At last the right pretext has arrived and I'm able to tour the defunct immensity of Battersea Power Station, the humungous, brick, upside-down pool table which dominates the skyline of inner-west London. The Power Station is so big that it seems to have been crouching over me all my life. Sometimes, in spaced-out moments, I have considered the possibility that it actually gave birth to me, that I plopped forth from one of its 350ft towers, slithered down one of Giles Gilbert Scott's distinctive brick grooves, and hit the ground running.
Although the Power Station was still generating in fits and starts up until its closure in 1983, for the greater part of my conscious life it has been an icon of desuetude. While so much of the contemporary built environment - ripped-out, ritzed-up, glassed over - urges upon us the accelerating transitoriness of our era, a tremendous modernist ruin such as Battersea stops us in our tracks with the revelation that now, too, is the immemorial.
It helps that the achy blue sky over Stockwell is smeared with contrails and blotted with nimbus on the morning I cycle from my house down to the Power Station. This is a Paul Nash canvas, the perfect period backdrop for the huge red-ochre flanks which stride behind the slate rooves, and the four tapering tubular chimneys which soar above. On off-white days - there are many of these in London - the Power Station chimneys become almost invisible. Then, when you strain to pick them out of the polluted sky, they seem to be sucking it into the cavernous boiler room. I thought I moved to this quarter of London for prosaic, strategic reasons, but maybe it was the Power Station that sucked me in.
Having met an affable, corporate wonk, in the hire of the Hong Kong Chinese consortium which is about to transmogrify this beautiful temple of Ludd and Luddism into a vast, mixed development of offices 'n' shops 'n' cinemas 'n' conference centres 'n' auditoria 'n' design studios, I approach the building in a dinky electric car. It is pleasing to the point of religious ecstasy to find that Battersea Power Station is much, much bigger close up than I expected.
Ian, the wonk, gently feeds me the facts: the building's footprint is bigger than Trafalgar Square; St Paul's Cathedral would fit inside the central boiler room and it wouldn't touch the sides; the western half was completed first, and then it was added to - counter-intuitively - lengthwise, so that you can see the point where the faïence - pre- and post-war - joins up on the façade; at its peak Battersea generated 20 per cent of London's electricity. Entering the side aisle, which is Battersea 'A', we see the bronze-framed bay windows of the control rooms, which project out from the tiled walls 100 feet above our heads. Then we mount the Director's staircase, which although deprived of its bronze doors, is still replete with decorative furbelows. In the control room, a 200ft-long freestanding baffler, studded with dials and levers is juxtaposed with the parquet flooring, the hammered copper ceiling, the operations desks encased in walnut veneer.
It occurs to me, that just as we wrongly assume our own era to be ephemeral, so we fail to appreciate that the modernist aesthetic - which we have reduced to mere functionalism - was originally a bastard love child of art deco. Opened in 1933, Battersea Power Station is the supreme example of this stylistic miscegenation, the melding of devilish little details and infernal stacks of railway sleepers soaked in sulphuric acid. (This was the method employed to clean the coal smoke.) We go on to the roof. London's only breeding pair of peregrine falcons nests in the northwest tower, swooping down to snatch pigeons from the roofless boiler hall. Up here, as Ian limns in the rest of the site - the mighty conduits that pass under the river, the vast dock, the acres of coal bunkers - I am seized by the urge to scream "STOP!"
It's a childish thing, this desire I have to prevent the salvation of the Power Station. And saving it the consortium will be, for since the roof of the boiler hall and its retaining walls were pulled out in the 1980s, the structural integrity of the building has slowly but inexorably been compromised. Without their painstaking work, matching the original bricks with clay mined from same seam in Warwickshire and preserving the control room as - gulp! - a cocktail bar, we'll get no Power Station at all, and still the attack of the killer clone glasshouses full of retail spume and corporate fart.
Yes, it's childish, but I want Battersea to always be this great ruin around which the ghost of electricity howls, a dark castle keep, looming over the primitive little village of London. "You don't think," I wheedle my hard-hatted Virgil, "that your employers would consider, even for an instant, giving this to me?"
By Will Self
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