Tuesday, October 28, 2008

South Bank, London


It would take a Piranesi to do justice to the shell of London’s Battersea Power Station, vast, roofless, and decaying by the side of Chelsea Bridge. I was reminded of it recently as I crossed the bridge in a train from Victoria on my way to a meeting, and I photographed it hastily through the dirty window of the carriage. Hence this picture, as far a cry from Piranesi as possible. Perhaps this sorry gap between ideal and actuality is appropriate in this case. Battersea Power Station, which came into service in 1939 on the back of the establishment of the National Grid, is said to be Britain’s biggest brick building. It’s a towering masterpiece designed by J Theo Halliday with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (the latter also architect of Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern, and the red telephone box) and represented something of a great hope for power generation in the mid-20th century – a hope fulfilled until 1983, when the enormous power plant was decommissioned. Scott was responsible for many of the most creative design touches, and the building set the style for power stations – and sundry other kinds of industrial building – for a couple of decades.

Since then the glory – the citadel-like walls, the Art Deco interior, the four great chimneys – has been in decline. The roof has gone (taken off to remove some of the building’s contents) and much of the structure is propped up with scaffolding. Meanwhile, several ambitious plans for the place (a theme park, a mixed development) have come and gone. Another scheme, featuring a large and controversial ‘eco-dome’, is being worked up and presented to the planners. Further controversy surrounds the state of the chimneys, with different authorities agreeing that they are in need of work, but disagreeing about whether this should involve a rebuild or a repair.

Much as I like the gaunt, desolate quality of the power station as it is now, I know that this structure needs looking after if its condition is not to get seriously worse. So whatever in the way of renovation, restoration, or conservation is needed, I hope it’s done soon, before the whole lot collapses on to the surrounding wasteland, leaving still more work for the modern-day Piranesi to come.

7 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

The hot water generated in this superb building was pumped under the Thames in order to run through the central heating radiators of a block of flats opposite, called, I believe, Dolphin Square. And quite by coincidence, I've just stuck into my scrapbook Muji's white ceramic pastille burner, modelled, with stubbier chimneys, on the power station.

Thud said...

I kind of like the thought of letting it slowly decay as it has the mass to rival the passing of so many great buildings of the past.Plus...an eco dome or theme park...how terrible.

Vinogirl said...

First saw this building whilst visiting a cousin in Clapham. I hope someone saves it.

cbnewham said...

In some ways it is almost as iconic as St Pauls. I don't think it is a beautiful building, but it is striking.

Anonymous said...

Have a look at the plans here...

http://www.battersea-powerstation.com

The films are particularly interesting.

Alice said...

So sad.

Hels said...

I was totally in love with the Victorians' capacity to build, create, explore and solve any problem. It was a real thrill to find Crossness pumping station restored to good order and open to visitors. See http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/05/crossness-london-amazing-victorian.html

Of course Battersea was far from Victorian, but it represented great hope for power generation for decades, as you noted. I am ambivalent about its brick monumentality and ugliness, but it was a critical part of scientific history and needs to be saved asap.