Mute and majestic, the Battersea Power Station dominates the south bank of the river Thames. Since the 1930s, when the construction process started, it has fuelled British electricity industry and people’s creativity and imagination: appearing here and there, from Hitchcock to the Beatles, from Pink Floyd to Doctor Who, this monument of the coal era in disuse since 1983 is one of the main historical and cultural landmarks of London. Indeed, it is listed Grade II on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. However, its future is uncertain.
Since its birth – when its impact on the environment was questioned – to the current days, the story of the Battersea has always been controversial. The station stopped generating electricity in 1983. Then it has been in disuse for more than 30 years. Bid after bid, many big companies tried to resume it with no success, starting restoring, wrecking and building works which then have been left unfinished. Now it is the time for SP Setia, a Malaysian construction and property development company who owns the site since 2012. The project, according to the BBC, is to demolish and rebuild a large part of the building, including the four chimneys, and to turn the site into 3,500 flats, offices, shops and a park. The works, which are expected to be completed within a 3 year period, will start in October.
In 1983 the BPSCG – Battersea Power Station Community Group – was born, formed by local people to look after the site, preserve it and redevelop it as a space to benefit the local community. These people have been meeting every month in the last 30 years to plan a redevelopment of the site, organise demonstrations and lobby the council as well as other relevant organisations responsible for the safeguard of the Battersea through petitions and correspondence. They also created a no profit company, the Battersea Power Station Company Ltd.
I had the chance to meet the artist Brian Barnes and the architect Keith Garner, who are both directors at the Battersea Power Station Company.
You have been fighting for this cause for many years, since 1983. How has your mood and motivation changed over the years? Do you still have hope?
We are tired, very tired. There is a feeling that the end is approaching for the building. The big issue at the moment is about the chimneys, because the Malaysian Consortium wants to demolish them, and they say they are going to rebuild them. But we know some very smart engineers who looked at the chimneys, the civil engineer Stuart Tappin and the concrete specialist George Ballard. They said the chimneys are solid and can be repaired. After inspection, it has been said that the chimneys could be repaired for 1/10 of the cost needed to demolish and rebuild them. But the new company managed to trick the English Heritage, the Heritage Protection Agency, and obtain permission for a wrecking operation because they say they are going to rebuild them. It is very hard to foresee them demolish and build the chimneys again, because it is a very big engineering operation. But let’s say they will really do that: it would be a waste of resources and the authenticity of the building would get lost.
What is the purpose behind this?
The new owner, exactly as the past ones, is interested in maximising the profit. The way to do that is to knock down the building and sell the land, which is by far the most profitable route. That is the rational thing for them to do. Nothing new. The first foreign owner was from Honk Hong, back in 1993. At that time they were already saying that the chimneys were about to fall down at any moment. They never did, and hundreds of people walked under them, including the previous Prime Minister with his pregnant wife, as well as the Major of London. On the other hand, there is the rest world, who loves the building.
What about your proposal?
We think that the only way to preserve the value of the site would be to nationalise it again or resume it by collecting public, private and charity funding. Then it should be redeveloped into something beneficial to the community. In the 1990s we developed a project called the “People’s Plan”, a mixture of residential, sport, entertainment, arts and commerce facilities to create work opportunities and affordable houses.
What is your relationship with the Battersea? Apart from seeing it as a site that could be involved in something very beneficial for the community socially and economically, is there any particular cultural meaning or significance that you attach to it?
Brian: I took a photograph of the flying pig in the Power Station, on the day the Pink Floyd put it over there, which then ended up in several places including the cover of a Pink Floyd biography book. That is one of my personal links with the Battersea.
Keith: The place is rich in terms of cultural meaning. The owners should do with it something that embraces such richness rather than turn it into flats and shops. The Battersea was all I could see from the window of the flat where I used to live when I was a university student. That is why I decided to write my dissertation on it.
According to The Guardian, 95% of the flats that will be built in the first phase of the current owner’s project has already been sold for £675m, and, according to the BPSCG, most of the buyers are rich investors from East Asia. Indeed, the prices range from £338,000 for a studio to up to £6 million for a top-floor apartment, which is very different from the local people definition of “affordable”.