Battersea Power Station 22.02.12

GV-from-north-2007

Architecture, at Battersea Power Station, was an afterthought. The power station was commissioned in a prominent place – over the river from affluent Chelsea, just off the train lines into Waterloo – so Giles Gilbert Scott was brought in at the last minute to head off complaints. It is telling that what is London's best-loved piece of 20th-century architecture is so un-modernist – applied decoration on a big shed. But Battersea is also contrary to the apologetic non-architecture that replaced modernism – a romantic, overwrought hulk, with the scale and plan of a cathedral. It's a building of the European north – brick, sombre, looming, Gothic in spirit if not in detail. From its compromised inception to its sooty brick, it is about as London as a structure could be – not least because it has become, since decommissioning in the early 1980s, the object of feverish land speculation. Instead of generating electricity, it generates money for its successive owners and largely ill-advised architectural plans.

Since 1983, Battersea Power Station has lived a phantom life in blueprints, drawings and renders. It has been a theme park, a shopping mall and a mixed-use museum-cum-retail hangar, ringed in every case by riverside, luxury housing. One local community group advocated social housing on-site, but has been ignored. Developers have usually bought the site, sat on it until it became more valuable, then sold up and moved on. A book could be written about these dealings and the impasses they have entailed – one developer, Hong Kong-based Parkview, sat on the place for 13 years. The last owner, Irish developer Real Estate Opportunities, has just pulled out after a relatively swift five. Much has happened to Battersea in the courts, but little has been done to the building itself, save for the disastrous removal of the roof as part of the theme park proposal, which means it is now corroded and flooded. Yet, in all the proposals and counter-proposals, few imagine that it could be a power station.

It now seems evident that an inner-city, Thames-side site such as this should be given over to leisure and luxury living. The notion that it should be industrial is seen as practically nineteenth century. The sheer expense of restoring the grade II-listed building and its scrubby, poisoned hinterland means that the costs have to be offset by some kind of money-spinning ballast – which would mean the structure, now in splendid isolation, being hemmed-in by yuppiedromes and the turbine hall becoming a shopping mall. In the process, electricity – like other industrial processes – becomes even more magical for Londoners. We don't know where it comes from, we are not supposed to see its process or production. It could be made in China, for all we know. The last developer briefly proposed a biomass power station in part of the building's shell – largely, it seems, to generate some picturesque steam from the chimneys, but it was an idea more interesting than all the starchitect interventions proposed over the past 30 years.

The same developer donated a sum of cash to the Conservative party during its period of speculating on the station. So, serendipitously, the Tories' 2010 election launch party was held here – on an industrial site where nothing is produced, upon a swathe of dereliction at the heart of a great capital, on a locus of highly dubious real-estate dealings. It was a satirist's dream. And, given the certainty of a long period of economic stagnation, expect Battersea to rot ever further, to corrode yet more picturesquely. This is not such a tragedy. Walking along a river that has become a continuous ville de merde of "stunning developments" and vacuous money-grubbing it is magnificently aloof, proud and obstreperous in its uselessness and ability to send the most arrogant of developers into receivership. Long may it do so.

 

Image

Michael Collins

 

Words

Owen Hatherley

quotes story

Walking along a river that has become a continuous ville de merde of "stunning developments" and vacuous money-grubbing it is magnificently aloof

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