For years, John Drew has been best known as the architect who advised on the masterplan for Battersea Power Station. Now he’s joined forces with Jack Pringle and has a possible £300m worth of schemes on the horizon. Emily Wright finds him in bullish mood
This year promises to be an interesting one for 52-year-old architect John Drew. He has just joined forces with ex-RIBA president, Jack Pringle, to form Pringle Brandon Drew, a new practice focused on base build architectural services. And he will also be keeping an eye out as the biggest scheme of his career, Battersea Power Station, reaches crunch point.
In his new offices near London’s Old Street, Drew talks about learning his trade from Norman Foster and Rafael Viñoly, about the Battersea masterplan and explains why he thinks his new practice is already proving a big earner.
As Viñoly’s adviser on the Battersea masterplan in 2007, Drew is keen to find out whether the proposals, now awaiting final planning approval from Eric Pickles, will finally be realised.
His route to Battersea took him via some of the biggest stars in the architectural firmament. After working for 15 years at Foster + Partners, he left in 2005 and considered teaming up with friend and Foster contemporary, Gherkin architect Ken Shuttleworth, who set up Make: “I don’t know in retrospect if not going with him was a mistake or not,” says Drew slowly, carefully evaluating the question all these years later. “I think he has done tremendously well. And things happened very quickly for him.”
His decision not to join Shuttleworth led him instead to join Rafael Viñoly Architects where he would work on the project he is best known for.
The perennial interest in the renovation of Battersea Power Station means Drew is still often asked about the project, though he doesn’t seem to mind: “Battersea was an incredible experience,” he says. “It was the first time I had dealt with a masterplan that large. The whole scheme is three times the size of Canary Wharf - and it included Nine Elms, which is just enormous.
“A major problem for us was that, because the land around the station had been an industrial site for years, it had been impermeable for a long time. We also had the river one side, railway lines to the west and a major road to the south - it was very difficult to reconnect it to the urban fabric and hard to open it up.”
But he adds that he believes the design that was developed would overcome these problems: “We have positioned a series of connections to the south of the station that have created a number of different ways to link the scheme with the surrounding area,” he says. “One is a retail side street; then there is a parkway full of water features and a more commercial street. And we worked closely with Rogers Stirk Harbour [which also worked on the scheme] to create better connections from Nine Elms Road to the scheme.”
It’s actually a great time for me, because developers are thinking about what sites are coming up and the next cycle
But what of the future of the project? Does Drew believe the site will finally be restored and developed despite the plethora of planning, financial and restoration issues to be overcome? “I am confident it will happen because it’s too important not to,” he says. “Treasury Holdings have been very clever as they have hung the scheme on extending the Northern line, which both Wandsworth council and the mayor were very keen on. Having said that, it does need serious work - especially the power station, where the brick and steelwork has started to crack and burst.”
Launching a new business
While Battersea is an important part of Drew’s professional experience, he is now keen to make a name for himself with Pringle Brandon Drew.
Some might say that now is not the time to be setting up a new architectural practice, but Drew insists that with the right focus and experience, it is possible to launch a successful fledgling business, even in the context of a troublesome market and ailing economy.
“We’re already looking at around 1.5 million ft2 of schemes in total,” he says. “The value on that? Well, if you were to construct it all you would be looking at somewhere north of £300m.”
It helps, of course, to have the backing and name of an established firm like Pringle Brandon. “I was running my own practice after leaving Rafael, and Jack suggested we form a partnership. I leapt at it.” Drew explains that Pringle, who focused on office fit-out to survive the last recession, was interested in Drew’s background in base build, or non fit-out primary structure: “I offered him an opportunity to get into a market he wants to expand into and he gave me the infrastructure to do it.”
The two joined forces last September and Drew says that business is going well, despite the fact that architects generally are expected to continue to struggle throughout 2011: “The profession is certainly going through major difficulties and has had a gruelling two years,” says Drew. “But for me, doing what I am doing, it’s actually a great time because developers are thinking about what sites are coming up, how they’re going to place themselves in the next cycle. I have a lot of established relationships and there has been interest from major London developers.”
Although Drew is unable to reveal who he is in talks with, there’s that 1.5 million ft2 figure he mentioned: “Some of that won’t come to pass, but a reasonable proportion will.”
So what does he aim to achieve with the practice in the long term? “If I can assemble a group of people here who are as talented as the people I have worked with over the years, then that would be really worthwhile.
“At the moment we have 80 people, but the majority are staff from Pringle Brandon that I am borrowing as and when I need. As soon as we grow there will be more people joining full time. But I don’t think I would want to have more than 100 people here. That’s probably the maximum you can get your head around, day to day.
“Having said that, I have a long way to go.”
Drew in a minute
The thing that makes me feel most guilty about my carbon footprint is: that I still drive a car to work
I never leave the house without: my iPhone
My favourite city is: London
I always forget: to turn my computer off when I go out
I am scared of: my children crossing the road. They are 17 and 15 now, though, so I would hope they’d be fine!