by Helen Bowman
“There’s a message floatin’ in the air,
Crazy horses ridin’ everywhere,
It’s a warning, it’s in every tongue,
Gotta stop them crazy horses on the run.”
The Osmonds, Crazy Horses, 1972
By 1955, the unapologetically ‘designed’ electricity power station at Battersea, its four-chimney profile in place, was complete. Despite the achievement, the building’s moment in the sun was marred by a little gloominess; some felt Giles Gilbert Scott’s treatment too divorced from the engineering. That critique was likely more a reflection of shifting design moods in the post-war period, the building was more than two decades in the making after all. Additionally, while Battersea was contributing almost a fifth of the capital’s total electricity supply by 1960, the country’s ‘white heat of technology’ moment was incoming. The strength of the rationale for having an electricity station generated by coal in such a populous location – something Scott had defended a few decades previously – was now wilting.
However, in the run up to completion, the project was rewarded by Royal patronage; Queen Mary, then Princess Elizabeth and later Princes Margaret all came on site and feigned interest. Various foreign delegations also included the station on their itineraries. In what must have been considered a rather lively invitation, the USSR’s Georgy Malenkov, very briefly Premier during the post-Stalin power struggle, visited Battersea in 1956 as part of a power-station tour of the UK to observe ‘British achievements’[i]. He could not have anticipated how informative the visit would prove to be; by 1961 Malenkov had been expelled from the Communist Party for a bit of coup-dabbling and exiled to Kazakhstan, becoming manager of…a hydroelectric plant. How fortuitous.
In the midst of Battersea’s working life, it developed a rather nice side hustle as a backdrop. Broadcasters and film makers were drawn to the station to help tell their stories, usually in the apocalyptic or crime genre, or as a way of conveying something of the absurd. The station offered a stunning combination of settings for fashion shoots and music cinematography. You didn’t have to live in London to know the building, you could discover it through television or radio, at the cinema, or in print. As Ian Nairn would conclude of the station ’If there is such a thing as industrial melodrama, this is it.’[ii] And of course, we cannot avoid mentioning the flying pig. The photograph that became internationally known due to its use by Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals album was, according to all accounts, a huge hassle to capture. The surrealist image, its meaning open to interpretation, endures to this day.
Battersea’s double life effectively ensured the mutation of an industrial building, admittedly one that was explicitly designed, into something that possessed pop and cultural bones. It was a status that would only intensify after it was decommissioned and became a functioning relic. It would prove the proverbial blessing and a curse.
Britain’s move away from coal-generated energy to gas, oil, and nuclear was in fact underway during the early days of Battersea’s existence but coal addiction persisted for a few decades more, in part, due to the psychological hold that the association between the production of cheap coal and the nation’s ‘greatness’ had on decision-makers. Unpicking that was challenging and although reliance on coal in other sectors continued to fall during the 20th century, use of coal for generating electricity did not; in-fact it did not peak in the United Kingdom until the early 1980s. Coal consumption by electricity generators increased from 46 million tonnes at the time the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956 to 90 million tonnes in 1980.[iii]
Despite this, the 1970s would see a reckoning for Battersea, partially due to what made it special: its monumentality. The 1973 world oil crisis provided the station with something of a stay of execution. As global oil prices rocketed, coal generated electricity proved more economical compared with the output of the newer, oil-fired stations such as Bankside (now London’s Tate Modern), completed in 1953. However, Station A was closed, quietly and with little attention, in 1975; and, when fire took out one of the remaining turbines in 1978, generation was left overly reliant on now out-dated machinery. Battersea was showing its age and its path towards total closure was assured. If this seems a rather dispiriting and dreary end for a building that had caused such a rumpus at its imagining in the 1920s, retirement would prove that the decommissioned station had lost none of its ability to provoke.
And it is at this point where things start to get blurry. How do you deal with a hulk of a building that has developed rock star status and where emotion messily entwines with reality? And why are we so useless at marrying the two in a single solution?
In post 4, Purgatory – They’ve only gone and bloody listed it, Helen explores how the decommissioned station fared during the unforgiving 1980s when bluster and grand plans collided with reality.
Read the previous posts on BSP:
[ii] Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, Penguin, 1966, p191
[iii] Britain’s long transition from coal holds lessons for China, Reuters, John Kemp, December 18, 2015