at present, there is a total lack of public transport to the site. Tincknell must ensure there is a bus or train service, preferably both.
Those problems apart, however, Battersea Power Station is the last remaining former industrial location close to the centre of London. "It's very exciting," says Tincknell, beaming. "It's a huge space with a monster that everyone knows sitting in the middle of it."
He won't be drawn on the time-frame - he's too wily to give a specific date for completion. "We will start the public consultation next month - the 25th anniversary of the power station lying derelict," he says. "We're aiming to submit the planning application by the end of this year, we hope to be on site in late 2011.
"In all, it's a 10 to 15-year programme, with the power station as the first phase."
He gestures around him. "But it isn't just about Battersea Power Station, it's about all this, the Nine Elms corridor, that covers more than 130 acres and is bigger than Canary Wharf. Over time, it is all going to be re-developed."
There is one advantage in not rushing: the plans are unlikely to be affected by the current economic downturn.
"Battersea will emerge out of the other side," he says. Let's hope he's right. Battersea can't stay like this for ever.
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