Thursday, 19 April 2012

Battersea Power Station - A Tragi-Comic History

If Battersea Power Station could speak, I have a feeling it would say 'fuck off, leave me alone, let me die in peace'. Few other buildings in London have been promised so much by developers and received so little. Like me, you probably have heard the occasional news report about the building and its environs and wondered exactly how it fell into 30 years of disuse. Well, wonder no more - I have compiled a timeline.

[much of this is garnered from The Times database, for which, much thanks]
1929-1933 (completed 1935) The first part of the power station ('A' Station) constructed, design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, of red telephone box fame.
1945-1953 (completed 1955) The second part of the power station  ('B' Station) constructed. Now with four chimneys, rather than the initial two. Hurrah!
1975 'A' station closed, as plant ages and becomes less cost effective. Boo!
1977 Battersea Power Plant appears on Pink Floyd album cover, Animals, becoming instantly recognisable to millions worldwide.
1980 Michael Heseltine awards the building Grade II listed status. Hurrah!
Then, unfortunately, the trouble begins.
1980 Proposals for re-using the site as a 'design museum, exhibition and conference centre' to supplement the V&A
1980 Michael Montague, chairman of the English Tourist Board, prophetically declares that the site risks becoming 'a building of outstanding uselessness'.
1980 Readers of the Times propose fanciful suggestions for Battersea, including 'a nuclear power station' 'a prison' 'old people's flatlets' and 'a church'.
1980 Save Britain's Heritage put forward the idea of a sports centre and exhibition hall. 'Three sports halls, 20 squash courts, an ice rink, target ranges and a host of other facilities could be provided in the brick shell.'
1982 A feasibility study by architect Martin Richardson proposes a vast indoor sports area, combined with engineering museum, to supplement the Science Museum. Other ideas on the table include 'a giant discotheque' (YES!) and, more boringly, an incineration plant.
1983 The 'B' Station is fully decommissioned. But appears in Monthy Python's The Meaning of Life.
1983 'Would not this 'cathedral of power' make a most awe-inspiring mosque?' letter to The Times
1983 As theme park fever grips the country, the owners of Alton Towers amusement park propose turning the site into an 'English Disneyland', to be completed by 1986, winning a design competition run by the Central Electricity Generating Board. The CEGB, in midst of the recession are heavily influenced by the figure of 4,500 new jobs being promised.  Proposed hours for theme park are 10am-2am, with most of the site undercover. There will be 'theme shopping' although 'not Tesco's or anything like that' and a Thames walkway. The turbine hall will be themed to look like 'pre-industrial London' (shades of Dickens World?). Also a 'haunted theatre' and 'futuristic shows'. Sounds impressive, eh? Wait, there's more ...
1984 Further details of the park include 'a gondola ride, taking people around 60 animated tableaux with 17,000 animated figures illustrating the British Empire. (YES!) The £4.50 admission fee, with no reduction for children, will cover all the attractions.'
1984 'Why does nobody suggest a cathedral?' letter to The Times
1984 mention of possibility of using grounds of Battersea site as coach park
1985 We learn the design in the hands of the promising-sounding 'Texas-based Leisure and Recreation Concepts'. Residents groups prophetically 'see the whole enterprise as foreign venture capitalism, whose end product will be of doubtful local benefit'.
1986 More rides mentioned, including 'simulated rides on rollercoasters or in car chases, computerised golf "played" on the world's top ten courses, a skating lake, a parachute drop, and a magic room whose pivotal design enables it to roll over 360 degrees'. Also, an appearance as a deserted mining colony in Aliens. This is because the site looks like, yes, a deserted mining colony.
1987 'Opening 1990'. Yes, good luck with that.
1988 Mrs. Thatcher appears on site, 'armed with the biggest laser-gun in Britain' (a terrifying prospect, if ever there was) designed to trigger a sound and light show, heralding the new theme park. Unfortunately the bangs are too loud. Residents ring 999, summoning most of South London's emergency services to the scene. Proposals for naming the theme park include 'Tower Inferno' (bit too ominous) 'Battersea Powerhouse' (so 80s!) and 'South Chelsea Fun Palace' (YES!) but boringly they go with 'Battersea, London'. Kudos to that copywriter. Mr. Broome, the head of the Alton-Towers-related property group behind the project, promises 4,500 jobs (see 1983; nothing like consistency, eh?) and that the site will open on '2.30pm on May 21, 1990'. Again, good luck with that.
1988 Redevelopment costs soar from mere tens of millions to £230 million. Works stops, with the plant lacking a roof or west wall. Awkward. Local campaigners realise that bulldozing the 'derelict' structure looking an increasingly profitable option for the developer.
1989 Mr. Broome raises suspicions by proposing 'four 17-storey office blocks, two 13 storey hotels, and commercial premises around the power station'. With no mention of roller-coasters or haunted mansions.
1989 The mystery deepens as Broome enters into discussions with neighbouring property developer at Battersea Wharf, for a joint project involving '2 million square feet of offices, 650,000 sq ft of conference facilities and two hotels on the site' whilst a new planning application for the station includes use as a construction industry exhibition and trade centre. A little ironic, as Broome's builders have not been paid in several months.
1990 May 21 2.30pm Journalists gathered dutifully on the vacant lot, in order to take the piss. A Times report notes 'there is talk locally of it being converted into a mosque' whilst The Battersea Power Station Community Group suggests 'residential area, sporting and recreation areas, a museum and industrial workshops'. And the kitchen sink.
1990 Broome's company is sued for £175,000 in unpaid planning fees. Not altogether a good sign.
1991 Property company Park Securities, owner of the site, falls into receivership. Minor problems with the building include asbestos, sulphur penetration of brickwork (all 80 million of them), subsidence and poor foundations built on clay. Local action group note that it's very easy to wander in and nick stuff from the Art Deco interiors. And people do.
