“Nobody roots for Goliath” – Wilt Chamberlain
In mid-late February, London woke up with the news that one of its most famous and legendary buildings was on the market for sale. And this was the fourth time, uncomfortable déjà vu. Almost 30 years after its operational closure, the mythical Battersea Power Station languishes in a wasteland by the river Thames in what could perfectly be an image from a post industrial apocalypse movie. The biggest brick building in Europe probably feels abandoned and orphaned while it dreams with sharing the glamorous fate of her little sister the Bankside Power Station, reinvented as the Tate Modern to an unbelievable success for over a decade now.
It is hard to believe that English people, always proud and respectful with their heritage, have left a building that was charismatic since its birth (in a survey in the late 30s it was voted as the second favourite building in London after St Paul) to rot slowly but inexorably without finding the way to avoid its deterioration. Only the absence of the roof and the presence of scaffolding in one of the colossal concrete chimneys proves that there have been an attempt to do something to help the weeping giant to find again a purpose to exist and to continue belonging to the city to which it has given so much through the years. There were many of us who thought that the injection of money and dynamism linked to the celebration of the 2012 Olympics Games in London could finally and for good change the destiny of the BPS, but the time passed, the Games are almost here and nothing has changed in Battersea area.
In the last few weeks several surveys have appeared in different British media asking if the BPS should be demolished or not. Some 40% to 55% of the voters (depending on the media) supported the idea of the demolition (this would require the building being removed from the protected heritage list) and gave green light to start from scratch in the development of the 15 ha of land surrounding the building. This shows a big change in general public opinion and it seems that the current global economy crisis has made Londoners lose their hope that it is actually possible to conduct any project related to the BPS to a successful end. Just a few years ago the idea of wiping the building would have been considered unthinkable and even sacrilegious.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
- In 1925 the British Parliament decides that the power grid should be a single and unified system. As a reaction to this, a few private power companies merge together to form the London Power Company with one of their priorities being the construction of big power stations capable of supplying energy to wide areas. Battersea is chosen for its proximity to the river Thames (needed for both cooling down the water and easy delivery of the coal) and for being in the heart of London, the main targeted supply area.
- The project comprised two phases (A and B) and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (designer of the no less iconic red telephone box among other things) is hired as “architect for the external appearance”, what is done in Art Deco, trendy at that time. Construction of the first phase (A) begin in March 1929. By 1933 the A station (that had just 2 chimneys) is working and generating power although is not completed till 1935. The total cost was £2,141,550 and 6 people died in different accidents during the works.
- In 1945, once WWII was finished works for phase B began. The new phase would be identical and symmetrical in the exterior aspect to phase A. Station B became operational in 1953 and it was completed in 1955, giving the BPS the current layout. When finished the BPS was the third biggest power station by capacity in the UK, the most efficient in the whole world and it generated up to 20% of all the electricity used in London. The building measures are 160 x 170 m, with the roof reaching up to 50 m and the chimneys towering up to 103 m.
- In 1948 the UK nationalized the electric supply industry and the London Power Company (including the BPS) is absorbed by the state-owned British Electricity Authority, which will change names a few times during the following years.
- Station A is closed in March 1975 after more than 40 years operating. A campaign was then launched to try to save the building from a potential demolition. As a result the BPS was declared part of the national heritage (EH) listed sites in 1980 as grade II building. The last day of October 1983 production is stopped in Station B and the BPS finally ceases operations.
- In 1986 is approved a plan to turn the BPS and the surrounding land in a theme park dedicated to the British industrial revolution. In 1987 John Broome, the man behind Alton Towers, buys the lot and works start. In 1989 the project is halted due to lack of funding after the budget skyrocketed from the initial £35m to £230m. At that moment the roof had been removed in order to remove the heavy machinery from inside the building. Looking for more a more profitable outcome, a new project is submitted. The new idea is to build offices, a shopping area and a hotel. Despite strong rejection from public opinion permits are granted in 1990, but the high costs associated to it paralyse any work from 1990 to 1993.
- In 1993 Parkview International buys the BPS for £10m plus assumption of the debt incurred till that moment (approximately £70m). In 1996 a new project, called simply The Power Station is presented. The new development included a massive shopping centre with all sort of leisure locals and is approved in 2000. In 2005 permission is granted to knock down the chimneys after they are deemed irreparable due to corrosion. An alternative research considers that they can be repaired and demolition is stopped. Still Park View wants to demolish and rebuild them identically piece by piece with the approval of EH.
