diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 29, 2006

Battersea Power Station - electric cathedral

For a short few weeks this autumn there's been a unique opportunity to take a look inside one of London's most iconic buildings. Battersea Power Station has been opened up as a temporary art gallery, hosting a range of modern work from China, and it's attracting large crowds. But the real magnet is the building itself, its quartet of ivory chimneys rising into the sky like beacons from a bygone age. I've been, she's been, he's been, and you've got one more week to go yourself. Before the new owners transform it into something more 'contemporary'. Hurry now while history lasts.


The past: Battersea Power Station was built by a private consortium in the 1930s in an attempt to stave off creeping nationalisation. They commissioned Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to build a giant generating station by the Thames, far larger than any previously built in the capital [photo]. He began with a huge steel girder box, then clad it in brick and placed an Art Deco turbine hall in the interior [photo]. The futuristic control room had a marble floor and could only be used by operatives wearing felt-soled shoes. The new generating station saw Londoners safely through World War Two, somehow avoiding major bomb damage. The original building was extended by the addition of a second turbine hall in the 1950s [photo], increasing the number of chimneys from two to the now-familiar four. Battersea belched away for a couple of decades more until increasing inefficiency led to the closure of first one turbine hall and then the other. The site went dark on 31st October 1983, and the building has been decaying slowly ever since. Various plans for restoration have been put forward, but the planned theme park never materialised and the Tate Modern ended up inside Bankside instead. The two turbine halls were gutted anyway, just in case.

The present: What a great idea to host an exhibition of Chinese art inside Battersea Power station. Quite frankly any excuse would have done, just to get the doors open again and allow London inside. It was an opportunity I couldn't to miss. You get a decent view of the power station from across the river in Pimlico or from any passing train, but the view stood right up close is so much better [photo]. The chimneys tower above you, the brick walls rise up like sheer cliffs and the broken windows echo with windswept loneliness. Inside it's much the same [photo]. For the exhibition they've erected scaffolding to allow you to walk out into one end of the boiler house, now roofless and open to the sky [photo]. It's a bit like standing inside a ruined cathedral, except that the nave is much longer, the towers are much taller and the glass is stained only by pollution. To each side are the two turbine halls, the first more photogenic than the second. Public access has been restricted to just one end, and you have to try hard to imagine each vast chamber filled with turbines, electrical switchgear and bustling workmen.

A narrow utility staircase leads you up from Turbine Hall B, past various frowning security guards, to three storeys of dark concrete workspaces. For the purposes of the exhibition these have been filled with Chinese art, mostly video-based. Even though you've really come to view the building instead, your attention suddenly switches to these animated windows on an emerging modern culture based 5000 miles away. It's a bonus, to be honest, that the art is a worthwhile sideshow to the surrounding architecture. One memorable installation is a wall-length wire cage filled with slowly-rotting apples, which no doubt by next weekend will smell even more like a tramp's Diamond White breath. Back outside the building the Chinese theme continues, with free bicycles provided for visitors to get around the site [photo]. It's not so vast that bikes are actually needed, but it's a nice touch and it keeps the kids occupied. And everywhere, both inside and out, a crowd of Londoners are snapping away trying to capture the perfect evocative photograph. Just my luck to visit on a wholly grey and overcast day, so my photographs lack the perfect blue backdrop that others managed on earlier visits.
• Tickets must be pre-booked. Book online for next Thursday→Sunday here.
• Arrive early, preferably before 12:30, because the weekend queues get very long very quickly.


The future? What next for Battersea Power Station? That question was answered, sadly, by a promotional video screened in a narrow chamber on the ground floor. Here the site's current owners, Parkview International, showcased their long-delayed plans. You can guess, can't you? The central building will become (buckets at the ready) "an epic space that can variously function as a market place, a concert venue, a product exhibition platform or a fashion and brand showcase." Essentially that's an umpteen-storey shopping mall. Outside, so the on-screen architect enthused, they're deliberately building modern "signature buildings" to provide a "yin-yang contrast" to the old power station [photo]. To the west a long thin "benchmark" hotel will block current views from Clapham and the railway viaduct, and to the east will arise a similarly obstructive "modular" conference centre. Parkview are also squeezing in some "weave-like" office blocks, a "flexible" 2000-seat auditorium and an "advanced concept" residential building, assuming Wandsworth Council let them get away with it. Oh, and they want to knock down the chimneys first, because they're unsafe. But they'll rebuild them, honest, and then stick a single restaurant table at the very top of one. Work may, possibly, begin next summer. Few watching the showreel seemed impressed by the promotional bravado.

The "Power Station" website is full of some of the most vacuous bluster I've ever read, and I truly hope that not all of this redevelopment comes to pass. I know it would be criminal to leave Battersea Power Station to waste away and crumble unseen, but does London really need yet another "destination venue" and "commercial focus"? Some of us think not. There were hundreds of culturally-aware Londoners swarming around the building yesterday, taking one last opportunity to enjoy its unique character and history. But I doubt that any of them will want to come back for a cappucino and some shoe shops.


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