The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Buildings at risk

West Burton cooling towers, Nottinghamshire

Status: Demolition underway (2024)

West Burton cooling towers, Nottinghamshire – Architects Design Group (1961-67)

West Burton cooling towers, Nottinghamshire – Architects Design Group (1961-67)

Risk: Total demolition

Higher than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, yet with a concrete hyperbolic paraboloid structure often only seven inches thick, cooling towers have had a monolithic presence unlike anything else in the British landscape.  Great ingenuity was taken to integrate them into the surrounding countryside, with Henry Moore advising on their placement at Didcot and Sylvia Crowe writing extensively on the subject in The Landscape of Power (1958).They are C20 icons.

There were originally ten British large-set power stations that started construction in 1960-63, today only three remain. The cooling towers at West Burton A power station are the oldest working examples in the UK and were the recipients of a Civic Trust Award upon completion – the first to be awarded to an English power station. The judges complimented them as “an immense engineering work of great style which, far from detracting from the visual scene, acts as a magnet to the eye from many parts of the Trent Valley”. As the country grapples with an unprecedented energy crisis this winter, Britain’s remaining coal fired power stations have been placed on standby by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy – ready to fire up at short notice, covering demand and ensuring the lights stay on. However this stay of execution is only temporary. The government remains committed to decommissioning all coal fire power stations by 2023-24 and Historic England’s advice to date has been that cooling towers are not distinctive enough to deserve protection. No pre-war examples remain in Britain and a COI (Certificate of Immunity for Listing) has recently been renewed on all post-war examples, clearing the pathway to their future demolition.

While plans for a greener future more focussed on renewable energy are to be welcomed, the loss of these silent sculptural giants should be lamented. In Germany and South Africa, there are practical case studies of redundant towers being repurposed as the centre piece of extreme sports and amusement parks, while the recent Beijing Winter Olympics a set of towers became an unlikely viral hit, as a surreal backdrop to the ski jumping contest. Faced with an entire typology being wiped out, C20 is currently developing proposals for how British examples could also be imaginatively reused.

How to help: Look out for C20’s forthcoming campaign where we explore potential future uses for cooling towers.

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