23 Sep 2013

The End of an Era: Battersea Power Station (Open House)

As some of you may know, I have a passion for Battersea Power Station. I'd even go so far as to say that it's my favourite building in London (and I love most of the architecture in London, so there's a lot of competition). I walked past it every day on my way to work for a while, a journey I've just restarted (or at least I would if I could get up early enough). Over the years various development plans have been proposed, approved, and work even started, before inevitably failing due to a lack of money. The enormity of any redevelopment work is unimaginable. Just thinking that each chimney has to be taken down brick by brick and then rebuilt to the same specification makes me feel tired!

But finally a Malaysian company has pulled it off. The plan is similar to the others - build a bunch of high-end residential apartment buildings around it on the massive site, rebuild the towers, and develop the main building into a massive shopping mall/entertainment centre. The view (that I currently cherish) from the other side of the river will be wiped out, with the only real view of the power station remaining being directly opposite - head on. From the side it will be hidden by the snakey glass flats, with just the towers peaking out above.

Work on Phase 1 (the first residential block between the power station and the railway line) begins next month. The whole thing is due to be completed by 2019, including a new tube station (an extension of the Northern Line).

And so I read in the Evening Standard a couple of weeks ago that there was an open house this weekend, where Joe Public could actually go inside - something I've dreamt of doing, although never actually made an effort of finding out if it was possible, for years. I almost forgot about it until I found the piece of paper I'd ripped out to remind myself. Saturday was a no-no - I needed a long lie-in to recover from my first full week of day-job work in 20 months, and then had to clean and tidy the flat in preparation for dinner guests. On Sunday morning I almost forgot about it too - lying in again until 10am. I finally got up and decided that I should probably give it a go. I looked on Twitter to see if there were any reports of how it went the previous day and was rather disheartened to read about queues of 5 hours to get in, chaos within those queues, police being called, and so on. The latest tweets gave estimates of the queueing time of between 2 hours and 5 hours. I decided to give it a go anyway - I'd kick myself to miss this opportunity. Even if I decided not to queue, it was a mild day and the dog would get a walk in Battersea Park.

I arrived at the end of the queue, almost at Albert Bridge, at 11.30am and joined the end of it. Things were moving quickly and the stewards (volunteers) said that the queuing time should be about 3 and a half hours and that we'd definitely get in. That didn't sound great, but I was optimistic, as it was moving quickly, and within about 15 minutes we'd almost reached the golden buddha and another steward said it was about 2-2.5 hours. Things were looking up. The atmosphere was nice, and I chatted to two girls behind me who also decided to give it a go. There was no chaos, no riots, no police necessary.

At 1.10pm we made it under the railway bridge and into the "Pop-up Park" - a grassy area with food vans and some pretty widlflowers. By 1.20pm we reached the end of the last queue and the route then took us through a tunnel and into a massive grey tent, which sadly covered a large portion of the floor space inside the building. I thought back to the The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, a rather odd film, (Heath Ledger's Last), which was filmed inside Battersea Power Station, and remembered how huge and wild it had seemed. I didn't really get that impression now, as I filed out with dozens of others to take snaps of the southern two towers and bits and pieces of the side structure. At each side of the paddock in which we were kept there was a view of a north tower, and lots of pigeon-topped bits of jagged steel frame. It was still impressive, just not quite the open, massive, wild structure that I knew it really was.

Stewards asked people to take their photos and move on so that more people could visit. I hung around for ages, taking pictures of people taking pictures of the building. A huge array of camera equipment was used - iPhones (very common), a few iPads (just weird!), compacts, many many entry- to mid-range DSLRS, a few pro cameras, and one polaroid camera. Some kind fellow photographer lent me a fish-eye lens with which I took a couple of shots (the grey tent kind of ruined the possibilities). Everyone was captivated by it; everyone wanted to capture a part of it. I picked up a tiny piece of the wall lying as rubble on the ground - a real souvenir to complement the hundreds of photos - and slipped it into my pocket.

There were some great bits of detail - a couple of art deco posters on the western wall, lots of rusty rivets, broken windows, the odd bit of cool graffiti, and more rusty bits.

Eventually I walked to the east to view the turbine hall and out to the south, around the side and back to the front (north) side of the station. I was particularly struck by this sign "CAUTION: DEMOLITION WORK IN PROGRESS" and the "01" phone number - this London dialing code was around until May 1990, so plans for its redevelopment had been going for that long (over 25 years).

I definitely hadn't captured the shots I'd wanted to - I'd have needed more time, fewer people, no tent, a wider angle lens, a tilt and shift lens, some blue sky, a better time of day, etc... Oh well, I was there, I'd made the effort, and I learnt a bit about what's going to happen to the place in the next few years. I'm kind of sad to see it being developed (finally!), but at the same time know that it had to be rescued eventually, and that anyone that put the money in to do so would have to provide a massive commercial venture. Sad but true, we're not going to get another Tate Modern, so a shopping centre and some swanky flats will have to do. And if I win the Euromillions in the meantime, I'm having one of those penthouses...

To read more about the upcoming development - click here.
To see more of my photos of Battersea Power Station - click here.