This was written and recorded for Monocle 24’s daily radio show, the Globalist, and posted on the website as a blog, known in Monocle-speak as the “Monologue”.
It’s one of London’s most iconic buildings. It’s graced album covers and countless moody, urban-themed black and white photographs, and its four towering brick chimneys are recognised all over the world. Now, for the right price, it could be yours, because Battersea Power Station is for sale on the open market for the first time.
If you happen to be a millionaire in the market for a power station with original Art Deco features, 39 acres of flexible space and fabulous views of the Thames, you would have quite a project on your hands.
Built in the 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the station finally stopped producing electricity in 1983 and has lain empty ever since, while a parade of development proposals have fizzled out either through lack of support or money. You might even say it’s jinxed.
RIP the proposal by John Broome, the brains behind Alton Towers, to turn it into a theme park. Lack of funding scuppered that one but not before the roof had been removed, thus weakening the structure. Not long afterwards, the chimneys were declared unsafe, raising the probability of knocking them down. The idea of a 300 metre Eco Tower was turned down in 2009. The most recent proposal, which was given planning permission, involved a £5.5bn (€6.5bn) development of shops, residences and a hotel. The company behind that one went into administration in December last year.
Each developer that comes along has a more daunting job as time and the elements take their toll on the building. But if I owned Battersea Power Station, I would give up on the whole idea of development altogether. I’d do precisely nothing. I’d let the falcons carry on nesting in its dangerous chimneys and leave the pigeons to deposit their droppings over the rubbish-strewn corridors. I’d let its carcass slowly crumble, picturesquely, against the grey British sky.
There is, after all, a place in the landscape – if only a small, dank corner – for ruins, dereliction and decay. The Victorians, who loved nothing better than a wind-battered ruin, knew that. It speaks of and to our darker side, reminds us of the folly of our aspirations and of our mortality. It fires our imaginations and it inspires the underbelly of culture. While the shiny new art galleries and culture centres echo to the sound of the grown-up and the established, the urban wasteland pulsates to the deep bass of the young, sexy, underground.
Sadly, I don’t have a spare few hundred million to buy my very own ruin. And anyway, I imagine Wandsworth Council wouldn’t be happy about it sitting there neglected, hulks of metal and brick falling from the chimneys while children play in the asbestos below.
There is a third way, though. The architect Terry Farrell has come forward with another proposal to restore the chimneys and its art deco control rooms and create an urban park on the building’s footprint. To me, that sounds like a fitting end to the story – no flashy blocks of flats or insipid retail. It will be accessible and safe but it will also leave the power station’s dignity, heritage and some of its romance in tact. Sometimes, it’s better to leave things more or less alone.