A dream that lies derelict

Battersea Power Station is the great white elephant gracing London's skyline, a stunning piece of architecture that has gone unused for 20 years. Who will breathe life back into it, and how? Jay Merrick reports
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Every day, hundreds of trains trundle past it and, for vast numbers of commuters from Brighton and Littlehampton, it is an equivocal sight. For many, as they tap out text messages, or read about yet another cancer vaccine, or wonder why they are denied promotion, Europe's largest brick building is a looming irrelevance, a lumpen blot on the cityscape. Others, though, will gaze at it and be needled by another thought - that London's incredible hulk stands as a kind of accusation.

Today, Battersea Power Station, aka the Temple of Power, will be added to the World Monuments Fund's 2004 watch-list of the world's 100 most endangered sites. The listing, prompted by a request from the Battersea Power Station Community Group, is combative. According to Colin Amery, the UK director of the WMF, "it brings the spotlight to a site that has been ignored for 20 years".

Except that it hasn't. And that's the problem. The power station - which Amery insists is as architecturally important as St Paul's cathedral - closed down in 1983, and when Sir David Roche's development consortium promptly bought it from the electricity board for £1.5m, hopes were high. When John Broome, the owner of Alton Towers, took the project over soon after, they rose even higher. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, declared Broome to be "a man of vision". She was the star attraction at the opening ceremony, emerging from a helicopter in a monogrammed hard hat to declare that his theme park-and-shopping scheme was "a wonderful example of private enterprise and local government working hand in hand".

It was the reverse. Broome's yowsa-yowsa medicine show was pure hyperbole. He would raise £35m, create 4,000 new jobs, and two million punters would flood to the site every year to delight in an American-style experience. But the sums were wrong, and so was the commercial-leisure "offer". Then, and now, the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station has proved to be beyond money men and council planners alike. It remains a striking failure of imagination and nerve that prefigured the commercial and cultural failures of so many big-money Lottery-funded projects. Twenty years before the Greenwich fiasco, the Dome and Dumber Syndrome had already kicked in.

It is possible that Battersea Power Station may prove a terminal case; that within another decade, it will have been fenced off and left to itself, like an obdurate molar that won't quite let go. Too expensive to knock down, too complicated to reinvent, it could stand as a new kind of icon - a postmodern Piranesian ruin, a reminder that all glory is fleeting, its brickwork still carrying the electromagnetic traces of the 400,000 megawatts that once seethed from its turbines.

What else might the bricks harbour? Perhaps the feral echoes of The Prodigy's gig there, three days before Christmas in 1997, when the turbine halls were packed with raving supplicants to the band's anthems, "Smack My Bitch Up" and "Firestarter". And do those walls also retain a vestige of the assiduous, academic tread of Nikolaus Pevsner's well-worn shoes? The greatest chronicler of British architecture - he examined everything from barns to cathedrals over decades - noted dryly that the power station was one of the first examples of "frankly contemporary industrial architecture".

In fact, the sheer scale of the building - which, industrially, can only be compared with the vast melting-shops and steel mills in the North - makes it almost unique; as did the extraordinarily elaborate original interior: giant pilasters faced in faience tiles, marble-lined walls and bronze doors with sculptured panels, designed by J Theo Halliday; and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's powerfully detailed exterior, an object-lesson in how to give a degree of grace and scale to a building that has often been described as an upturned table, or a dead pig on its back. The elaborate parapet and fluted chimneys - Gilbert Scott originally wanted them to be square in section, as at his Bankside power station - give brilliant definition to the building's outline.

But lack of definition, exacerbated by the distorting mirage of potentially huge redevelopment profits, continues to threaten the building's future. Since buying the site, Parkview International, via the offshore company Halcyon Estates, has struggled to deliver a decisively detailed scheme for the 15-hectare site - one of the biggest brownfield expanses in Europe - that needs £500m to fuel the makeover. High-profile investors - the British Airports Authority, Gordon Group, Lord Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group - have come and gone. Parkview, with stakes in South China Sea oil and gas, shipping, and leisure complexes, remains the lead investor.

Money is one thing, design quite another. The experience of the architects John Outram Associates gives some idea of the developer-designer impasse that can surface in high-risk projects. In 1997, Outram was asked to design a 350-bed hotel on the western side of the power station - and deliver a detailed critique to Arup Associates' masterplan for the site. Parkview International, headed by the Taiwanese Hwang brothers, were "generally favourable", recalled John Outram, but were "unwilling to give English Heritage reassurance that the architect would be put in a position of effective site-designer, rather than merely a sidelined consultant.

"In addition, Parkview International's Las Vegas-based partners introduced an architecturally unqualified illustrator-designer - a very successful creator of huge hotels and so on - that they had used extensively in Vegas. They required John Outram Associates to accept a contract that allowed the Vegas designer to alter JOA's design." Exit John Outram.

