Battersea's rusting place

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The Independent Online

Battersea Power Station has long been a cherished object for connoisseurs of evocative urban dereliction - if you needed a dab of architectural brutalism in a film, or just an apocalyptic space insulated from the buzz of London, then this was where you came, across the embedded steel tracks of an ancient marshalling yard and past straggling buddleias, to a kind of industrial version of Bolton Abbey, a ruined choir once devoted to the hum of generation. Some of Battersea's charms are too big to miss. Stand inside the shell of the building, as I did with Mike Lowe of Arup Associates this week, and it dawns on you that Tate Modern - that byword for modish immensity - could be dropped in here without scraping the brickwork. The vast central space of Battersea is one of those places where you can get vertigo by looking up, swirls of pigeons briefly obscuring the amazing perspective of those four familiar chimneys, tweaked by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott into an Art Deco classicism.

Battersea Power Station has long been a cherished object for connoisseurs of evocative urban dereliction - if you needed a dab of architectural brutalism in a film, or just an apocalyptic space insulated from the buzz of London, then this was where you came, across the embedded steel tracks of an ancient marshalling yard and past straggling buddleias, to a kind of industrial version of Bolton Abbey, a ruined choir once devoted to the hum of generation. Some of Battersea's charms are too big to miss. Stand inside the shell of the building, as I did with Mike Lowe of Arup Associates this week, and it dawns on you that Tate Modern - that byword for modish immensity - could be dropped in here without scraping the brickwork. The vast central space of Battersea is one of those places where you can get vertigo by looking up, swirls of pigeons briefly obscuring the amazing perspective of those four familiar chimneys, tweaked by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott into an Art Deco classicism.

Other charms are better concealed, though. Up above the West Turbine Hall, across a bracingly exposed walkway through the rusting steel, lies the power station's original control room - a long gallery of travertine, parquet and Art Deco detailing. Along one side it is lined with giant bow windows that look down into the Turbine Hall, and along the other with the standing stones of electrification - giant junction boxes and transformer boards that speak of an age when technological advancement wasn't a matter of miniaturisation and twinkling LEDs, but of galvanised immovability. Beneath their dusty plastic shrouds these carry evocative labels - Exciters, Direct Coupled and Standby - which seem curiously appropriate to the tomb-raiding thrill you get on entering this long abandoned room. One can almost hear the moan of delight from the interior designer who will eventually get to incorporate these relics into a decorative scheme.

In a way Mike Lowe is a Standby Exciter too - obligingly taking time to build castles for me in this long-neglected air. This week Wandsworth Council granted planning permission to Parkview International for a new scheme, ending Battersea's long stretch in development limbo. The control room, he explains, will become a restaurant, its windows looking out into the entrance hall to a vast new entertainment and shopping complex. There will be a circus to go with the cumin foccacia - Cirque du Soleil has agreed to make Battersea its permanent home, once a purpose-built amphitheatre has been created in the enormous central space.

Downstairs, Mr Lowe carefully prises apart a large model of Nicholas Grimshaw's design for the new scheme - an architectural Fabergé egg which opens up to reveal an interior lively with modelled bustle. The roof is to be a frozen ripple of glass and the west wall a vast transparent bulwark - letting light into an interior packed with shops and restaurants and cinemas. This last detail will raise a little twinge in anyone who's admired Battersea at sunset from the railway line that runs alongside - when the light bouncing off those red bricks (80 million in all) often creates a cubist version of Ayers Rock - but it's difficult to quell the surge of excitement that architectural models are designed to generate in those who look at them - whether they are potential investors or sceptical councillors.

At the moment Battersea is sublime - with its torn swags of insulation draped behind a lattice of rusting steel, and its melancholy vacancy. However thoughtful the design, that sublimity can't possibly survive, except in much diminished form. Profit abhors a vacuum, and this is a stupendous one. One can just hope that at least some of the £500m the developers estimate will be needed to complete the project will be earmarked for unproductive emptiness. It might make the accountants sweat but if anything is in short supply in London, it's that.

