Friday, 14 May 2010
A not-so-hidden London landmark you can't visit
Powering down the station
London’s Battersea Power Station is one of the capital’s most famous landmarks. Strange then, that very few Londoners have ever been allowed access to the building; stranger still, that on Sunday 2nd May, Battersea’s residents awoke to see 300 figures performing Spiderman impressions down one of the station’s wings.
This was the first charity abseil down this iconic ruin, organised by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), and for those of us brave / foolish enough to take part, it was an amazing opportunity to get a first-hand look at one of London’s most famous no-go zones.
Built between 1929 and 1933, the Power Station was one of the last major pieces of infrastructure to be built within city limits; the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s and 1960s saw them banished to the countryside. Even in the late 20s, the building of the station was controversial. Local residents protested strongly against the ‘eyesore’ and to placate them Sir George Gilbert Scott, a starchitect of the day, was brought in to handle the design.
The human cost of the building was high, with 6 fatalities on site and numerous accidents. Add to this the relatively short lifetime of the building and a run of ill luck with developers since its closure; it is surprising that the ‘curse of Battersea Power Station’ rumours haven’t started yet!
The oddest thing about the power station though is the high esteem in which it is held by most Londoners, despite being an overpowering, functionless wreck. Regardless, it has become a cultural icon, with bands such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd featuring it in films and cover art.
In spite of this great contribution to art, it nearly scuppered one of our greatest institutions - the BBC. On the night of 20th April 1964, the station caught fire, causing a power outage as the broadcaster launched BBC2. The launch was therefore delayed and the channel started life at 11am the next morning. Consequently, its first broadcast was Playschool!
Although in recent years, the site has occasionally been opened for various events, and the Conservative party manifesto launch, it remains one of the most restricted, yet high-visibility sites in London, therefore it was no surprise that when MAG announced their event, it was full almost instantly. I’m lucky enough to have a slightly mad boyfriend who had signed me up before I even knew it was happening, so my place was secure.
On the day, the first thing that struck me was the size of the place. It really is an absolute behemoth of a building. You’d think this would be obvious given it can be seen for miles around; but the scaled-down, far-away version doesn’t really do justice to its awe-inspiring dimensions.
Nowhere is this sense of size more felt than in the abandoned turbine hall. It’s also the space that brings home the decay which has set into Battersea Power Station, some feel almost irrevocably. Tiles are missing from the interior roof, the walls are dripping and structural beams exposed where plaster has ripped away. Entire areas are roped off with dramatic warning signs. In one of these areas are relics of the station’s brief period as an art gallery in the 2000s. It is these relics that give the feel of something lost. Metal life-size statues of various people, including one little girl with her arms outstretched, are eerily reminiscent of the Pompeii bodies and a stark reminder that once, this hall was at the centre of life in London – indeed, the city couldn’t function without it.
Comparing this desolate space to what has been achieved at the Tate Modern (another Sir Giles Gilbert Scott Power Station) with its vibrant, ever-changing turbine hall is to realise what an opportunity has been missed at Battersea. Developers have come and gone, with ideas including retail, housing, a theme park and an urban circus. For various reasons, none have ever come to fruition.
Oddly, inside the signs of age are very few. Some superficial damage to the wall here and there, plus a missing step or two but otherwise, it could have been closed just 16 months, not years. As I went over the edge, I was surprised. I’d expected to feel terrified – even had nightmares about it, but in the event, I loved it and felt safe almost instantly – not just because of the ropes designed to hold an elephant that ensnared my waist, but also because the building itself feels so solid.
There is a popular story in London that when Battersea Power Station was decommissioned, developers swarmed over it, until they realised that its status as a listed building meant they couldn’t do anything. Since no-one wanted responsibility for the building and it couldn’t be pulled down, it was decided to let it fall down instead. They’re still waiting – and on my experience, they’ll be waiting a long time yet!