Ideas beyond the nuclear station
We should also consider the oil platforms and the superstores
Wednesday 12 April 1995
By the end of this year, the nuclear fuel that once drove the twin steam turbines of the Trawsfynydd power station, in the heart of Snowdonia, will have been removed. By the end of 1997 the turbine hall will have been demolished. At the turn of the century, what remains of this radioactive structure will be sheathed in a brace of 100ft high towers of unfathomable concrete. Only in the year 2136 will these be demolished and the 2,000-acre site be declared fit for human habitation and ovine grazing.
"Power to Change" is a highly-charged and thought-provoking exhibition currently on show at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, based on a series of TV documentaries made by DavidBarrie for BBC Wales last year. It explains the approach taken by four firms of imaginative architects from Britain, the United States and Japan in response to a brief calling for ideas on what on earth should be done with the worrysome remains of Trawsfynydd power station over the next 141 years before its final dissolution. The exhibition continues at the Museum of Wales, Cardiff, later in the spring.
For anyone concerned with the environment, and in particular, the £18bn question (the price we will have to pay) of what we are going to do with a generation of life-expired, gas-cooled nuclear power stations built in the Sixties, "Power to Change" is more than a must, or even a necessity: it is a responsibility. By 2010, more than 50,000 megawatts of current nuclear plant (the equivalent of 86 Trawsfynydds) will be made redundant in Britain. Each power station will cost something like £600m to "decommission" and about 135 years to lose its lethal potency. We need to make some decisions pretty soon about how we are going to meet this challenge. The key questions "Power to Change" asks are: to what use can we put these spent Vulcans and what can we do to integrate them into tainted landscapes?
Trawsfynydd is sited in one of the most sublime, yet raddled landscapes in Britain. Some people - very few - might thrill to its heroic design, given shape by Basil Spence (1907-76), bearded and bow-tied architect of Coventry cathedral. If architects can help find a solution to redeeming the architecture and setting of Trawsfynydd, a cathedral of A-bomb power, then we might be on the road to solving a national issue of what you might call mega-importance.
In a brief formalised by the architect David Rock, the four teams were asked to consider the following questions: "What could or should Trawsfynydd become? Can the site of the old power station inaugurate or sustain a new age of activity? If we were to travel down the A470 in 60 years' time, what could or should we see? Above all, how might such a technological intervention in the landscape be reintegrated into the social, economic and natural environment?"
This, in brief, is how they answered. Arup Associates (working with the engineers Ove Arup & Partners and the Lighting Design Partnership) suggested entombing the killer carcasses in three hills made of industrial waste taken from the slate-tips that form the austere backdrop to the nearby town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which has lived in the shadow of the power station since it was opened in 1965. Over the slates, Arups would plant grass, moss and rings of trees; within a remarkably short time, the nuclear threat below would disappear and nature allowed to take over.
Tunnels bored into the hills would allow access to the redundant power station to nuclear experts as well as to the public, who - in tolerably safe conditions - would learn to understand the true nature, and future, of nuclear power in Britain. Arups also recommends a new hotel on the lakeside to encourage conventional Snowdonian tourist activities: hiking, climbing, pony-trekking and sheep-spotting.
The American architects SITE (Sculpture into the Environment), fronted by James Wines and best known for its deliciously irreverent "crumbling" facade of the Best supermarket, Houston, Texas, plans a symbol of "nature's revenge": the remnants of Basil Spence's structure would be covered in mossy trellises, while a new building spiralling like a snail's shell into a hillside across the lake would serve as a centre explaining the ways in which nuclear power stations can be dismantled. This would be, says SITE, a "living museum", a repository of ever-expanding, but never explosive, knowledge concerning nuclear energy.
Alsop & Strmer (architects of the recently completed £100m "Grand Bleu", or Hotel du Dpartement, Marseilles) would, with a gang of artists and poets, transform Trawsfynydd into a "model nuclear decommissioning factory", screened by stupendous walls,treated as one gigantic artwork in the Gwynedd landscape. A branch of the Science Museum would be built here.
Ushida-Findlay, an Anglo-Japanese husband-and-wife team who think Spence's buildings "beautiful", would, instead of being apologetic, wrap the ruins prominently in what looks like a pair of voluminous hi-tech pyjamas designed for the Michelin Man.
These ideas, says David Barrie, can be taken up or trashed, but they represent an imaginative response to a problem that has, to date, been swept uncomfortably under the national carpet. More importantly, these suggestions have been put to the local community as a point of discussion, both through presentations and a debate in the canteen and turbine hall at Trawsfynydd and, to a wider public, through the medium of BBC Wales.
They are not considered unrealistic by the nuclear and other authorities: "Power for Change" has the support of Nuclear Electric plc, as well as the Development Board for Rural Wales, the Training and Enterprise Council for North West Wales, the BuildingsExperiences Trust (which has made the Trawsfynydd challenge a project for schoolchildren), the RIBA and the Museum of Wales. If ever there was a case of avant-garde architecture working in service of every jack-one-of-us, "Power to Change" is it.
Basil Spence wondered (as with all his buildings, and taking his cue from Sir John Soane) how Trawsfynydd would look as a ruin in years to come. It is a question that has haunted local people, not least because the nuclear power station (these three words mouthed always in English in this Welsh-speaking area as if to emphasise the alien nature of the beast) provided the mainstay of employment in the Blaenau district for close on 30 years. The slate mines - once the core of the local economy - had all but closed by 1900, although the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway, which once carried the slates down the mountainsides to the coast at Porthmadog, still chuffs its way profitably up and down, symbol of Snowdonia's role as one enormous leisure resort. Local people would like to know not only whether Trawsfynydd can be made safe, but also if and how jobs can be regenerated among the sheep, water and radiant hills.
The rest of us, meanwhile, cannot afford to be complacent. Trawsfynydd is a global issue. Yet, while we gauge our power to change such demonic devices into heavenly sites, we might also take time to consider what we are going to do with the 150 or so North Sea Oil platforms about to become redundant (out of sight, out of mind?), or the wretched superstores that we have allowed to rape our countryside and market towns over the past 15 years; these, like nuclear power stations, have a very limited shelf-life. What happens to them when we decide to go "telly-shopping" instead of driving out on fast new roads to load up on more gaseous calories than are good for us in fancy sheds decorated by servile architects?
"Power to Change" is, quite simply, one of the most important architectural exhibitions of our times. Go and see it. Go and walk among the sheep in Snowdonia. Then, take the Ffestiniog Railway down to Portmeirion (alight, by the engine shed at Boston Lodge and climb up over the track through the woods to get there) and consider what you would do while holing up in Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis's glorious architectural fantasia, the gentlest and most loveable of all intrusions by an architect into a pre-nuclear Welsh landscape.
Power to Change, at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 29 April, entrance free, 0171-580 5533.
National Museum of Wales, Cathay's Park, Cardiff. 15 May to 12 June, 01222 397951.
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