Architecture is an inescapably visual practice. It frames space, and so frames meanings, memories, and politics.
Donald Trump’s recent comments about the US embassy in Battersea led me to consider what its neighbour, Battersea Power Station, signifies. What comes to mind when one glimpses the upturned table, for years an iconic fragment of London’s cityscape?
Battersea Power Station was built in 1923, and operated as an electricity generator for the best part of 60 years until its decommissioning in 1983. Since then, it has sat empty, too large and risky for any investor to take on and reinvent.
In 2012, however, it was bought by a Malaysian consortium, who planned to turn the shell of the building into a new, luxury mixed-use urban space. The consortium framed its redevelopment as the last chance to save the iconic landmark. In reality, the power station has been the subject of myriad plans (some more outlandish than others) for redevelopment, including an aeronautical museum, rubbish incinerator, theme park, circus, and football ground.
Personally, having grown up about an hour’s train ride south-west of London Waterloo, Battersea Power Station always signified something of a gateway into this big, unknown, exciting city. The landscape slowly built-up as the train travelled through outer London – but once I glimpsed this landmark from the window, I knew I had really arrived.
For some, the power station signifies a proud ode to London’s industrial heritage. But it can also represent a city struggling to fully come to terms with the tectonic shifts in global political economy – shifts in which it has itself played a key role.
London has generally been relatively successful at reinventing itself as production jobs and manufacturing industries have moved overseas. It is globally recognised as one of, if not the, leading node in the networks of service and financial industries. However, Battersea Power Station has remained, as a stark visual reminder of the often rocky urban transition to post-industrialism.
Alternatively, the largest brick building in Europe might signify the triumph of modern architecture and its denial of the ageing effects of time; the cover of one of the most famous rock albums of the 20th century; or even the starting point of David Cameron’s 2010 general election campaign.
Cameron’s choice of the power station was no accident: illustrated his point about Labour’s handling of the economy during the financial crisis of 2008. It is also significant that BPS’ redevelopment was sanctioned under Cameron’s coalition government, and Boris Johnson’s mayoral leadership – the latter of which boasts such other great architectural successes as the financially burdensome ArcelorMitall Orbit, the not-so-popular-with-commuters Emirates airline, and the mothballed garden bridge.
Battersea Power Station from the railway, 2013. Image: Getty.
Since the redevelopment of the Power station has begun, my train journeys to and from home now signify something else, which is hard to disassociate from broader changes in the capital itself. Now, the Power Station has been transformed into a luxury landscape of expensive real-estate and global brands, aimed at tenants who see themselves as ‘luxury adventurers’. One of its high-profile tenants, Bear Grylls, certainly seems to fit this bill.
Its transformation plays into a much larger narrative – certainly not limited to London – in which the industrial built environment is redeveloped, repacked, and signified along the lines of culture and finance. Such transformations perfectly encapsulate the intersections of architecture, culture, and urban political economy in the post-industrial metropolis.
Battersea Power Station now lies at the heart of an extensive redevelopment of the South Bank, stretching from Waterloo through Vauxhall, Nine Elms, and Battersea. To put this redevelopment in context, it has costed more than the entire London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, which have radically transformed a previously industrial pocket of the East End.
The power station now finds itself surrounded by a healthy dose of ‘starchitecture’ from the likes of Foster and Gehry. Over 4,000 homes are planned, as well as shops, restaurants, cinemas, a hotel, and concert venue.
Originally, the site was promised to provide 636 ‘affordable homes’ - far less than the usual 40 per cent demanded by Wandsworth council. The standard terms were waived, because of the developers’ contribution to the Northern Line extension – but the number has since, predictably, been reduced to just 386 affordable homes, of which zero actually lie within the shell of the old power station. (The developer cites technical difficulties.) Does this really come as a surprise to anyone slightly in-tune with London’s stratospherically skewed housing market?
For sale, 2015. Image: Getty.
Taking a step back, the Battersea project can be understood as a recycling of modernity. What once played a central role in London’s productive capacity is now entirely defined by consumption. Its reinvention harks back to – even glamorises – an industrial past from which it seems increasingly disconnected. The building’s iconic chimneys were pulled down and replaced with copies, that are able to ferry visitors up to the top and offer them panoramic views over the city. These four monumentalised simulacra chime with the building’s past only superficially, paying little attention to the complex local histories in which they were produced and embedded.
These traces of iconic heritage enable developers to circumvent the need to conjure up any iconic architectural form. They have been able to commodify nostalgia. Here, we might turn to architectural theorist Anthony Vidler, who sees a defining aspect of postmodern architecture as the consumption of cultural heritage, which utilises traces of history to recreate the past as an artificial historical imagination, that is more easily sold to consumers – or in this case, ‘luxury adventurers’.
Once completed, it is easy to see the Power Station becoming overwhelmingly aimed at upper classes, who can seal themselves off in the comfort of one of London’s most secure landscapes (thanks largely to the New US Embassy). However, it has recently faced issues of apartments being held back from the market, and struggles in selling larger properties, as the bottom has fallen out of London’s luxury property market.
Such a large investment in a disused building is also not short of significance in a city still recovering from the tragedy of Grenfell fire. There are glaring inconsistencies in a city that is able to invest so much capital into saving an ‘iconic’ yet disused landmark and turning it into a luxury consumption pad, while other buildings are left to burn through lack of simple upkeep and their surviving victims remain without permanent homes.
The case of Battersea Power Station also raises broader questions about how cities come to terms with their post-industrial landscapes. Plans had been drawn up for the power station to turn it into a managed ruin-cum-public park that would stay truer to its history. This certainly has whiffs of New York’s High Line, which is generally considered to be a successful reinvention of unused industrial infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, this plan was usurped by Malaysian consortium’s plans.
All in all, and for the first time in my life, I find myself agreeing with Donald Trump. I share his concerns about the Battersea development, albeit for different reasons. The Battersea Power Station still signifies somewhat of a gateway on my train journeys, yet its significance has changed. It is increasingly emblematic of a city with skewed priorities. Its status as a Grade II listed building obviously posed certain challenges – but surely there must be a more socially inclusive way to reinvent it that pays more serious attention to its heritage than its current superficial links to a bygone era.
During the industrial revolution, before the environmental contradictions of rampant industrial capitalism became apparent, the sight of smoke billowing from factory chimneys signified societal progress and the triumph of modernity. This begs the question: how long before we recognise the wider social implications of what this factory represents in its reinvented form?
Benedict Vigers is a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge, currently studying an MPhil in architecture & urban studies.