The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Battersea Power Station – A casework perspective

As Gavin has said in his article in the Autumn C20 magazine, the battle to preserve Battersea Power Station (BPS) has been one of the Society’s longest running concerns. Whilst the building itself has steadily declined and inched ever closer to ruin, the level of both conservation activity around it and public interest over its possible futures has only grown.

With the Society now involved in a fresh round of consultation regarding a new scheme of intense development on the site it is hugely valuable to look back at the Society’s involvement. Many view the current Treasury Holdings’ scheme as the building’s last chance at resurrection, but that should not mean that the Society should adopt an ‘anything goes’ policy. Far from it, there is still a substantial amount of brick, stone, concrete, chimney and decorative interior to fight for.

Our fight goes back a long way, to 1980, when the building was given Grade II status by the then Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine. Three years later, Turbine Hall B, produced its last jolts of electricity, bringing the final curtain down on 40 years of service from the site. Ever since, numerous attempts have been made to invigorate the building—starting, as Gavin has said, with John Broome. In 1990, planning permission was granted for a new scheme for a mixed development of shops, offices and a large hotel, to which the Society, along with many other groups and English Heritage, objected.

The next three years saw no further work. In 1993, Parkview International, a Hong Kong based development company bought the site for £10 million—three years later, their project plan, drawn up by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, was finally tabled. The Society wrote to Parkview on a number of occasions at this point, asking to see the proposals but no application was forthcoming until the millennium. On 3rd August that year, the Society saw what it assumed to be, the first ‘serious’ proposal for the station since Broome’s in 1986. Parkview’s plan, simply called ‘The Power Station’, proposed a shopping mall, restaurants and a cinema. Society Caseworker Joanna Haire, wrote a long letter in 2000, backing the principle of regeneration, but calling for a more substantial replacement for the west wall than the architects were proposing. Their plan had the west wall as a completely transparent curtain of glass which the Society thought was directly at odds with the ‘brick box’ nature of the building—it would also have exposed the steel support structures to the outside, something Joanna argued, that was “at odds with the important planar quality of the building”. The Society stopped short, however, of calling for the brick wall to be reinstated—sensibly acknowledging, as we often do, that adaptation requires sensitive changes—even on a building of Battersea’ s scale. We argued instead for a more creative solution that referenced the earlier wall. We also fought hard at this point for the Turbine Halls and their control rooms, both of which are indicative of the decades in which they were constructed. Escalators and lifts were a particular concern and we pushed for minimum intervention in Turbine Hall A in particular.

In 2001, the final parts of the detailed planning consent needed to begin work were given by Wandsworth. The Society, along with the by now extremely active and effective Battersea Power Station Community Group continued to contest various elements of the scheme. Four more years passed by, with the entire conservation lobby hopeful, but losing faith in Parkview. As if to underline that crisis of trust, the company announced in 2005, that the iconic chimneys themselves would have to be demolished and replaced like-for-like. Unfortunately, English Heritage and Wandsworth agreed with Parkview—forcing C20 to take the lead on the case. Our Director, Catherine Croft and expert in concrete construction herself, asked the World Monuments Fund and the Community Group to get behind the Society in commissioning a new desktop investigation of all the research that had been done on the chimneys. A group of experts, led by Stuart Tappin found that the case for their demolition was not proven. The visible cracks in the concrete, the group advised, were originally caused by the initial shrinkage of the concrete during construction. They were also unconvinced by some of the reasons put forward to support the claim that it was not feasible to carry out repairs to the concrete. The Society has stuck by this evaluation ever since, pushing constantly for the owners to do further investigative work to prove once and for all whether they can be successfully renovated. If they could, it would be a major conservation achievement.

It all became academic in November 2006 anyway, when it was announced that Real Estate Opportunities (REO) had purchased the power station and the surrounding land for £400 million. The Parkview plan was dropped and Rafael Vinoly was asked by REO to provide a master plan for the site. For the entire conservation lobby, it was back to square one. The following year, the Society, along with SAVE, The Battersea Power Station Community Group and many others, successfully lobbied EH to upgrade the building. It was listed II* on 4 October 2007.

Now, three years later, very little work has taken place and Treasury Holdings, who lead the REO consortium has already been through one round of proposals, only to see them come unstuck. The huge ‘eco-tower’, which I discussed in Press is More (C20 magazine, Autumn 2008) has already been scrapped, to be replaced by a more realistic, if no more attractive plan. The Society remains firmly against the demolition and replacement of the chimneys unless there is further research to prove it necessary. We remain concerned too about any new build on the structure itself—proposed new flats, which run along the east and west walls between the chimneys, would interfere with the proportions of the building and upset the relationship between the building and the chimneys. The Society continues then, to fight for a building that everybody loves.

Jon Wright