Battersea Power Station
Standing defiantly on wasteland just south of the Thames, Battersea Power Station is both an iconic landmark and a national disgrace - since 1983, it has lain unloved and dormant. Now, as a new art exhibition moves into the structure, the public will, for one month, have the opportunity to visit this symbolic building. Time Out ventures inside
One hundred metres up and gripping the scaffold tight with one arm, I reach out with the other and actually touch the chimney! Not just any chimney, one of the four most famous chimneys in the world. I’ve seen them almost every day I’ve lived in London, from Greenwich Park, Hampstead Heath, from the balcony of my office, from the air, on album covers, vodka ads, ’60s cinema classics and as the Cybermen factory in ‘Doctor Who’ – an instantly recognisable silhouette that, strong and defiant, perfectly represents London. What I have never seen before is what lies just over the edge, a space that I’m told, quite unreassuringly, is big enough to accommodate St Paul’s Cathedral without it touching the sides.
Chasm, void, and long way down are words that leap to mind as I peer down into the famous former boiler room of Battersea Power Station. It is a desolate space, battered by the elements and held precariously upright by networks of rusting girders. The imprint of a long-gone staircase still zig-zags up the rear wall, huge concrete pillars have been hacked away at the bottoms to expose their steel core, wiry window frames, many with tiny panes still clinging on, curl from the façade. Up here, though, you can see the care that went into every inch of this forceful structure – the tiered bases of the chimneys, the vertical fluting emphasising their height, and the brickwork relief running round the top of the high walls.
The first half of Battersea Power Station was completed in 1933, the second half following after the war in 1953. The original, unrecognised architect was J Theo Halliday, but he was replaced early on by the already famous Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the power station at Bankside that would eventually become Tate Modern. When Battersea was completed it was reckoned to be the largest brick building in Europe. The chimneys provided 20 per cent of the capital’s electricity, and much local employment, until it closed on October 31 1983.
Today the power station sits in the middle of a windswept wasteland, reached through two sets of security gates, that’s so still you feel almost crushed by the silence. Weeds rampage over the former car park, the old checkpoint rots away compliantly, and a small electricity generating station gently hums. Slowly a few signs of habitation are springing up: a white plywood show home, a curious alpine chalet used to store site gear, and the 2002 Serpentine Gallery summer pavilion, designed by Toyo Ito, last seen in Kensington Gardens.
At present the 36-acre site is in the hands of Hong Kong Chinese property company Parkview International, awaiting a £1.5 billion transformation into what the brochure describes as ‘a major international meeting place, a creative hub for London and a place of celebration, fun and entertainment’. This means the usual moneyspinners: offices, apartments, hotels, a subterranean auditorium, a public park and piazzas, and extensive conference facilities.
The current masterplan is the latest in a string of ambitious schemes for the site. An ideas competition held just after the station closed produced a plan for a theme park based on episodes from Britain’s industrial history, which quickly morphed into a Disneyland-style attraction when the site was acquired by Alton Towers’ owner John Broome. Everyone got excited, the roof was taken off, the turbines removed, the boiler room gutted, the asbestos cleared, and the east wall demolished, but the plans came to nought. Work stopped in 1989. The site was bought (along with a huge debt) by Parkview in 1993 since when it has sat roofless and rain-lashed, held up with a rusting framework of iron.
Before construction begins in earnest, Londoners will have a not-to-be-missed opportunity to visit the power station (though sadly not its chimneys) when the Serpentine Gallery takes over the building for the first of a series of projects outside its Kensington Gardens home. A collaboration with Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, ‘China Power Station: Part I’ will use the crumbling spaces of Turbine Hall B to show video, sound and architectural installations by a new generation of artists exploding out of China. ‘The possibilities for showing video art in these windowless spaces are unbelievably good,’ says Serpentine co-director Julia Peyton-Jones. ‘And the acoustics are fabulous. It’s like being in a church.’
For the show, Gu Dexin will create an installation involving 100,000 apples that will slowly rot. Architect Yung Ho Chang will build a series of pods that from the inside will frame strategic views of the building. The Toyo Ito pavilion will become a shop and teahouse, bikes will be available for visitors to cycle round the site, and at night the building will be lit up with projections.
‘Battersea Power Station means something different to everybody, but it means something to everybody,’ says co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist. ‘For me it was always travelling between Paris and London on the Eurostar. Each time I saw this imperious building I would think: Wow, if one could only see inside this secret place.
for the China Power Station exhibition
Read more about the China Power Station exhibition
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