Sunday, April 16, 2023


Coach trips to London usually involve my crossing the River Thames at Chelsea Bridge, as the chimneys of Battersea Power Station poke above expensive new apartment complexes. After ten years of redevelopment, and nearly forty years after its last coal and oil-powered turbine was silenced, Battersea Power Station opened to the public in October 2022 as a mixed-use development: apartments, offices, restaurants, an observation tower on one of the chimneys, and Britain’s newest shopping mall. Six months later, I travelled the Underground’s extension to the Northern Line to visit the station, and was more overwhelmed than I expected.

The Art Deco exterior of Battersea Power Station was famously designed in the 1930s by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, he of the red phone box, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, and the later Bankside Power Station on the South Bank of the Thames. Just as American skyscrapers were adding adornments, stainless steel and coloured bricks, the power station’s adornments appear to have been cut into its surface, like the entire station had been carved from a block of red bricks. 

Inside, the two phases of construction are very apparent: the pre-war Turbine Hall A continues the carved lines, iron girders, marble and glass roof, while the post-war Turbine Hall B is instead uses tiles, stainless steel and fluorescent light. In both halls, the conversion to shopping units has been made within the confines of the existing structure, with only the gangways and escalators being obvious additions. The buildings outside and between the halls required further access I did not have or need when I visited – my rucksack was too big to visit the observation deck – but I expect the same care has been followed. I did want an excuse to visit the Control Room B bar, its walls festooned with equipment and dials, but it was 10.30am.

Battersea Power Station has been a listed building since 1980, when it was still in operation, but its vastness played against it – stripped of its roof during an aborted attempt to convert it into a theme park in the 1980s, when owned by the operator of Alton Towers, it was considered to be at risk in the 2000s, before being put up for sale again in 2012, and converted to the various uses for which it was given planning permission back in 1990. Meanwhile, Bankside Power Station remains an unlisted building, even being issued a certificate in 1993 to prevent it from being listed, but its sale to the Tate Gallery the following year saved it by having an immediate plan for reuse.

The forty-two-acre site of Battersea Power Station is owned by a group of Malaysian investors who are building further apartment buildings around it. Standing by the power station itself, that encasement may feel more like protection – just as Marcopolo House, a postmodern office building by Chelsea Bridge, was razed to the ground for apartments, those apartments will one day be razed too, but the power station will remain preserved for the nation. It is early days for whether these buildings form a community, but they could – if their inhabitants don’t shop and eat there, I’m sure one of them has a good idea for repurposing the turbine halls.

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