Could Battersea Power Station really be facing demolition?

The plans for the Battersea Power Station redevelopment scheme, with the real thing behind them, in 2014. Image: Getty.

When I was writing Up In Smoke, my book about the history and sad after-life of Battersea Power Station, most people I spoke to seemed confident that London’s most troublesome building site finally had a future. They might not like what was happening – a blandly aggressive, hyper-dense development of luxury flats and retail – but happening it finally was.

But one interviewee, a man with close knowledge of the power station’s unique problems, wasn’t convinced. And with his predictions looking set to come true, this could spell disaster for the power station itself.

In 2013, the Malaysian consortium that own Battersea Power Station sold their first batch of 865 flats off-plan, raising £675m in a matter of days. That suggested they would have no problem shifting the 4,000 or so more units they were planning to build by 2025.

But not everybody was sure that momentum could be maintained. “Selling that volume of residential in a significantly short time frame is a massive challenge – because every time a block completes, it makes the one before it old-fashioned,” I was told in 2014. “If you bought in the first block, you know there’s another 3,000 units to come, and the new one will be a lot more attractive than the one you are in. People on the site will be constantly competing against themselves for price over 10 to 12 years.”

The good old days: the station in use in 1972. Image: Woolnough/Getty.

I recalled that interview earlier this year, as the first reports of problems at Battersea Power Station began to leak out. In March, City AM said that more than 50 flats had seen prices cut by up to 38 per cent as the market cooled for international investors. The suggestion was that investors were now desperately trying to flog flats as the market hit the top, and the number of resales meant prices were being cut – pretty much exactly what my interviewee predicted. This would have repercussions for new builds now going onto the market, reducing the developer’s cash flow – and cash flow is crucial to the success of such a huge project.

In April, the Guardian reported that some flats were being held back from sale as the developers waited for things to pick up. Meanwhile, the Telegraph wrote that expensive three or four bed flats weren’t selling so may be changed into slightly less expensive one or two beds.

This negative press prompted the development’s chief executive Rob Tincknell to step in. Tincknell is an affable, self-assured man who attended his interview for my book wearing Battersea Power Station cufflinks and sent me home with a branded rubber Battersea Power Station brick in a branded Battersea Power Station tote bag. His job in April was to calm nerves, telling Property Week that everything was fine, even if the market was “challenging”.


Tincknell is probably right – at worst, the developers face reduced profits rather than outright wipeout. But at Battersea nothing is certain and still rumours persist about the development.

That’s not helped by a general feeling that the entire Nine Elms regeneration area is at a tipping point. There are 20,000 homes being built here in a series of riverside towers, and developers are no longer finding them quite so easy to sell. Prices are coming down while some developers are trying to attract purchasers by promising to pay their Stamp Duty.

Londoners have grown used to seeing Battersea Power Station’s developers crash and burn, and the colourful story of these failed plans takes up much of my book. So does it matter if the Malaysians go the same way as the English theme park operators, Irish property speculators and Hong Kong dreamers that went before?

Yes, this time it really does. Ironically, despite the huge amount of work that’s taken place on site, the power station has never been in more precarious condition. It lacks a roof and one wall, as it has for decades; but it now also haws only has one chimney (three rotten ones are being replaced, while the one that stands was reconstructed last year). Before the Malaysians arrived, frustrated councillors at Wandsworth had discussed, for the first time, the possibility of demolishing a building that had caused them no end of grief (albeit, grief which was largely ideologically self-inflicted).

The station as it was in December 2015. Image: Getty.

This would be difficult – the building is Grade II listed. But it’s not impossible, given the amount of time and money that has already been spent trying to find a sensible use for a building that was constructed with only one purpose in mind. Wandsworth could argue that it has tried everything, and without the landmark chimneys, delisting would be much easier to attain. A flat riverside site could be redeveloped in no time.

So here’s the conundrum. If you love Battersea Power Station – and, hey, who doesn’t? – then you need this development to succeed. That remains true, even though by its very nature – the glass flats that crowd the building, blocking views – the redevelopment diminishes the building and the reason it is so popular.

It’s a contradiction that some people can’t face. One campaigner who has defended the power station for decades confessed to me that if, the Malaysian development fails, he may actually lobby for demolition as he cannot stand to see the power station so abused. With the first occupants supposedly moving into the flats later this year, the rest of us have to grit our teeth and hope the Malaysians ride out the storm.

“Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station” by Peter Watts is out now from Paradise Road.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.