By Helen Bowman
In Curated Decay (2017), Caitlin DeSilvey explores the decommissioned Thyssen ironworks at Duisburg-Meiderich in Germany’s Ruhr region. Today it is known as the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord (LDN)[i]. The difficult, careful, and ultimately effective thinking that took place in relation to this site following the closure of the works in 1985 sits in distressing contrast to the story of Battersea. Less a problem to solve, more an opportunity to be grasped. Of course, there were voices – loud ones – for the industrial site to be razed, but crucially, alongside pressure from campaigning groups, there was positive political will. Today, the park website tells us ‘The North Rhine-Westphalian state government in the late 1980s had been looking for new approaches to structural change in the northern Ruhr District and projects were sought to strengthen a region perceived as weak. The park became the centrepiece of this major industrial and cultural investment.’ The philosophy underpinning the landscape is not as linear or simple to define as conserve and release or intervention and nature reclamation, and some have mused that the process has ‘smoothed out the edges…making it a place of theatricality’[ii]. Perhaps so – but its alleged staginess still manages to convey a sense of the inevitable complexity contained in layers of history, it is a recognition that history continues to mutate, that it is messy, and should remain open to interrogation and exploration. Can the same be said of the development at Battersea?
It would be crude and misleading to suggest a like-with-like comparison, but to consider that at the very time our decision makers were trying to work out what to do at Battersea and conceived that a theme park informed by English nostalgia was the solution, their counterparts in a region of Germany were grappling with the same macro issues: hard-industrial decline, structural economic change, political shifting sands. Their response, admittedly across a far larger area dedicated to industrial output, was quite different. Additionally, the Terry Farrell proposal of 2011/2, discussed in post five, must have found some of its inspiration in the Ruhr experiment.
For all of its plush sleekness – and I can’t deny the momentary allure of the show-flats, all mid-century chic – the development at Battersea is demonstrable of what we might call the tabloidization of development, and the processes that inform it, in our towns and cities. Those who have agency and money remain in thrall to new, big and shiny; it helps tell a simple story of ‘progress’ and confers no judgement on the urge, which we can all suffer from, to reject the difficult or complex. And traumatically but perhaps unsurprisingly, we keep repeating this pattern of self-harm. At Redcar, Teesside, campaigners and some residents implored local officials to retain and incorporate some of the striking industrial buildings at the decommissioned blast furnace[iii] to help inform not prevent redevelopment. They lost the argument. The site is earmarked for, what else, a Brexitland freeport and other sunlit upland-style opportunities (which, by their very nature, are largely undefined).
Worryingly, local officials who had previously committed to ‘working with the community’ to ensure the interest of the industrial landscape is captured before it is destroyed, have frustrated efforts to undertake photographic recording of the site. Local press has dutifully reported the start of demolitions[iv].
This month, the completion of the latest phase of development at Battersea and the ‘welcoming of new residents’ was marked with a PR belch. To be more precise, perhaps we should refer to the completion of apartments. Whether they will be consistently occupied by their new owners is another matter; we know how critical oversees investment is to this development[v]. I do not dismiss the hard work of contractors, builders, fitters and all those who have kept this development show on the road during the pandemic and the consequences of our formal withdrawal from the European Union. But the Insta-style images didn’t reassure me; the illumination of the historic building, a practice that requires care but has been over-utilised for decades, was not particularly thoughtful or respectful, just slightly gaudy.
When the scheme at Battersea finally completes, we will be told it is a victory. After forty years, the ‘problem’ has been solved. Thereafter, its entry on the Heritage at Risk Register[vi] that Historic England manage will be removed and the new development will be excluded from the statutory Grade ll* listing applied to the station (the description will require an update too – fabric has been lost). But what has been solved? The new development is not special. Some parts are just plain annoying (notably Frank Gehry’s contribution. Perhaps his jerky designs only tolerable in isolation). None of it will be listed in years to come, it is just a very high-end, unaffordable, identikit residential scheme. You could argue that such an approach allows the historic building to remain the star of the show and throughout A Life in Five Acts, I have been conscious that plenty of people will welcome and enjoy the development. Is the building still recognisably deco and ‘of its era’? Well, that magnificent frontage is intact, but other elevations, and views thereof, which informed its integrity and powerful charm as a design, have been lost.
Alas, bad development does not proffer a selfless, deflected glow to the ‘better building.’ When old and new work together – and achieving that is an art – the rhythms between the two are considered but not forced. Harm to historic buildings by enabling development is caused by scale, density and monotony, and at Battersea, a brooding sense of ‘this could have been better.’
However, despite four decades of abuse, the former station at Battersea is stubbornly standing its ground. Certainly, the building has been monstered by nonsense, graceless development with a lifespan no one will care to prolong or protect. Its interior has been packed with shops and eateries which could be part of any glassy commercial set-up and public access is now inextricably tethered to consumption. I do wonder however, if in the end, she will disobediently outlast it all. I hope so.
Catch up on the previous chapters of the Battersea Saga:
[ii] Curated Decay, Heritage beyond Saving, Caitlin Desilvey, University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p103