- In November 2006 the Irish company Real Estate Opportunities (REO) acquires the BPS for £400m. The Parkview plan is dropped and REO submits a new one by 2008, including real estate development for which an investment of £4000m is needed. Works are not even started and in November 2011 REO (and with them the BPS) files for bankruptcy. Back in 2009 the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had said no to the possibility of building a 300+ metres eco tower. Finally, on February 2012 the BPS is back in the market again…
PRESENT AND FUTURE
The sale is managed by Knight Frank, who markets the BPS as “the last big development in central London”. Investors are being sought after all over the globe, mainly in India, Russia (a few years ago there had been talks about moving Chelsea F.C to the BPS and very recently it has been confirmed that the football club has put a bid for the building), China and Middle East, being the latter one the preferred options. The most optimistic voices hope to have the sale finished by the end of the autumn, once the Olympic games are gone and the city can go back to business as usual. Although the last time the BPS was sold it reached a price of £500m, however given the current global economy climate it is more likely that the price will go down considerably to something between £300m and £400m.
The operation has a carrot (the already approved plan to develop the area and build offices, hotels, a shopping centre and housing, valued at £5500m) and a stick (the buyer will have to finance the refurbishment of the BPS building, that in the current situation cannot be demolished, with an estimated cost of £150m, and provide another £200m to build the extension of the Northern Line tube line from Kennington area to Battersea). A recent research has shown that the BPS building is indeed a poisoned candy: if it could be demolished it would be possible to build up to 1200 flats more, increasing the operation profit to over £500m. The project, would theoretically generate some 25000 jobs, 15000 of them directly in the main building, and also apart from that the construction of 16000 new flats. This would be an enormous impact for an area like Battersea that has been considerably stuck for quite some time.
Getting the tube to reach Battersea has always been seen as a crucial factor for the success of any project related to the BPS. The lack of public transport (just a couple of small train stations and a few bus lines) has historically been an issue when discussing the redevelopment and future of the BPS, as the current connections are clearly insufficient to bring the massive amount of tourists and visitors needed to make the business in the area successful.
And what would happen if there is no buyer? The administrators (Ersnt&Young) are legally bound to maintain the building as it is part of EH, but unless a mid-to-long term economically viable plan appears, the ghost of the demolition will continue hanging around the historic building. The architect Sir Terry Farrell has presented a proposal that tries to achieve a middle ground: keeping the chimneys but demolishing the side walls, which would be replaced by columns and then building a park inside the BPS. This would radically reduce the price of both redevelopment and future maintenance costs of the complex.
Currently the only use made of the BPS is the celebration of private events in the Boiler House, a venue with a clear roof section within the main building that has become trendy to host all sorts of celebrations (from video games presentation to sport galas, including the launching of the 2010 Torie campaign). It can be easily seen using Google Earth.
“VISITING” THE BPS
And it has to go with quotation marks because… it cannot be visited. As mentioned above both the BPS and the surrounding land are private property and apart from the events in the Boiler House there are no organised touristic visits (this was confirmed by the security company when asking at the gates).
Despite not being allowed to go into the building, it is still possible to see it from a reasonably close distance, so you can get a good idea of its real size along with other details (the considerable degradation state, how big the land around it, the difficulties of bringing up a plan to develop it, and the privileged location…).
The northern part of the perimeter that surrounds the BPS faces the Thames, so the only possible way to get a closer look is by boat. From the western side there are no good views since the train tracks and Grosvenor Bridge get in the way and make impossible to go close. The maximum proximity spots are in the south and the east of the perimeter and it is where the entrance gates are located.
Gate 2 (main entrance) is in Kirtling Street and offers a close view of the east side wall. Gate 1, just some 100 meters away but in Cringle Street, is the closest point of all and you can see even more clearly the shattered windows and the robust legendary chimneys. If you are looking for the best panoramic views, they are from Battersea Park Rd (south facade of the BPS) or from Grosvenor Road, just in front of the north facade on the north side of the Thames.
The best way to visit the BPS on foot is taking the train to Battersea Park station (directly from Victoria in just 5 minutes and if you sit on the left side of the train you will have great views when crossing the river and passing by the building) or hoping off at Queenstown Road station. If you stop at the first mentioned station you will come out in Battersea Park Rd and just turning left and walking for a few meters the station will appear in full sight. If you go to Queenstown Rd you will appear in the street of the same name. Then you have to turn right (direction northwest) and turn right again (to the east) once you reach Battersea Park Road (you can see the building by then). Both Kirtling St and Cringle St are off Battersea Park Rd on the left hand side. A perfect way to complement your visit to the area is strolling around Battersea Park, just a couple of minutes from the BPS and one of the nicest parks in all London.
Some interesting links: