Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Battersea Power Station


Architect: Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott, 1929-35 & 1944-55.


The once mighty cathedral of power, often celebrated in London’s popular culture, yet now a forlorn mouldering ruin; too loved to lose, but a nightmare to save.

When the first part of Battersea Power Station was completed in the 1930s its bold geometrical form was a symbol of progress adorning the landscape of London. Built in two identical phases (1929-35; 1944-55) and designed by Theo Halliday with Giles Gilbert Scott (of red telephone box fame) as consultant to the exterior, the structure was one of the first super-power stations to be built under the aegis of the London Power Company, the new, publicly owned supplier of electricity established under an Act of Parliament in 1925 to quell the inefficiency and inconsistency of competing interests. The largest brick structure in Europe, the power station was strikingly moderne at the time of construction with a hard-edged aesthetic informed by its function, yet acquiescing to detail in the grooved towers, fluted column-like chimneys, and elaborate parapet. This exterior, however, stood in contrast to Halliday’s unexpectedly sumptuous interior, which comprised a rich display of faience tiles, bronze doors with relief sculpture, and marble walls – a decadent celebration of industry somewhat incommensurate with Gilbert Scott’s utilitarian outline. The station’s cooling system in turn provided heating for the Churchill Gardens housing estate on the opposite side of the river.

Today the power station is less a symbol of progress than a memorial to it, standing derelict as London’s greatest modern ruin. Decommissioned in 1983, the Grade II* listed carcass has been at the helm of a controversial planning and heritage war for the last two decades, with proposals for a football stadium, concert venue, urban park among the many suggestions for its redevelopment, all falling prey to conservation laws or financial hurdles. Of course the true value of the building to developers is as prime real estate and it is a scheme for a primarily residential area, in the form of Rafael Viñoly’s masterplan, that the site currently awaits. Restoration of the structure is due to commence this October, lasting three years, and it seems likely the new Malaysian developers (since former Irish owners, Real Estate Opportunities, folded in 2011) will see the project through to completion. Nevertheless, given the building's chequered history, it's not unreasonable to suppose Battersea Power Station might yet remain an evocative relic for some time to come. 

Best time to visit: the building shell cannot be entered, but is easily seen from afar.

Address: Kirtling Street, London SW8 5BN.

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