What does Battersea Power Station signify?

Old and new: a model of the redevelopment on show near the original Battersea Power Station. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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