Battersea Power Station once generated nearly a fifth of London’s power. It must have hummed and clanked almost as much as it does today while its transformation proceeds noisily.
Graphic prints of it are two a penny across the capital, but I’m fond of them because the power station is my near neighbour. I still thrill to glimpse it framed by rows of Victorian semis, especially now that the new chimneys are lit dramatically at night, red crane lights dotted about them like a spiky ruby crown.
Across the world it has celebrity status, thanks to the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. The band’s inflatable pink piggy caused more bother than the protesters’ Trump blimp, becoming untethered and drifting off to Kent, alarming pilots along the way. Morrissey and Elton John played concerts here. The Dark Knight and The King’s Speech used it as a dramatic backdrop.
It might not look quite so rock’n’roll when it’s cleaned up, shiny, new and filled with the very well-off. There was not much good in it languishing on the river crumbling quietly, but it’s a shame that from most angles it lurks behind glass developments.
On a recent visit I was intrigued to discover it’s a building of two halves. ‘A’ Station, the western half, was completed in 1935 and ‘B’ Station, the eastern half, in 1955. Once inside, you can see the difference. A is art deco: detailed, decadent. The interior attracted visitors and, in 1939, the station was voted Britain’s second favourite modern building after Peter Jones on Sloane Square, only three bus stops away. The 1950s front is more functional, its tiling square and white. ‘A’ Station was decommissioned in 1975, followed by ‘B’ Station in 1983, but the stripped-out shell retained a melancholy grandeur.
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), creator of our beloved red telephone boxes, was brought in to make J Theo Halliday’s original exterior design more appealing. He introduced flourishes inspired by Ancient Greece — the chimneys are Doric columns with vertical fluting — while the towers echo New York’s art deco skyscrapers. Scott’s brickwork envelope made from a whopping six million bricks was hailed as a triumph by Architect and Building News.
It’s still one of the biggest brick buildings in Europe and is gaspingly vast up close. The boiler house is so massive, St Paul’s would fit inside with space to spare. Now a road has been constructed around its southern edge, you can peer in at its exposed insides.
The closest I’d got before was at an outdoor showing of Reservoir Dogs on the riverside next door. Three of us sat in a downpour with the whiff of rubbish on the breeze. Things have improved hugely since then. Now you can dine alongside it in glitzy restaurants and admire the chauffeur-driven Bentleys parked up for the evening. The vision for the finished power station is fantastical. There’s going to be a glass lift to funnel visitors up to the top like Roald Dahl’s Great Glass Elevator, the enormous underground coal store will become an energy centre and London’s largest roof gardens, more than a quarter of a mile long, will rival New York’s High Line.
It’s exciting to see it returned to life but a bit of me can’t help feeling sad about that great big powerhouse which no longer serves its purpose.