Viñoly’s dropped ‘eco dome’ was a symbol of hubris and shoddy planning, not sustainable, progressive architecture
I know that some architects will see the demise of Viñoly’s 250m glass chimney and ‘eco dome’ at Battersea in South London, largely due to the opposition of Boris Johnson, as a victory of the forces of darkness. Here, goes the thinking, was a chance to build an iconic structure, with unprecedented levels of sustainability, and at the same time rescue the sad hulk of Battersea Power Station, all sadly splatted by London’s Billy Bunter mayor.
Personally, apart from the small pang that accompanies the disappointment of any endeavour, I could not be more delighted. It is not that I oppose sustainable buildings, or tall buildings, or works by celebrated architects. It is that the arguments in favour of the chimney didn’t add up.
It was absurd to argue that the chimney was the only way to achieve exceptional standards of sustainability, especially as it would require high levels of embedded energy that would take some time to pay back. The design would not have been the miraculous floating thing shown, which omitted the structure needed to hold up the glass, or glazing bars, or the effect of reflections.
It would not have rescued the power station. It would have added a further degree of difficulty to the regeneration of the site, putting it off till further in the future. The eco dome would, in fact, almost certainly never have happened, except perhaps in some version dumbed down by commercial considerations and attrition by the planners.
There’s nothing progressive about a commercial icon poking through the skyline of the Houses of Parliament
I do not see what would have been progressive about a commercial icon poking through the skyline of the Houses of Parliament, except as an eloquent emblem of the way democracy has been shafted by the private sector. Nor did I thrill to the interior of the eco dome, which promised to be one of those Truman Show interiors, subject to exceptional levels of surveillance and control, which developers so love to build.
Sadly, two years and doubtless huge fees have been wasted pursuing this chimera, which could have been used to make the viable parts of the project, such as the proposed residential development, as good as possible. As it stands, proposals for these are at best schematic, at worst clumsy and oppressive.
Behind the failure of the eco dome lies London’s inability to plan. It should have been possible two years ago to establish principles as to what would and wouldn’t be desirable at Battersea, and spared us all the pointless pursuit of the chimney. Instead, the future of this exceptional place is subject to a prolonged public haggle between developers and planners, in which architecture is used only as sales patter. This is an abuse of the skills of architects, wastes time and money, and is unlikely to benefit the site.
Rowan Moore is an architecture critic and former head of the Architecture Foundation