Battersea Power Station + Me
Freedom Friday: Laura
From powering the London Underground until the 1950s, to plans of a new Alton Towers-style theme park in the 1980s, Battersea Power Station has certainly had a curious history. Now open to the public for the first time, here’s the little tale of my fascination with the building from my early 20s until today (many, many years later).
My final year of university. Time to define a project to last a full academic year, my degree grade depending on it. Anything my heart desired. I have a bit of a dark obsession with abandoned and abused buildings, alongside a healthy fondness of Art Deco and Modernist styles. My search led me to the perfect building to focus my attention on – Battersea Power Station.
After B Station closed down (it was built in two halves – the 1930s A station, and the 1950s B station), Battersea Power Station was struck by controversy. I was intrigued by its story, especially how Bankside Power Station was transformed so successfully into the Tate Modern, yet Battersea Power Station had been left to rot, exposed to the elements.
I wanted to concentrate on the architecture of the power station, the enormous inner spaces, the exterior materials, and the beautiful art deco features used in such an industrial structure. However, the more I researched the building as it stood – contacting the owners, as well as a passionate local community group, I realised the severity of the destruction to the site. Roofless since 1988, what did the future really hold for the largest brick building in Europe?
Parkview International, the then owners, were sitting on a goldmine – the biggest brownfield site in Europe. It was common opinion they were waiting for it to rot until the grade II listed building was deemed too dangerous to be left standing, giving licence to pull it down and develop the prime piece of Thames-side land. There was no way they were going to let me in to take a look. After travelling around the London Borough for the best views and photo points, it became clear these journeys were themselves of interest and they would form the basis of my project. My project became a set of fold-out ‘poster-maps’, each one dedicated to a journey around the power station.
My interest in the power station did not lessen. Within four years of leaving university, the sceptical views of the Battersea Power Station Community Group became reality – Parkview International sold Battersea Power Station in 2006 for £400million – they bought it 13 years earlier for just £10.5million. They walked away with the profit they wanted without having to wait for it to fall down first. I hoped the new owners would follow through with their ambitious plans – though I was hesitant about the slightly soulless development depicted, it was surely preferable to tearing the place down, changing the London skyline forever.
At the end of 2006, there was an exhibition housed within Battersea Power Station, and I got the opportunity to go and see it close up, inside and out. It was a really strange feeling, as I never thought I would ever get to see it. The architectural and decorative detailing inside was incredible, and the decay was terrifying. Could it ever be brought back from the brink of death?
Fast-forward to the present – as we all know from a highly publicised campaign, Battersea Power Station is fully restored, open for business as of October 2022, and ready to take your money. Having changed hands again once or twice since 2006, it is now the glamorous new hotspot in town, complete with its own sparkly new Tube station. I popped down there before the building itself opened in the summer of 2022, and had really mixed feelings. Yes, the building is still there – win! It looks magnificent – bold, flipping unbelievably massive, gorgeous grids of glass and brick, a beautifully odd, upsidedown table. Yet – cleaned up, sweeping grass banks, deckchairs facing the Thames, frighteningly expensive coffee and food venues and multi-million-pound apartments (only 9% of which are ‘affordable’) – it doesn’t quite feel like my old pal. The coal lift on the riverside has gone, which was such a disappointment, and the surrounding Frank Gehry-designed apartments are uncomfortably close to the brick giant. I wonder what the people of Battersea think – the generations of families who lived under the smoke clouds of the working power station and who then watched the decay unfold.
But we can’t have it both ways – we all wanted it to be saved – and saved it has been – face-lift, bum-lift, chimney lift – it’s certainly a more traditional beauty, one built for today and one that will last many more lifetimes. I’ll definitely go back to check out the restoration of the engine room and jokes aside, I really want to go up the chimney lift. It may be a playground for the rich, but at least us normal folk can still enjoy bits of it too. We just won’t be buying the £3000 bottle of wine in the convenience store.
All images copyright Laura Corbett/Ave Design Studio and may not be reproduced without permission.