The Battle for Battersea

For 70 years now, the vast brick walls and towering chimneys of Battersea Power Station have dominated the South London skyline, impossible to miss as one gazes out a train window while rumbling toward Waterloo or approaching the Thames en route to Victoria Station. Two decades ago, those chimneys ceased to smoke.

Once hailed as a masterpiece of industrial design—the largest and most modern electricity generating station in all of Britain—Battersea Power Station is now a blight on the landscape, its walls crumbling and exposed steelwork rusting. But does it really matter? The power station is, after all, just a huge brick-clad steel frame that no longer houses the great turbines that once powered half of London. That the World Monuments Fund placed Battersea on its 2004 list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites suggests that it does. Like many other redundant buildings, Battersea Power Station is a splendid architectural statement that deserves to find an appropriate and sustaining new use.

The problem is that, despite its central, prominent location and landmark presence, it hasn’t yet found one although the power station’s younger sister, downstream at Bankside, has been converted into the Tate Modern. Battersea was not the first large electric power station whose chimneys challenged the skyline of London—Lots Road, to power the underground railways, had already done that, upsetting the artist residents of Chelsea in the process—but it was the first to be regarded as modern architecture, and the first to elicit a positive critical response. This was largely owing to the involvement of one of the greatest British architects of the last century, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

Open PDF