1992 The site is bought by Hong Kong property-developers, the Hwangs, and their company Parkview, who will surely be the station's ultimate saviours. Surely. The very 1990s alternative of an eco-friendly incineration centre is not taken up.
1993 At least the wasteland appears regularly in The Bill. Hurrah!
1994. 'After 18 months of ownership, the [Hwang] brothers and their company, Parkview International, have done little or nothing to protect the exposed fabric of the power station from the elements'  Battersea Power Station Community Group
1995 The site looks the best it has in years, in Richard III. Unfortunately it is 90% CGI.
1996 Don't panic. Something will definitely happen. Because Andrew Lloyd Webber is on board. He will create a theatre. There will also be a leisure and shopping complex which is gradually being planned by architects. Very gradually. There will also be a '37 screen multiplex cinema' (also, very 1990s). Other investors include BAA and the US's Gordon Group.
1996 'It turns out there will also be an art gallery. Also, erm, did we mention it, a 50 storey-high tower.' No-one likes the tower, least of all English Heritage. The tower goes. Wait, there's more: 'a media city, with film and television studios' and '32 cinemas' (down from the 37 of earlier in the year, but not bad). The main thing is, they have a plan now. A clear plan. There were also be a roller-blading rink, because 'inline skating is the fastest growing sport in the world'. Or, at least, it was in 1996.
1996 Wandsworth planners by this stage are desperate and will back almost anything, including 'a theatre, a shopping centre, at least ten themed restaurants, a "discovery zone" for children, and a ride up one of the chimneys.' Seriously. We learn that 'Two of the chimneys will be converted into rides, one leisurely and one rocket-like'. Whoooosh.
1996 The Prince of Wales supports plans for a 10,000 seat ecumenical church on the adjoining land. No-one notices. Instead, it will be an 'Autodome' celebrating car history. No-one bothers to build it.
1997 Woo-hoo. Warner Brothers are involved in the cinema project. It will open '24 hours a day', or, in other words, two showings of Titanic. The site becomes widely used by concert promotors for the best live bands and comedians. Also, Frank Skinner.
1998 One senior architect on the project throws a hissy fit, when objections are raised to his 'Las Vegas-style architecture'. We should be so lucky. It is noted that 'The 500 million scheme to include hotels, theme restaurants, and a 32 screen cinema complex already has outline planning permission and will open in the year 2001'. Yeah, good luck with that.
1998 Article confidently predicts that in 2003, the cinema complex with open, with - cough - 25 screens. Yeah, good luck with that.
1999 The National Grid is desolated to discover it owns some of the land at Battersea, which is 'worth' at least 5 million pounds. It suggests that actually it's bound to want to build another generating station in future, and might want a couple of quid more.  The architects are 'asked to stop work' while this is resolved. They stop, but no-one notices.
1999 The land is sold. The project 'could then be open and trading by 2004'. Note the word 'could'.
2000 Terence Conran suggests the power station be used as a design centre. He has been in suspended isolation in Chelsea since 1980 (see above).
2000 But there's good news. Battersea will be the home of the Cirque du Soleil. Send in the clowns.
2002 Lend Lease, an Australian property company, also involved in redeveloping the Dome, lends a hand - 'a sign that the Hwang family is finally ready to develop the 35 acre site nearly ten years after it first bought a stake in it'. The site will include a home for Cirque du Soleil, a cinema, offices, shops, hotels and flats' and a river jetty. Woo.
2003 After ten years of hard draughting, full architects plans appear. 'A site transformed with green open spaces, hotels and housing, complete with a new bridge across the Thames [YES!] ... inside the giant turbine halls ... shops, bars, cinemas and restaurants. joined by a series of walkways ... reborn at a cost of £800 million ... a 50 room hotel on the roof ... a one-table restaurant seating 12 in a glass box on top of one of the chimneys ... an entertainment and retail complex ... an open area whose walls, ceiling, and floors can be moved to create tailor-made venues for any event, from pop concerts to fashion shows'. Sadly, no clowns. But possibly two Hyatt hotels. Unfortunately, the project will now cost £800 million, but what are you going to do, eh? The one table restaurant is immediately fully booked until 2043.
2004 IKEA consider Battersea but decide it's a bit too congested for their Grôeflughers and Snëhhgards.
2006 Councillors approve the last set of plans from the Hwangs. ''They have told us they will be ready to start work in earnest in the new year - we expect them to keep to this,' says one very very trusting councillor.
2006 One month later, the Hwangs sell the site for £400, a couple of hundred million profit, to Treasury Holdings/Real Estate Opportunities. The latter has plans. Big plans - 'retail, leisure, hotels, offices and residential spaces' - sound familiar?
2008 Plans for the new site including running on biofuels (very 00s), homes, shops, parks, offices - look, we'll build something. No, really.
2009 The site will definitely include '3,700 homes built alongside offices, shops and restaurants on the site by the River Thames in south-west London.' No, honest.
2010 Wandsworth Council approve the latest plan. And why not? Let's face it, they've had thirty years of practice. Green energy. New tube stations. Cyclists. Affordable housing. A conference centre. 'London's biggest ballroom', presumably because Strictly Come Dancing was on the telly at home when the architect was sketching. (cf. roller-blading, see 1996). Also, a riverbus. Woo.
2011 Utterly unpredictably, the company managing the project falls into administration. Woops. They only have £502 million of debts, mind you; so it will soon be sorted. Nothing to see here.
2012 Battersea Power Station is offered for sale - for the first time - on the open market. Any offers? Don't all rush at once.


