by Helen Bowman
‘There is nothing in the world so beautiful as a great generating station.’
Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), Futurism co-founder and poet
That Battersea Power Station exists at all is of course a reflection of a period of immense and intense technological advance during the late 19th and early 20th century. The development and increasing use of steel and concrete in construction coincided with the possibility of electricity supply on an industrial scale rather than the patchwork coverage that existed hitherto. In the early decades of the 20th century access to electricity was the preserve of the rich in their homes and some forms of transport, most obviously trams systems, and providers were multiple.
However, by the 1920s, the concept of a single mega supplier began to unfold. The Central Electricity Board was established in 1926 to oversee power stations in England and Wales, and to coordinate the sale of electricity to regional and local suppliers. Under the National Grid, larger power stations were identified as principal suppliers, and many smaller stations were closed. Similarly, in the capital, the London Power Company (LPC) collated under one umbrella the least inefficient smaller electricity bodies. And it was the LPC that pushed forward with plans for a super station at Battersea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was very real hostility to the development. Initially this focused on the principle of a station at that relatively central Thameside location. Alternative outer London sites were mooted, Kent for example (out of sight, out of mind?), but the significant cost and infrastructure implications of doing so were difficult to counter. Opposition therefore pivoted to focus on the polluting potential of the coal-fired station.
Criticism intensified in the aftermath of consent for the scheme being granted in 1927. Of course, the impact of sulphurous smoke emissions on public health was a valid concern. Yet if pressed, some dignitaries, commentators and newspaper proprietors may have admitted to still being more anxious about the thought of an industrial hulk squatting between well-heeled Chelsea and the solemnity of the parliamentary estate at Westminster. Questions were asked in the Commons and although preliminary site works were already underway, the Lords urged the Government to terminate them. A grand overture was needed.
And so gas-washing, a practice it would be reasonable to suggest was still at an experimental stage, was proposed. The engineer-in-chief of the LPC, Leonard Pearce (1873-1947) was tasked with intensifying the testing of the process. Gases would be cleaned with water before leaving the furnace and entering the chimneys creating, in what is a rather extravagant application of language, clean emissions. This testing took place at another London station, Grove Road, St John’s Wood, and the results were scrutinised by various government bodies including the Ministry of Works. It was certainly not an inexpensive way to placate opposition and further reassurance of the effectiveness of gas washing would be required to secure approval for the second phase of development, Station B. However, with time running out and significant criticism of the project, this rapid response by Pearce and his colleagues was rather remarkable.
It is well known that the overall aesthetic of the station is attributable to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. His interventions were deliberately recruited to sooth objection to the development. When critique, resigned to the existence of the building, and in that location, turned to what it should look like, Scott was a shrewd hire. An architect developing a fashionable reputation, not least for his work at Liverpool Cathedral and appealing design for the K2 telephone box, he was also, crucially, a persuasive spokesperson for the benefits of citing the station in a populated area. Public utility buildings should be seen, he argued, not hidden away – such buildings work for the people. It therefore follows that buildings of this type deserve, even necessitate, the investment of good design. Gavin Stamp asserted that Scott succeeded in ‘humanising (what could have been) an industrial lump.’[i]
The first phase of construction, Station A, pushed on and resulted in a slender rectangular affair with just two chimneys. The project team Scott joined was already ably led by James Theodore Halliday (1882-1932), of Manchester firm Halliday and Agate. Scott would later recall being somewhat embarrassed by the attention he received for the station, fully acknowledging the vital skills Halliday and other in the team brought the project. The chimneys went through various design revisions before Scott joined the project and the late-in-the-day commitment to gas washing again impacted on the building design, including the placement and profile of chimneys. While Scott worked on finessing this critical feature, he also treated the great brick walls, which could have been monotonous, with ‘jazz modern’ fluting. In the voluminous interiors, Halliday created powerfully elegant spaces, imbued with care and panache.
One worker described how the principal spaces and rooms were treated with the reverence usually reserved for a palace or a place of worship, recalling ‘You weren’t allowed to walk in the control room, panelled out with Italian marble and polished hardwood parquet flooring, unless you put felt overshoes on. The turbine room had terrazzo flooring and heaven help anyone who dropped cigarette ash! There was a whole gang of cleaners. It was like painting the Forth Bridge, starting at one end in the morning and as soon as they came to the other end, starting all over again. You could literally eat off it.’ 
This combination of investment in both the envelope and the spaces within produced something of a reverse ferret from the press in 1933 when station A began generating electricity. Contrary to their prior criticism of the project, most lavished praise on London’s latest addition, declaring it a ‘cathedral of electricity’ or ‘temple of power’. And for once, the adulation was not bombast. It was entirely deserved.
However, the station was still not at its full pomp. A ‘three-pin plug’ profile would follow in 1941 and the four-chimney silhouette that would secure the industrial building its aesthetically arresting reputation, would not be completed until 1955.
In part three Life and Death – Crazy Horses, Helen will take us through Battersea’s working life, its curious role in pop culture, and the crawl towards closure in 1983 .
Missed part one? Read it here.
[i] Battersea Power Station – Selling an Icon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOYoD692faY
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