Battersea Power Station – A Life in Five Acts

In a new departure for the Society, Helen Bowman offers members a five-part trek through the life and times of Battersea Power Station, starting with the development of coal-generated electricity for the masses, a sometimes fraught operational life, a notoriously messy retirement, transition to Art Deco pin-up, and now, as a bit-part player in a massive property development. Part 1 sets the scene for all five articles.

Watercolour painting of Battersea power station against dark stormy sky c. Matt Gibson

By way of introduction:We are all rubberneckers now’

The pressure to ‘build, build, build’ as a supposed vehicle for an economy in need of resuscitation is intensifying.  Politicians are dressing up, donning high viz jackets, hard hats and steel capped boots, to wax tediously about the importance of construction: any construction, including distractingly bad, pointless stuff.  Despite the proven superficiality and environmental folly of such gambits, the imperative will be to appear dynamic and go-getting.  Reflection and a more sophisticated understanding of where building is needed, and where it is not, is unlikely; but this addiction to new development has long informed all but a minority of politicians and administrations. As they say across the channel, ‘Vive le grand projet!

Last year, amongst the turmoil, we had a glimpse of what a planning system reformed by think-tank looks like #PlanningForTheFuture.  Too little attention is afforded to evidenced-based campaigning, such as #RetroFirst and in London, there is still an unhealthy obsession with new development, the purpose and contribution of which is often troublingly ambiguous.

c. Ron Ellis Shutterstock 2017

Into this context, the latest phases of the multi-billion-pound mixed use Battersea Power Station development are being realised.  A scheme of sorts has been decades in the coming.  It features designs by various ‘staritects’— a grim moniker which has happily fallen out favour but will be very relevant to the later articles — proposing competing and dense glassy scales and shapes. At its centre sits an old building, an octogenarian, which can legitimately be referred to as an icon, without wincing at the use of that bastardised description.

Battersea Power Station’s mighty brick and creamy white chimney silhouette really is the thing; it inspires merchandise aplenty and is an international cultural reference point. Elaine Harwood’s splendid recent tome (2019) on British inter-war design has the building for its cover image and why not? Few buildings could reasonably be the answer provided by specialists and laymen alike to the question of ‘What is an Art Deco building?’

However, most people who are warm towards this brick beast will only have encountered it from afar.  Prior to the molestation of the station by new development, being onsite would have meant you had some sort of role in one of the various schemes that have come forward over the years; or you were attending an open day or special event.  Before works commenced, the structure felt both invincible, due to its potent scale, and fragile, due to its ludicrous planning history, rather than any neglected masonry

Now, according to the Battersea Power Station Development Company website, the former station will no longer be sullied by the fog of the failure; it will be ‘A new destination.’  The website is not without allure and I would encourage you to take a look.  Recording of community engagement activity is bountiful. Through its imagery and prose it attempts to comfort us that developers haven’t just crashed in there and taken over. Oh no!  Be reassured because there is a community choir, with occasional special guest Sting, who has purchased an apartment in the development.  It does not shy away from the significance of the site’s heritage credentials; of course it cannot, as ‘heritage’ is the essential hook to hang over-development on.  Take the heritage away and there is very little point.. It would effectively echo the Nine Elms development (between Battersea and Vauxhall), recently ruthlessly unpicked by architecture writer Oliver Wainwright, which has developed an impressively joyless, pointless aesthetic.

c. Colin Moses Shutterstock 2020

The language is what you’d expect: the development has a ‘village’, naturally, Circus West; artisans toil happily alongside tech giants; ‘it’s a place like no other – it is Powered by Positive.’  There is beautiful photography and some less convincing CGI. It reeks of money and in its content anticipates what people may conclude about this type of development, unless they are people who like this sort of thing.

The purpose of these posts is not to aggressively analyse the impact of the new development on the Grade ll* listed building or to assess its acceptability in heritage terms.  You can reach your own judgement on that. The posts will offer a non-exhaustive  history of the building, in order to provide a context for what happened after it was decommissioned between 1975-1983. 

Rather, in acknowledging that the new enabling development has made a big building seem rather small, I want to explore how we ended up here.  Did our formal and inflexible conservation structures and approaches fail the building – or were they too accommodating?  Perhaps the opportunity for a radical yet ultimately more nuanced response was lost as the value of the land increased dramatically, as the brick shell fell victim to cycles of purchase and sale.  Would some form of managed decline have been a more dignified, indeed creative, solution or a duty shirked?

In truth, the answer cannot be simple but must be multi-faceted:  a disturbing conflagration of the building’s mythology, with a wild mix of personalities and motivations, some sincere, others vainglorious, and the troubling sensation of time passing and no solution in sight pressurising outcomes.  Was one of London’s longest serving buildings at risk always doomed to be a bit part player in its own renewal scheme:  was it foolish to hope differently?

In part two we will cover the prolonged labour and birth of Battersea Power Station and its early life. Read it here.


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