diamond geezer

 Monday, May 20, 2013

If you love Battersea Power Station, there's currently a rare opportunity to visit. Not visit properly, there's no getting inside the boiler house or turbine hall. But you can wander up close to the northern façade, to the area between the power station and the Thames, somewhere there's been no free public access for years. It's all part of the Chelsea Fringe festival, a three week artistic intrusion taking place capital-wide. And it's also part of the developers' masterplan to soften up the populace so that they welcome the impending luxury transformation. Later on expect high-end stores, restaurants and health spas. But for now there's a pop-up park with freshly-laid turf, artistic huts and a van selling crumpets. Do come.

You approach from the southern end of Chelsea Bridge, near the entrance to Battersea Park. The apartments alongside are part of Chelsea Bridge Wharf, a glass carbuncle which hints at the development to come on the adjacent site. Normally the path below the railway bridge is sealed off, but now at weekends a security guard will open up and beckon you through. All the trains out of Victoria rumble overhead, indeed there's a wonderful view of the power station immediately after you cross the river. It won't last. The first phase of the new development involves the construction of an arc of apartments called Circus West, rising up to seventeen storeys in height, and they'll block off the direct line of sight. You won't be moving in.
The main Circus West building snakes along the western edge of the Power Station, wrapping its art deco industrial splendour in a refective glass skin. All of the apartments have enclosed winter gardens that provide outside space that is useable all year round. The penthouses have rooftop terraces and private gardens that will have spectacular views of Chelsea, the river and the Power Station – truly remarkable spaces. The residents of Circus West will also have access to a private garden and a 5,000 sq ft private residents’ club. Entered through a triple height lobby area, it is home to a private bar and private dining space, as well as a library, business centre, private cinema and a host of additional amenities for the benefit of residents.
At present Circus West is an expanse of rubble awaiting transformation, so it's fortunate most future buyers live overseas where they can't see it. The riverside park beyond looks considerably greener, probably because all the grass has recently been brought in from elsewhere. A dry garden has been planted, with tufty stems and wispy stalks emerging from gravel - quick, easy and effective. Elsewhere are some extremely attractive planters, and an audio hammock, plus a trio of stone petal seats you can buy for a few grand. On the ground you'll find a mass of pink building blocks, entitled Bloom, which last saw the light of day in Victoria Park during the Olympics. Elsewhere some hollowed-out wooden blocks have been installed, permitting visitors to step inside and stare out through coloured filters at a confined view of the power station. Because oh yes, it's the power station you've come to see.

A sheer brick edifice rises across the lawn beyond a protective fence. Two ribbed chimneys scrape the sky, far higher than they've looked from further away these past few decades. The developers tell us they'll have to come down and be rebuilt, and we probably believe them, don't we? Iron struts run between the towers, the intermediate windows long blown out allowing sight of the empty boiler house interior beyond. Within a few years you'll be able to buy haute couture and tapas in there, in a kind of Westfield Plus that the new local residents will adore. For now the place echoes with silence, except for every couple of minutes when a plane flies over, which isn't something you'll see mentioned in the penthouse brochures.

An element of considerable character is provided by a couple of cranes on the waterside. They stand at the end of a jetty, cranes aloft, with the name Stothert & Pitt still imprinted on their side. I hope they'll stay, and then presumably the proposed waterbus will tie up at some shinier building downstream. According to the festival blurb there was supposed to be "a bicycle and trailer decorated with planted beer cans distributing seed packets and information", but I never saw that. Instead there was a nice lady at a plant stall, and some very bored looking litter pickers with nothing to do, and rather more street food vendors than an event with minimal audience actually requires.

Saturday's main Chelsea Fringe event was entitled Planting Ideas, and was about as far away from opulent capitalism as it's possible to get. A few dozen people gathered with the express intent of standing in growbags in wooden planters, allowing themselves to be topped up with soil and then spouting forth. The idea was to create a "living orchard" with participants discussing multifarious ideas about sustainability with any members of the public willing to listen. Some wanted to talk about access to water, others about crowdsourcing an eco-curriculum, another to start the 9 Billion Conversation. Lofty ideals, but I think they were disappointed by how small an audience turned up, and the world isn't going to change as a result of this somewhat inward gathering.

Battersea's pop-up park remains open for the next three weekends, with various other fringe activities underway, should you fancy wandering down. There's no tube station nearby because nobody's built the mercenary Northern line extension out here yet, but I'm sure you'll cope. By the time that arrives, bringing office workers to their new jobs and customers to the Gucci shop, the park will have been extended to a permanent six acres. In the meantime this is your last chance to see the exterior of the historic Power Station, as it was, before restoration begins in the autumn. Don't expect thrills when you get here, but anticipate awe.

» 12 photos from Saturday (by me)
» 9 photos from Sunday (by McTumshie)
» several photos from 2008

And watch out for the Chelsea Fringe elsewhere around town too. I spotted some colourful tubs blooming at the end of the platforms at Bromley-by-Bow yesterday, and thought "ooh they're pretty", and it turns out they're a Chelsea Fringe intervention too. Good luck using the website, which makes the usual mistake of expecting you to plough through a mass of listings to find the interesting and relevant stuff. But if you can't make it to the actual Chelsea Flower Show this week, perhaps the alternative will come to you.

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