Tuesday, October 29, 2019

London, on the overground, southbound

Scene with cranes

Back in October 2008 I wrote a post about Battersea Power Station, then in sore need of care, which I spotted as I passed it on a train. I began my post with these words:

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.

After lamenting the building’s condition, I described it and its history very briefly, dwelling on the huge size of its brick structure, the role of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in designing its Art Deco details, its influence on later power stations, and the various schemes that had been hatched to restore it.* The other day I passed it again on the overground and aimed the camera of my mobile through the window. This time my photograph was a little brighter, even though the weather that day was far from sunny and I had just missed being drenched in a downpour.† As I looked at the building with the various bright new structures appearing around it, all surrounded by a forest of cranes, I wondered if its prospects were similarly bright.

What I could make out as the train accelerated towards Clapham Junction was the power station’s four fluted chimneys, made of pre-cast concrete blocks, and one stretch of brick wall, recessed in a pattern of verticals. Everything else is hidden by scaffolding and other buildings, completed or under construction. I was glimpsing a work in progress then, which will see the power station as the heart of new ‘mixed-use neighbourhood’ incorporating shops, offices, and apartments, a mega-scheme that is clearly proceeding apace. The power station itself is being redeveloped by architects WilkinsonEyre (no relation) to provide some of the most prestigious apartments in the complex. Many of the essential elements of the building will be preserved, others will go, but the new work will, we are told, “pay homage to its history”. A lot will be different – there’ll be a bit poking out at the top, for a start§ – but the corner towers and chimneys will remain, at least, and buyers are promised interiors that “resonate with [the original building’s] irrepressible character”.

Well, I hope the character won’t be repressed. We’ll see. But looking at the plans and the buildings that are already up, it seems unlikely that I’ll be seeing much of it from the train, though I might from a river boat. In the meantime I’m crossing my fingers that the noble structure is not totally subsumed by new build, and that the resulting flats are bought by people who actually live in them.

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* There had been a clutch of such schemes, involving everything from flats to a theme park.

† At least some of the brightness is due to the better quality of smartphone cameras these days.

§ There is so often a bit poking out at the top. Sometimes, aesthetically, it is a disaster.


Luke Honey said...

I've got rather mixed feelings about the project. One half of me's just delighted that finally something's been done about the power station, and the other side of me's concerned that the entire character of the building has been consumed by the endless unstoppable tide of luxury flat development. I drove past it last night, and the central section is now a sea of twinkling lights- presumably from the windows of luxury flats, within.

Jenny Woolf said...

It's a pity the site wasn't used more creatively. The area as a whole could be anywhere, I feel.