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Our energy, architecture and history all unite in Battersea’s magnificent ruins

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The worse the condition of Battersea Powerstation, the more important the building has seemed to become

A series of events last week prompted thoughts about the interconnection of architecture, energy and history. The first was the launch of Kenneth Powell’s excellent short volume on the work of ABK (published by Wiley), which marks the recent formal closure of the practice that had pursued so many key ideas for five decades. Richard Rogers’ generous introduction is an appropriate reminder that it is ideas and challenges that prompt true innovation in architecture.

Not the least of ABK’s achievements was to pursue the issue of energy use and what we now think of as sustainability, at a time when the RIBA Energy Group was in its pomp. There are still echoes of some of the ideas from the 1970s flowing through UK policy, particularly in respect of Building Regulations, which have been the biggest element in the long fight to improve the performance of our built environment.

The second event was a discussion dinner hosted by Simon Sturgis, the architect who has taken a particular interest in the question of carbon reduction, so much so that the practice now has a spin-off company devoted to consultancy in this field. The question of regulation was raised, and one guest suggested that it would be a smart idea to change the name from ‘regulations’ to ‘standards’, given the loathing among some politicians for anything which sounds as though it could be deregulated.

Among other things, the uncertain state of domestic and EU regulations in relation to subjects like embodied energy, and the continuing difficulty in working out how to improve existing stock (from a carbon point of view) kept a lively conversation flowing. No one supported the government message on 20 per cent VAT for improvements to listed buildings.

This subject cropped up again at a third event I attended, a conference organised by the Twentieth Century Society on the future of Battersea Power Station. As it happens, the VAT payable on changes to the power station, now on the market at a knock-down price (pun intended) of about £500 million, is only five per cent because of the length of time it has been unoccupied. Other good news: it may not be necessary to demolish and rebuild the chimneys.

Save Britain’s Heritage chairman Marcus Binney spoke at the event, introducing the Graham Morrison-designed proposal to turn the power station into a temporary events venue. Terry Farrell presented his ideas for landscaping and tree-lining what is left of the power station, taking his inspiration from the Emscher Park strategy to maintain redundant industrial buildings in the Ruhr as ruins, memories of an economic and industrial past which is no longer relevant.

Both approaches have their attractions, but leave many questions unanswered, not least whether any developer would be able to take on these ideas, derive value from building on the power station’s environs, and be able to pay enough money when the deadline for bids runs out in early May to satisfy the sellers – banks trying to recover their foolish loans to the last developer to walk away from the site, literally and metaphorically.

Whatever happens, the power station will remain in the memory of those who knew it as a magnificent cathedral of power. English Heritage has watched the building deteriorate since its closure in 1983 when the roof was taken off. The worse its condition, the more important the building has seemed to become. The ultimate irony was its enhanced listing status to Grade II*, when it was a shadow of its former, merely Grade II-listed, self. A curious saga.

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