  1. For the longest time I've thought it should just be stabilised, made as safe as possible and become a huge piece of art. It's an iconic building, everyone knows it, so just light it nicely, maybe beam pictures onto it at night using lasers, and leave it as an artistic monument to London's industrial history.

    It will never become anything useful, it's simply unfeasable, it was designed so wonderfully to be a power station, and that's all it can be. The best that can be hoped for is that the building is flattened and the land used for typically London riverside bland apartments.

    I still think my idea to have it as a free-standing piece of art is all you can possibly do with it.

    By the way, BPS is in my top three favourite London buildings and I think the way it has been treated is a travesty!

    Your faithful servant &c.!!

    1. I'm not massively fond of it, which is not to say I don't think it's quite a pleasant and appealing building. Broadly I'd agree with you - leave it as a monument to the 20th C. and perhaps use the space for arts events etc. without attempting some massive make-over.

  2. What a fantastic piece, but you missed a particularly powerful movie reference - Battersea Power Station is the 'Ark Of The Arts' in 2006's Children of Men. So at least we know they'll be putting it to good use in 20 years' time...

    1. Yes, the movie references are definitely not comprehensive - thanks.

  3. I remember watching the UK press launch of Batman & Robin at Battersea. A visibly be/a-mused Arnold Schwarzenegger took to a podium, gazed across the desolate wasteland and announced, "Well, here we are. A bunch of ballsy guys doing ballsy things".