BATTERSEA POWER STATION
Our son and daughter-in-law thought it would make a pleasant day trip on our recent visit to London to see around the recently refurbished Battersea Power Station. When I was growing up in south London, from the top deck of the rather splendid Routemaster bus on the journey home from school, all the London landmarks were clearly visible through the large front windows. Our school was situated on Beulah Hill. There are a lot of hills in this part of the city - Tulse Hill, Streatham Hill, Herne Hill, Gypsy Hill (I wonder how long that name will withstand the assaults of the PC Brigade), Shooters Hill, Forest Hill and of course Sydenham Hill, better known as Crystal Palace. Hardly a flat area of land to be seen. It would take my brother and me 30 minutes to cycle to school, 7 minutes to cycle home. The view therefore from the front of the bus was spectacular. St Paul’s was clearly visible. And so was Battersea Power Station. The contrast between the two could not have been starker. One was the jewel in the capital’s crown, the other was an eyesore.
A necessary eyesore, it had to be said, for it produced one-fifth of London’s electricity. It remains the largest brick building in Europe, six million of them, and is undeniably a monster. There were those who contended that the iconic Art-Deco building was one of the most valuable and most stunning examples of industrial architecture in the ‘brick cathedral style’. In my eyes, it remained as unloved as Guildford Cathedral, another brick monstrosity.
In 1983, the Power Station was decommissioned and steadily over the years, it fell further and further into disrepair, such that its only use was as a film set for scenes of apocalyptic wasteland and dystopian ruination. Funnily enough, the more it crumbled into dilapidation, the more people wanted to save it, encouraging the government to slap a Grade II* preservation order on it. Various schemes and proposals were explored to develop it and one by one they fell by the wayside. One idea, which I rather fancied, was to use it – with modifications, of course – as Chelsea’s new football stadium, but that too bit the dust. And that seemed to be all Battersea Power Station would become, a pile of rubble and dust.
Eventually, 30-odd years after it was closed down, planners, investors and builders put their heads together to develop the site into luxury apartments and retail outlets and was officially opened to the public last year. We decided to go and see for ourselves.
First, it has to be said – it has always been said – that the structure is a mightily impressive building. Whatever you think of its brutalist outlines and its four enormous chimneys (one of which is now used as a viewing platform reached by an internal lift), it cannot be ignored. It dominates the skyline of the southern shoreline of the river. And much as I deplored the vast shopping mall it has become, though I recognise that the renovation had to be paid for somehow, I found myself affording it grudging respect. After all, it lit our home, as well as millions of others. In its own ugly way, it is rather magnificent.
That set me thinking. What other unlovely buildings became over time objects of affection? I forget which example of modern architecture Prince Charles, now our king, described as a “monstrous carbuncle”, so he is, obviously, no lover of the avant-garde. The new MI6 building on the bank of the Thames has come in for some vitriolic abuse, even being compared to a garish birthday cake. Apparently, in a special screening of the Bond film, Skyfall, MI6 staff cheered when their building came under attack. We all remember the wobbly foot bridge over the Thames from the Tate Modern on the South Bank to St Paul’s on the North. Londoners shunned it. But once the architects had sorted out the unwonted dynamics, people flocked to walk across it. The Millennium Dome came in for severe criticism when it was unveiled in 2000, but now it is host to a variety of large events and rock concerts. And what about the Spaceship at Lord’s, officially the Media Centre, situated at the Nursery End? Even I had reservations at first. Now I cannot imagine cricket’s HQ without it.
The English are not alone in taking time to become accustomed to their new cultural icons. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was not popular with art critics and intellectuals and named La Dame de Fer (Iron Lady) but is now the most-visited paid attraction in the world. The Louvre Pyramid, that enormous glass inverted cube in Paris, was hated by Parisians when it was built and President Mitterand, who commissioned it, was accused of signing a pact with the devil (aka its Chinese designer) but now it is a major tourist attraction in the city. I wonder what ordinary folk thought of those impressive Norman cathedrals that populate northern Europe. Because they took so long to build, original sceptics would have died off (life in mediaeval times was brutish and short) and by then their children would probably have become resigned to their giant, looming shadows.
The thing about buildings is that you are, for better or worse, stuck with them. Unlike interior design, clothes, phones, cars, football strips, which come into, and go out of, fashion, bricks and mortar present a more permanent structure. If they fulfil a function, people are less inclined to tear them down and slowly, they become used to them, even come to love them, rather like the scraggy family dog. Would I prefer to have a luxury apartment in the Battersea Power Station and admire the view looking out or would I prefer to have a luxury apartment in those nearby high-rise buildings looking back at the Power Station? Probably the former, but neither would I have supported, as many did, its demolition.
Without it, we would not have had one of the most iconic sleeve photos in the record industry. In 1977, Pink Floyd released their latest album, Animals, showing an inflatable pink pig tethered between two of the Power Station’s chimneys. It broke loose and floated into the flight path of nearby Heathrow Airport (several flights were cancelled) before making its way eastwards, out over the English Channel, eventually landing on a farm in Kent, frightening a herd of cattle. The pig’s name was Algie. Of course it was. So Pink Floyd.