Run of the Mill

In the late 1980s, I worked in a building close to Battersea Power Station. It offered clear views of Scott and Halliday’s industrial cathedral which was by then a dark, disintegrating symbol of past technologies and pre-war grandeur. In comparison, the brash, post-modern Marco Polo House of my employer sparkled in the sunlight and hummed with activity. Within its grey and white striped walls were British Satellite Broadcasting’s engineering hubs, studios and production offices, alive with a new generation’s hopes and dreams. Innovations in media communication and content suited the building’s own aspirations with its glassy atrium, lift pods and hyper-modern interiors. The broadcaster lasted less than nine months. Despite its excellent condition, Marco Polo was razed and replaced by luxury flats. If a power station could smirk, it would have.

During the decades since the decommissioning of Battersea Power Station, Wandsworth Council were presented with multiple ideas for the structure’s renaissance. Of course, in the end it was never going to be a theme park, museum or sports academy because only SHOPS could bring in sufficient dosh for such a development to survive. And not just any old shops (locals seeking a drycleaner, cobbler, barber or chemist need to be sensible and look less locally) but the indulgent brands of international airports with their raw 5am gleam. The final result was this week’s relaunch of an energy pioneer as yet another retail servant.

Best to look on the bright side. Whenever a new Weatherspoons emerges from a charming old theatre, cinema or seaside pavilion the most common response is ‘Better than demolition though, innit?’. But it wasn’t the power station’s rebirth that caught my eye in the recent publicity images. It was the building’s contrast with the neighbouring sprawl of new apartments positioned like industrial slag heaps around a mine. In drone’s-eye photos, the power station’s distinctive shape outclasses the adjacent bland towers with their tesselated cells, each holding a worker bee’s soul. Nothing comes anywhere near its Deco exuberance and yet, it too was built to fulfil a simple, utilitarian function.

No-one needs Art Deco in their life. Property searches by young workers are most likely to triangulate transport links, council tax and nurseries. The algorithms don’t include beauty. But it’s fascinating to read that the public gaze was once a key consideration in progressing such a vital industry. Scott’s contribution became a major factor in winning over Battersea’s dissenters who eventually capitulated to his lush plans for wrought iron, parquet and Italian marble. Today’s SW8 medley of residential stacks is formulaic; tonally identical to that of other principal cities. Each individual complex fails to correspond creatively with the next to form any real sense of either urban planning or human diversity. Only the repeat pattern of laundry, bicycles, buggies and deckchairs on balconies creates a shared visual language as this vast housing project stretches out, dull and unimaginative, from the river.

City councils require income and growth. Rising populations require homes. Do the solutions always have to be so ugly? Are councillors never shamed by the visual pollution of developer cack arising from their calculations to provide the cheapest builds, smallest floorplans, lowest ceilings, shortest leases and highest service charges possible? This inelegant clump of blocks is as mean-spirited as a Soviet estate. Does anyone out there developing at this scale care at all about impact or legacy? The iconic chimneys of Battersea Power Station didn’t need to be fluted like Doric columns but their creators decided the world would be a better place if they were.