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What now for Battersea Power Station?

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: We need a big idea for Battersea Power Station – time to call in Professor Alsop

Shortly before Christmas, the Sunday Times carried an editorial arguing that it was time to demolish Battersea Power Station, to put a once magnificent structure, now a sorry shadow of its former self, out of its misery.

I was brought up in Pimlico, directly opposite the power station (we had hot water courtesy of the power station’s waste heat; an early district heating scheme) so the power station loomed large in our ideas about industry. White smoke poured from the magnificent chimneys, and it was difficult to imagine that such a structure would become redundant so rapidly, like its sister station at Bankside, both designed by Giles Gilbert Scott.

Yet redundant it became. Once Margaret Thatcher had famously declared that she never wanted to see smoke coming out of those chimneys again, supported in this opinion by the local Labour MP, Alf (now Lord) Dubs, the chances of a rational use for the building, such as the perfectly feasible proposal to use it for a waste-to-energy facility, were gone forever.

Instead, the building went to a thrusting Thatcherite entrepreneur, John Broome, who lost all his money in attempt to create something along the lines of his highly successful Alton Towers leisure development. The next owner, the Hwang brothers, did rather better. They achieved planning permission via a variety of architects, landscape architects and masterplanners, organised substantial below-ground works, and looked set to actually achieve something.

We spent several occasions in CABE design reviews discussing the merits of this or that aspect of the proposal, often with Philip Dowson leading the design team. (Dowson was taken to see Las Vegas as part of the exercise, a novelty for him. On approaching the airport, he gazed out of the aeroplane window at the extraordinary city below and said: ‘Vulgarity on this scale… it’s bound to succeed!’

For whatever reason, perhaps because Victor Hwang tended to change his mind about what he wanted whenever he saw a new idea elsewhere, the family decided to sell. It still retains a share in the property, so perhaps Victor will make a comeback – he certainly has the energy and the inspiration. The Hwangs made a fortune from the sale to an Irish developer, replete with the sort of financial backing that looks too good to be true, which is exactly what it turned out to be.

So now the power station’s future is uncertain, despite planning permissions for the Rafael Viñoly residential mega-scheme and the extraordinary levels of development activity across the Nine Elms area between Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges, partly prompted by the impending arrival of a new US embassy.

The decision to extend the underground line to the power station is critical to the success of any future development, but this is do-able and has political backing, not least from Deputy Mayor Edward Lister, former leader of Wandsworth council within whose boundaries the power station lies.

As for the power station itself, nothing is certain. Terry Farrell’s attractive idea of filling it with gardens needs big money, just to maintain the structure. Past ideas include Cedric Price’s ‘Bathat’ project, which supported the chimneys with a Frank Newby structure while demolishing everything else, leaving the ground plane free for indeterminate future uses. Will Alsop proposed dropping a Covent Garden-style development onto the site, since the dimensions are more or less the same.

With the Twentieth Century Society is planning a discussion about the power station in spring, this issue will, as they say, run and run. We need a big idea that does not eschew the commercial, but is attractive enough to justify demolition if that is what is necessary to regenerate this extraordinary site. Personally, I would send for Professor Alsop. It is time his imagination and energy were matched to an appropriate challenge. And his practice is in Battersea.

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