The hazards of the artist's life are fairly predictable - cirrhosis of the liver, melancholy, the occasional bout of screaming paranoia. They do not usually include explosions of incandescent rock or hypothermia - but then Andy Goldsworthy's palette is an unusual one; essentially the land around him. He numbers among that small group of sculptors who intervene in a landscape to leave a trace behind them - quite often a perishable trace which is only preserved for the viewer by photography. His works, for example, include frost silhouettes - elongated shapes of rime briefly protected from early morning sunshine by the artist's own shadow - and dust throws, in which he seizes a handful of the local earth and hurls it into the air. At other times he rearranges the landscape to reveal just how startlingly brilliant nature's pigments can be - an ordinary boulder coated in wet red maple leaves becomes - for as long as the leaves adhere - a supernatural object created by entirely natural means.

Goldsworthy is something of a country mouse, for obvious reasons. But he recently made a rare foray into the city, installing several giant snowballs in London streets and then recording their slow dissolution in front of an audience of bemused urbanites. The resulting videos are now on show at the Barbican Gallery, along with one of Goldsworthy's more persistent works.

Rock Pools consists of an assembly of sea boulders which the artist fired in a kiln, until they finally surrendered their solidity. The results are memorably odd - the outer skin or shell of stone tearing and stretching to reveal a mousse-like interior. Some have slumped to a kind of mineral cow slurry, others have gently sagged, others split like a dropped watermelon. And now that they're cool, of course, all these versions of yielding and softness and fragility are as hard as stone again.

This isn't the kind of cooking where you can whisk the baking tray out if it's getting a bit overdone - once heated, the rocks take five days to cool down sufficiently to be handled - and there is always the possibility of explosion. "I only destroyed one kiln," Goldsworthy revealed defensively at the press view, though he seemed relieved that the batch was now finished and he no longer has to baby-sit unstable blobs of magma.

Curiously, Goldsworthy also embodies a more familiar hazard of artistic life - that of falling just the wrong side of an invisible barrier of approved taste. For some reason that isn't very easy to explain, he has never made it to the high table of the British art establishment. The Tate, for example, owns not a single piece of his work, despite his international success. I suspect that the reasons can be found in the transparency of his catalogue prose (largely a guileless account of technical difficulties), the vividness of his effects and the way some of the work teeters a little unsteadily between beauty and prettiness.

If you like your art to have a pebble-dashing of abstruse theoretical prose, though, it would be the matter of a moment to spray it on - Goldsworthy has prepared the surface perfectly well with pieces that would permit any amount of knotted talk about permanence and notions of the natural. And if you don't - well you don't have to scrape it all off before you can enjoy his magical effects.

I had thought that the death of vinyl had killed off one of the more comic manifestations of human stupidity - the belief that if you play recordings backwards, occult messages will emerge from the slurred gibberish that results. It was intriguing, then, to find that this folly not only lives on, but has actually been refined into a full blown pseudo-science.

On his website reversespeech.com, David Oates puts forward the theory that all humans actually learn to talk backwards before they talk forwards. Rather usefully, Reverse Speech is the voice of truth, so that a lie will often conceal its own contradiction. Mr Oates gives an example with a sound clip of a TV evangelist whose bland pieties conceal the message "My advice is rancid". But the hidden message can also underline the obvious one - as in a Hillary Clinton interview about accusations against her and Bill, which conceals the complaint "evil lips are hammering it".

The suggestibility of the human mind is, apparently, limitless. Once you've been told that OJ Simpson said "Last time he got ponies" during a police interview, it's difficult not to hear it in the mush of sound supplied on Mr Oates' site - even if it makes no sense in any direction. It is all proof, if more were needed, that the internet is not so much the breeding ground for a new consciousness as a vast Petri dish in which weird old onesflourish.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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