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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.