Nothing new there. Among the nine architectural practices who came, saw and developed migraines since 1983 are some major players, including Fitzroy Robinson & Partners and MacCormac, Jamieson Prichard. Their average involvement time: 18 months. Today, the masterplan is in the hands of the redoubtable Sir Philip Dowson - "Mr Charm," murmured a well-known architectural commentator, acidly - and the lead architect for the main structure is Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the super-modernist creator of bubblewrapped architectural showstoppers such as the Eden Project and Waterloo's Eurostar terminal.

English Heritage describes the current offering as the most realistic to date - but that doesn't mean that it's ultimately buildable. The Hwangs want the site to accommodate two theatres, two hotels, more than 600 apartments, offices, and compartmentalise the turbine halls into shops, restaurants and cafés.

But, in a move that has plainly irritated Wandsworth Borough Council, the Battersea Power Station Community Group has invoked a judicial review of the planning-permission extensions granted to Parkview last year. The group says that Wandsworth did not consult fully before allowing the permissions to run on. And their spokesman, Keith Garner, said: "I think Parkview International are speculators. I don't think they have a serious interest in the redevelopment of this site. The pattern we see is that they're buying up adjacent land - assembling a large development package that I think they will sell on."

The community group is developing its own scheme, which would contain a significant tranche of low-cost housing - the kind that London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, wants on the site but can do nothing about because the latest planning permission was granted before he took office. Meanwhile, Parkview's communications director, Ian Rumgay, is adamant that the scheme will go ahead: "We're preparing for a major submission to English Heritage. We had definitive planning permission in 2001."

Alan Powers, a widely respected architectural historian, describes Battersea Power Station as unique: "The first of its kind, it's fantastic. People have got to get it together to sort it out. It's a condemnation of the ineptness of our planning system. Surely, now, the pieces should be put together. The schemes have got better - but that probably means that it doesn't stack up, financially. If it were in Wales, they would have demolished it ages ago. They fund demolitions with public money."

Can this dead pig of a building at the southern end of Chelsea Bridge be made to fly? It is, says Powers, a question of attitude and imagination. But whose, exactly, and to what effect? "It's interestingly weird as an architectural form," he muses, "a wonderful mystery building. And the myth grows."

The same myth that commuters see from their Victoria-bound trains, and from buses and cars trundling along Chelsea Embankment; the myth that may mutate into a massive mall, leisure and property complex that will either demand to be looked at, or demand to be damned.

The best each-way bet on the outcome? A deal in which the Hwangs divvy up the necessary rent-slabs and other accommodation, allowing their architects - and particularly Grimshaw - to produce Son of Icon. And the Government covering some of the cost of any new infrastructure.

In the meantime, we must remember that buildings like this matter. Architectural icons are culturally significant, particularly if they're as "other" as Battersea Power Station. They remind us of difference, and of aspirations that don't toe the line. They are antidotes to the mundane. They are, whether beautiful or crude, items of hope. However hard it is to do so, we must try to think of Battersea Power Station in the same way as the World Monuments Fund thinks of Shackleton's Hut in Antarctica, the Great Wall of China, and the Nineveh and Nimrud palaces in Iraq. If we don't, and the Government doesn't, we must accept the ghost of Piranesi's sardonic smile.

History of Battersea Power Station

* 1927 The London Power Company proposes a power station on the south bank of the Thames. There are questions in Parliament about pollution and its potential effect on the city's parks and paintings in the Tate. But Parliament wants larger, public power stations, and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge, the red telephone box) oversees the creation of Britain's first "super station".

* 1929-35 Western half is built. The designers are two engineers, Dr S L Pearce and H N Allot, with architect J Theo Halliday responsible for the exterior brickwork and internal details. Gilbert Scott is responsible for key details.

* 1944-55 Second half finished.

* 1975 'A' station's Art Deco control room is closed after 42 years' operation.

* 1978 Rumours of impending closure of 'B' station spark first "Save Battersea" campaigns.

* 1980 Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, confers a Grade II listing.

* 1983 Total shutdown. The Electricity Board stages a competition to redevelop the site. Ten schemes are submitted to a panel chaired by Sir Hugh Casson. A consortium led by Sir David Roche, and including John "Alton Towers" Broome, gets the nod.

* 1986 Tory-controlled Wandsworth council gives the consortium planning go-ahead.

* 1988 Development ceases. The power station is now without a roof and weather-damaged internally.

* 1993 Receivers pass the development to Parkview International, operated by the Hong Kong-based Hwang brothers.

* 1996 Redevelopment package is produced and the first of several permutations of architects and financiers attempt to deliver a viable rebirth.

* 2002 Key planning permissions are extended until 2005. Battersea Power Station Community Group appeals, arguing that Wandsworth council did not consult interested parties before allowing the extension.