by Helen Bowman
They’ve only gone and bloody listed it….
Sweeping in and listing Battersea power station at Grade ll in October 1980 was nothing if not characteristically Heseltinian (‘Heseltinian’ – to act with swagger, resolution, and significant hair volume). Michael Heseltine’s action annoyed and perplexed some but delighted others and was executed with rapidity due to the disturbingly regular backdrop of demolitions during the 1970s, often inter-war buildings, where the preservation notice arrived too late for the wrecking ball.
Whether the young, uber-ambitious Secretary of State for the Environment placed genuine value on the building is not really known. Rather, it is likely he was lobbied hard by conservation ‘lifers’— Gavin Stamp, Marcus Binney, Clive Aslet, Simon Jenkins perhaps — under the briskly formed Thirties Society, the precursor of the Twentieth Century Society. Heseltine probably also fancied the allure of a dramatic intervention and did not wish for another incident in the style of the Firestone factory on his watch. The tasteless demolition of the Brentford Art-Deco building over a hot summer weekend in 1980, on the eve of it being listed, succeeded in touching a public nerve; ‘progress’ has its limits apparently, even for those who seemingly care not a jot for old buildings. From the late 1970s onwards Wandsworth Council had been discussing what could be done with Battersea, and perhaps with more relish, the land it sat on. Therefore, the spot-listing and a presumption in favour of retaining the building, was considered a blow to what was already a challenging task.
The implications of designation, in a practical and psychological sense, were significant. It confirmed Battersea’s value ‘beyond function’. The former fume-belching beast was now officially ‘special’ – with value placed on both its architecture and its history – and part of our nation’s story. Listing meant a ‘second act’ was a real possibility but it may also have inadvertently skewed what might be acceptable in heritage terms.
In the Save Britain’s Heritage (SAVE) scheme that came forward in the run up to Battersea’s full closure, and would in-fact receive outline planning from Wandsworth, much was proposed: an ice rink, a car park, multi-functional sports facilities, concert and conference spaces, and in one of the halls, a museum for industrial archaeology. In the spaces in and around the former station, the plan envisaged shops, offices, a glass topped swimming pool, a floating restaurant, and river station for boats; it suggested mansion flats should be built on redundant railway land along Queenstown Road. Linked to this was the idea that the station could continue to provide district heating for surrounding estates using new boilers located inside the building.
The scheme was not short on ambition. But as the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) procrastinated, mightily miffed at their asset being listed, and Wandsworth Council restricted the type of development that could be accommodated by the site, this scheme of many moving parts was pushed to one side. Interestingly, at that time, Wandsworth was largely resistant to residential uses, assuming no one would want to live in the environs, even less the guts, of a former industrial building. That seems a very ‘of its time’ judgement given the most sought-after and expensive apartments in the current development are those within the body of the station.
Commentary at the time and since suggests that decision-makers became obsessed with the idea of a predominantly ‘leisure’ solution. Less glamourous proposals for part of the building to continue energy production, for example, refuse burning, kept re-emerging but were dismissed as undesirable. The building may have been emblematic of power provision for the capital for decades but in its death, the vision for its afterlife became firmly rooted in leisure – and then eventually, power and money.
The combination of a ‘muscular’ Prime Minister, a fairground entrepreneur, and an industrial building with an uncertain future should be the start of a niche heritage joke but this curious dynamic has something of the ominous about it. Maybe it was payback. From all we know it seems likely that Margaret Thatcher would not have understood the rationale for listing a building like Battersea, and it was probably particularly chafing that her nemesis Michael Heseltine triggered the preservation. As the SAVE scheme was frozen out, Wandsworth devised a development brief for the site and launched a competition, in conjunction with developers Taylor Woodrow. The process gets pretty messy around this time with plenty of manoeuvres and, frankly, plotting.
Again, the refuse-burning solution reappears, but it was eventually outshone by a Disneyland on Thames style offering. The genesis of the scheme, subsequently picked up by Alton Towers owner John Broome, was rather more earnest and less brash than what Broome would later look to usher in. Architect Mark Leslie (Peter Legge & Associates) mooted a scheme to explore British industry, science and technology and it would be delivered in stages. Like Broome’s later, and better-known vision, Leslie’s scheme proposed theme-park style rides, although they would be ‘educational’, which is perhaps something of an oxymoron. Partial or full theme or amusement park style solutions regularly appeared in ideas for the site during the 1980s and 1990s which may reflect a slightly twisted combination of the infiltration of post-war American leisure culture into the English psyche with the tradition of commercial pleasure gardens in 18th and 19th century London.
Once Broome pushed his way in however, Leslie’s reasonably sober proposal seemed to mutate into something less rational, and a revised design by a Texan firm for ‘The Battersea’ offered no real relationship to the building or its location. The drawings for the scheme are quite odd and don’t appear to acknowledge the fabric of Battersea at all.
Broome’s association with Battersea would last until the early nineties when unrealistic project costings and a biting recession did for him. If Broom’s initial proposal seems fanciful and unfocused — later versions did calm down — perhaps the main issue was a lack of understanding of the reality of dealing with a decommissioned industrial building of that scale. The result was wasted time, plus the loss of the roof, leaving the building shell exposed and vulnerable. This period feels painfully ridiculous now and very Thatcher’s Britain – plenty of bluster, noise and misplaced ambition, a description which, I fear, has a strong ring of familiarity today.
In part 5, Afterlife – It is what it is, Helen canters through three decades of planning twists and turns after 1990.
Catch up on the previous chapters of the Battersea Saga: