The turbine hall of the redeveloped Battersea Power Station.
Photo: F10 Studios Ltd
If you were going to anoint a single great temple to the deity of fossil fuel, you might choose the Battersea Power Station, just across the Thames from some of the costliest real estate in London. From the 1930s through the ’70s, it sucked up coal and pumped out electricity. Now it’s burning through £9 billion ($11.5 billion) in the hope of generating much, much more, and that process of transformation is an awesome, troubling thing to behold. Bristling with cranes, it hulks over the river like some rough beast, slouching toward Westminster. Londoners know it from a distance — the quartet of chimneys jabbing at clouds, its mountainous brick bulk — but few have been inside. That will soon change, along with everything else about it.
I recently toured the construction site with Sebastien Ricard, an architect at the firm Wilkinson Eyre who is in charge of disemboweling, shoring up, and rebuilding the structure for use as a zone of white-collar lifestyle and work. Even when I stand inside the shell, the great fluted columns of the turbine hall rising toward a distant ceiling, the scale of the place is hard to fathom. One of the two boiler houses is filled with an impenetrable thicket of scaffolding. In the other, fresh armatures of concrete and steel have grown up beneath a new roof. Not long ago, Battersea Power Station was a ruin, left exposed by a developer who went bankrupt before he made good on a plan for an open-air amusement park. For years, only the rain and the odd nocturnal creature penetrated the decaying interiors.
Now, money is flowing again, thanks to the Malaysian development group Setia. Ricard points out a vast slab of raw concrete that one day will host cocktail parties, with expansive views onto the Thames. Beyond, an undergrowth of apartment blocks is already growing around the outer walls, supplemented by an esplanade, a riverboat stop, and a couple of still-quiet cafés. Leisure is on the move.
The exterior, wrapped with new apartments.
Photo: Grain London Ltd
There’s something simultaneously exciting, a little sad, and bracingly preposterous about the rehabilitation: exciting because the project brings fresh life to a central city tract that has been forlorn for a couple of generations; sad because that life consists of a narrow and familiar set of ways to make and spend money. Preposterous because the task of converting a huge machine for the postindustrial era means treating it as a precious relic. To satisfy Historic England, the body that oversees “listed” buildings, the developers had to demolish and rebuild four of those graceful but useless smokestacks, match thousands of damaged tiles, and order a million hand-made bricks from the same workshops that furnished the originals. It’s a multibillion-dollar fixer-upper.
The largest brick building in Europe, it inspired awe in the kingdom of energy. The architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, who brought a classicizing finesse to tough utilitarian structures like the Bankside Power Station that later became Tate Modern, and the U.K.’s famous red telephone booth. (The booth has an exquisite architectural pedigree: It’s based on the 19th-century architect Sir John Soane’s mausoleum, which in turn got its characteristic shallow dome from the breakfast room in Soane’s own house.) As if to guard against inevitable obsolescence, Scott encrusted the Battersea colossus with Art Deco flourishes, including the opulent control room with coffered ceilings. (In the next incarnation, that will become an event space.)
The power station burned a million tons of coal a year, hewn from the ground under Northumberland and Wales, hauled by train or loaded on barges, and transferred from a jetty on the Thames. When the facility was first proposed, Londoners objected to the idea of spitting so much coal smoke into the air of their city center. Not to worry, the journal Nature chirped in 1932: Recent technological advances had “proved conclusively that the emission of sulphur fumes can be reduced to a negligible quantity.” That was partly true: An innovative process scrubbed the gases of their most noxious ingredients by “washing” them with water — which was then dumped into the Thames. Keeping the lights on amounted to a choice between visibly poisoning the air and invisibly poisoning the river. Eventually, though, coal did both. In 1952, a thick cloud laden with toxins settled over London, and by the time it dissipated five days later, it had killed 12,000 people. Battersea’s B section was still under construction.
It was the album cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals that gave the almost-retired plant a global profile and a reputation for mayhem that continued through rock concerts, festivals, and raves. (Algie, the inflatable pink pig tethered to one of the chimneys for the photo shoot, broke free and soared into the Heathrow Airport flight path; police helicopters chased it for miles until it alighted in a field in Kent.) The powerhouse glowered over the banks of the Thames, but it loomed even more impressively in the lives of commuters, who passed its great brick cliffs on the train just before pulling into Victoria Station. “It looked like a gate, or a castle,” says the aptly named Peter Watts in his book Up in Smoke: the Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. “When it came into view, that was the moment you were entering the city, which was always so much more exciting than whatever town in Surrey you were coming from. It looked primal and permanent. I fantasize that at the end of days, everything else will be gone and the power station will remain.”
As seen in 1946.
Photo: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
And yet the apparently eternal hulk was supremely fragile. In 2004, it cropped up on the World Monuments Fund’s endangered list. Dozens of schemes, each more grandly harebrained than the last, were rolled out, threatening various combinations of rescue and destruction. The New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly contributed several idas: A decade ago, a group of Irish developers hired him to design a new ostensibly “clean” power plant tucked below ground and topped with a new 1,000-foot chimney, next to an office park that would have been covered by a plastic “eco-dome.” That dream went the way of so many others in the 2008 financial crisis. Later, the Chelsea Football Club recruited Viñoly to design a soccer stadium there, though what he really wanted was a concert hall. The architect Terry Farrell suggested stripping the carcass down to four chimneys and two walls and enshrining it in parkland as an immense, evocative ruin. That proposal addressed the central conundrum of its redevelopment. Preserving the structure’s mysterious isolation, its sheer brooding strangeness, meant leaving the land around it vacant or, at most, scattering it with low-rise buildings the way a medieval village huddles around its cathedral. But builders don’t make money by not building, and the quantities of cash needed to preserve the thing, never mind reinvigorate the area, were inconceivably enormous. By 2014, the station was back on the WMF’s watch list again.
When Setia landed the site, Viñoly returned, this time with a plan that wrapped the brick monolith in glass apartment complexes (one designed by Frank Gehry, another by Norman Foster), close-cropped lawns, and fountains with the usual dancing jets of water. A year and a half from now, a new Northern Line Underground stop will stitch a long-inaccessible area back into Central London.
The power station itself will contain an immense indoor shopping center and rentable party spaces, topped by crow’s-nest penthouses. Apple has scooped up most of the offices that will crown the structure. Wilkinson Eyre’s design reclaims the site’s history and smooths it over at the same time, inserting an elegantly generic lattice of black steel, glass walls, and airy voids. Where once generators roared, now milk will be foamed, code written, and brand identities polished.
One detail captures the ethos of spectacular silliness that pervades almost every huge development project these days: a sightseeing elevator that glides up through one of the pristine chimneys and pops out the top, giving passengers a quick 360-degree vista, before dropping back inside. Let’s hope that a metamorphosis on this imperial scale yields something more solid and meaningful than a soap bubble with a view. Still, if this all seems more like a default option than a thrilling destiny, consider the imaginative alternatives that failed because of the site’s sheer scale and the possible squandered fortunes. The current future isn’t ideal, but it’s probably the least bad solution — far better than just letting the whole thing collapse into a disconsolate pile of rubble.
The retail section.
Photo: F10 Studios Ltd
At Battersea, the Best We Could Hope for (in Both Senses)
Promoted links by Taboola
LeBron James Was Disappointing on China. Expect More of the Same.
By Max Read
James’s answer on Daryl Morey’s tweet was not the statement we might have hoped for. But it is the kind of statement we should start to expect.
At Battersea Power Station, the Best We Could Hope for (in Both Senses)
By Justin Davidson
Yet another spectacular building becomes mixed-use luxury.
Always a good sign when the presidential lawyer has to find a new lawyer
Rudy Giuliani is parting ways with the personal attorney representing him so far in matters related to the impeachment inquiry. Giuliani confirmed to CNN Tuesday that his current attorney, Jon Sale, is ending his representation of the former New York City mayor shortly.
2:50 p.m.impeachment season
Trump’s New Impeachable Offenses Threaten Pelosi’s Narrow Focus on Ukraine
By Ed Kilgore
How do you decide how to impeach a president who won’t stop committing high crimes and misdemeanors? That’s a tough question for House Democrats.
A very shaky comparison
.@NYGovCuomo says he still believes there is bias against Italian Americans, much like there is still racism and antisemitism.
Being a presidential toady is profitable
.@LindseyGrahamSC announces he raised $3.3 million in Q3 – the largest haul of any Senate Republican in cycle this quarter (and that includes McConnell, who raked in $2.3 million)
A terrible sign for desperate people in the region
BREAKING: Medical humanitarian charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) says it has made the “difficult decision to suspend most of our activities” in northern Syria “and evacuate all our international staff” due to the volatile situation in the region.
Hunter Biden Admits Mistakes But Says He Did Nothing Illegal in New Interview
By Benjamin Hart
The embattled son of the former vice-president defended himself after weeks of attacks about his business ventures in Ukraine.
11:49 a.m.the national interest
the national interest
Trump Is Being Impeached Because He Keeps Doing What Russia Wants
By Jonathan Chait
Trump’s Ukraine scandal and his Syria fiasco both happen to benefit one country Trump really likes.
10:20 a.m.life after warming
life after warming
Extinction Rebellion and the Birth of a New Climate Politics
By David Wallace-Wells
The U.K. movement’s claims might be exaggerated, but it shows us how the world is ready to grapple with the depth of the problem.
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
Mayor Pete ramps up criticism of Warren, Sanders health plans
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will begin airing a digital ad on Tuesday that calls out rivals Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont by name for their support of “Medicare for All.”The ad – titled “Makes More Sense” – highlights Buttigieg’s Medicare for All Who Want It health care plan, a middle-of-the-road approach that would not force people onto government health coverage but would offer a public option for people who choose to enroll. That is a key distinction between Buttigieg’s plan and the sweeping overhaul that would be instituted under a full Medicare for All program.The ad represents an escalation by the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s campaign, after he’s mostly kept his Medicare for All critiques nameless and primarily focused on policy.
8:44 a.m.democratic debates
Will Warren Have a Bull’s-eye on Her Back in the Ohio Debate?
By Ed Kilgore
Various rivals have reasons to hope the new co-front-runner stumbles. But are any of them willing to risk being the one to give her a push?
Good one, Rudy
.@RudyGiuliani on Bolton calling him a “hand grenade.” RG: “I’m very disappointed that his bitterness drives him to attack a friend falsely…It’s really ironic that John Bolton is calling anyone else a hand grenade. When John is described by many as an atomic bomb . “
Some juicy Trump scandals may have been lost to the shredder
American Media, Inc. and the National Enquirer shredded sensitive Donald Trump-related documents that had been held in a top-secret safe right before Trump was elected in 2016, according to fresh allegations made in a new book by journalist Ronan Farrow.During the first week of November 2016, the book alleges that Dylan Howard, who was then editor in chief of the National Enquirer, ordered a staff member to “get everything out of the safe” and that “we need to get a shredder down there.”His order came the same day a reporter for the Wall Street Journal had called the Enquirer to ask for comment on a story about how AMI, which owns the supermarket tabloid, had paid $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal who said she had had an affair with Trump to keep her quiet right before the election. The Enquirer never published her story.“The staffer opened the safe, removed a set of documents, and tried to wrest it shut,” Farrow writes. “Later, reporters would discuss the safe like it was the warehouse where they stored the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones, but it was small and cheap and old.”
a boy is a gun
John Bolton Reportedly Called Rudy Giuliani a ‘Hand Grenade’
By Matt Stieb
In closed-door testimony on Monday, former Trump adviser Fiona Hill relayed some of Bolton’s finer thoughts on the president’s personal lawyer.
How to Watch Democratic Debate: Time, Schedule & More
By Matt Stieb
Who made the cut for the fourth debate? What time should you tune in? Where can you watch online?
Why Impeachment Is a Difficult Debate Topic for Democrats
By Ed Kilgore
Democrats are usually eager to discuss Trump’s troubles, but as Biden’s rivals and potential Senate trial jurors, the candidates are in a tricky spot.
Trump Announces Sanctions Against Turkey, Also Himself
By Matt Stieb
Trump’s sanctions against “any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria” appear to apply to himself.
Michael Bloomberg Is Still Reportedly Thinking About Running for President
By Adam K. Raymond
The former New York City mayor apparently sees a lane if Joe Biden drops out.
Zuck cozies up to conservatives
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hosting informal talks and small, off-the-record dinners with conservative journalists, commentators and at least one Republican lawmaker in recent months to discuss issues like free speech and discuss partnerships.The dinners, which began in July, are part of Zuckerberg’s broader effort to cultivate friends on the right amid outrage by President Donald Trump and his allies over alleged “bias” against conservatives at Facebook and other major social media companies. …As part of the series, Zuckerberg met earlier this year with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who insinuated that Facebook had become a monopoly during a congressional hearing last year; Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has fingered Zuckerberg as contributing to “the death of free speech in America”; and conservative radio talk host Hugh Hewitt, who has cautioned against a DOJ enforcement action but has called for a “new regulatory regime” to minimize “big tech bias” against conservatives.
Tom Steyer’s First Debate: What to Expect From the Paradoxical 2020 Democrat
By Ed Kilgore
There will be a new face onstage Tuesday night: a rich guy running as the scourge of rich guys (including the one in the White House).
Florida man ejected from closed door testimony
Rep. Matt Gaetz says Adam Schiff kicked him out of the Fiona Hill deposition. Gaetz is not on the three cmtes conducting the impeachment inquiry, but he argued that as a member of Judiciary he should be allowed to attend, and b/c there “are no rules” for the impeachment probe.Gaetz says that the question was put before the House parliamentarian, who sided with Schiff that Gaetz should not attend.
Somalis in Minnesota were shocked by Trump’s attack
Abubakar Abdi skipped his usual after-work stop to visit friends at the local Somali mall on Thursday, heading to his Minneapolis home instead to catch President Donald Trump’s speech.As he watched, the 22-year-old IT specialist said he was taken aback by the loud boos at the packed campaign rally when Trump mentioned Somalis. …Abdi, born and raised in Minnesota, said the president’s words and the crowd’s reaction left him wondering: “What if my former classmates were among the ones booing? What if it was my former teachers booing?”“I didn’t know we were hated like that,” he said. “Donald Trump is one man, but what scares me is the amount of support he has.”
Video of a Fake Trump Massacring Media and Critics Shown at Pro-Trump Event
By Adam K. Raymond
It starts with fake Trump shooting fake Peter Fonda and goes downhill from there.
Voters are worried about Bernie’s health
In a new HuffPost/YouGov survey, 88% of registered voters say they’ve heard at least a little about Sanders having a heart attack. The news appears to have taken a toll on perceptions of his health ― just 19% of voters say they believe he is in good enough physical condition to serve effectively as president for four years. By comparison, 43% believe former Vice President Joe Biden is in adequate health, with 53% saying the same of President Donald Trump and 66% of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Trump Didn’t Free Us From Syria’s ‘Endless War,’ He Just Made It Worse
By Jonah Shepp
The president congratulated himself for pulling U.S. forces out of a Mideast quagmire, but his haphazard decision is perpetuating a destructive cycle.
After threatening to boycott Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Tulsi Gabbard backs down
I will be attending the debate.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe