Essential Architecture-  London

Battersea Power Station


Sir Giles Gilbert Scott


Battersea, on the Thames opposite Pimlico




Art Deco


steel-framed building with brickwork hung from the outside


  Battersea Power Station viewed from the north bank of the River Thames at Pimlico.
  Image copyright Doug Myers

Battersea Power Station, completed in 1939, was the first in a series of very large (for the era) coal-fired electrical generating facilities set up in England as part of the National Grid power distribution system then being introduced. The grade II listed building is being converted to a large commercial and entertainment complex as the centrepiece of a project to rejuvenate the area.

During the 1920s electricity was supplied by small companies that built stations dedicated to a single industry or group of factories, and sold any excess power to the public.

Due to differing standards of voltage and frequency, Parliament decided that the power grid should be a single system under public ownership. This sparked a storm of protest from those who thought that the government should not be involved. It would be another 30 years before nationalization was completed.

Meanwhile several private power companies reacted to the proposals by forming the London Power Company in 1925. Their plan was to build a smaller number of very large stations and sell the power to anyone who wanted it. Their first power station was planned for the Battersea area on the south bank of the River Thames in London.

This sparked off protests from those who felt the building was too large and would be an eyesore, and from those who were worried about the pollution. The company addressed the former by hiring Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, a noted architect and industrial designer (also famous for the design of the red telephone box, of Liverpool Cathedral, and also another London power station, Bankside, which now houses the Tate Modern art gallery).

The resulting design is a steel-framed building with brickwork hung from the outside, similar to the skyscrapers being built in the US at the time. Construction started in 1929 and was completed by 1939. The original power station had a single long hall with a chimney at either end. From 1953 to 1955 a second Station B, identical from the outside, was constructed alongside the original, which then became known as Station A. This gave the station its familiar four-chimney layout. Far from being an eyesore, the station has since become one of London's most famous landmarks and is generally loved.

The power station was the site of a fire on April 20, 1964, which caused power failures throughout London including at the BBC Television Centre, which was slated to launch BBC Two that night. The launch was delayed until the following day at 11am.

District Heating Scheme
After the end of the Second World War the London Power Company took the opportunity to introduce a new innovation - a district heating scheme better known now as Cogeneration. Some 11,000 people benefitted from the scheme which provided hot water and central heating to the newly redeveloped areas within Pimlico.

End of operation
When it first opened, the station had a 105 megawatt steam turbine. At the time, this was the largest in Europe. After World War II this was enlarged to approximately 500 MW. In the 1950s, 60 MW was considered to be 'large' for UK stations. Power stations' output continued to grow and this factor, coupled with increased operating costs (Battersea required flue gas cleaning) led to its demise. In 1975 Station A (by then quite out of date) was shut down, with rumours that Station B would soon follow. Intense public pressure mounted to save the buildings, notably Station A's Art Deco interior. In 1980 the station was declared a heritage site, and in 1983 production at Station B ended.

Development company Parkview International has started work on a £1.1bn project to restore the 75 year old building and to redevelop the 38 acre site. The project is one of the largest privately owned developments in the UK. Parkview, a Hong Kong headquartered company, is one of the largest overseas investors in urban regeneration. At a public meeting in June 2004, a representative of Parkview claimed that they had spent £100m on the redevelopment so far. However this claim is disputed by Battersea Power Station Community Group as no conservation and repair work has been carried out on the building since Parkview took control of the site in 1993. The condition of the building is described as "very bad" by English Heritage, who have included it on their register of Buildings at Risk.

Parkview's plan includes restaurants, retail, cinemas and a massive cultural and commercial entertainment and events centre within the Power Station as well as new buildings comprising two hotels, a theatre, flats, offices, showrooms and a £26 m scheme to modernise and upgrade nearby Battersea Park Station.

Battersea Power Station Community Group has campaigned for an alternative community-based scheme to be drawn up. The Group is sceptical that Parkview will deliver its redevelopment project, and that the benefits claimed for Parkview's scheme - improved local transport infrastructure, 1000s of new jobs, large public spaces and opening up the riverside, leisure and recreation amenities as well as the transformation of an industrial monument - are an illusion. BPSCG describe Parkview's plans as "a deeply unattractive project that has no affordable housing anywhere on the 38-acre site, no decent jobs for local people and no credible public transport strategy". The group also says "... this is just the last in a long line of planning applications from Parkview going back over 10 years that have gone nowhere. We fear that Parkview is merely proposing unrealisable projects while the value of the land increases and the power station crumbles."

Conversely, the Battersea Power Station Community Forum which represents the interests of more than fifty local organisations including elected offices, the Council, residents associations, places of worships, educational establishments, business and amenity groups enthusiastically support Parkview’s plans for regeneration. The Forum was established by Parkview and local people who are critical of Parkview's lack of progress and neglect of the listed building are not allowed to attend.

An independent environmental impact assessment conducted by Arup Associates forecasts that the project will be responsible for creating some 6,000 (full time equivalent) new jobs and that nearly 3,500 of these will go to people living within the locality. At the launch of a recruitment office in July 2005, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions David Blunkett, said: "This development is good news for the people of East Battersea, indeed the whole of London."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Secretary of State for Education Ruth Kelly and Education Minister Bill Rammell visited the Power Station in March 2006 to launch a joint venture between developers Parkview International, their construction manager Bovis Lend Lease, the Learning and Skills Council, Lambeth College and Wandsworth Council to provide onsite training for students learning building skills. Speaking at the event the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, said “this is exactly the sort of project that we want to see more of - one which develops the skills of young people and adults, and where employers are investing in their workforces. I would like to thank Lambeth College, Job Centre Plus, Bovis Lendlease and Parkview International and look forward to visiting you all in a few years time when this project is complete."

On 13 October 2005, Wandsworth Council approved Parkview's plan to demolish and then rebuild the power station's chimneys. Despite an engineers report which has found that the existing chimneys can be repaired Parkview, English Heritage and the London Borough of Wandsworth claim the chimneys are structurally unsound and irreparable. Parkview claims to have given a legally binding undertaking to the London Borough of Wandsworth to provide certainty that the chimneys will be replaced like for like in accordance with the requirements of English Heritage and the planning authorities. However, campaigners have pointed to the fact that as Parkview is registered in the British Virgin Islands, the council would not be able to enforce the legal agreement. Further concerns have been raised as the Wandsworth Borough Solicitor, when questioned by Wandsworth Council's planning applications committee members, was not able to give an assurance that a watertight legal agreement to rebuild the chimneys could be made with an offshore company.

Cultural impact

The cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals
Battersea Power Station has been pictured on many album covers by rock and pop groups. It was featured on the cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals, with their inflatable pink pig floating high above the station (this symbolises a capitalist "pig" watching over a symbol of industry). The inflatable pig seen tethered to the power station "broke loose" from its moorings and reportedly veered into the flight path of Heathrow Airport before landing somewhere in Kent [1]. On following photo shoots, sharpshooters had to be hired to shoot it down if it went astray. These problems led to there being no usable single photo of the pig above the building, and the sleeve is actually a composite image.

It can also be seen on The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, on the back cover of Les Claypool's Frog Brigade's Live Frogs: Set 2, which is a complete cover of Pink Floyd's Animals, in the booklet art for The Who's 1973 album Quadrophenia, and on the cover London Elektricity's Power Ballads album. It was used in 2001 as the background art for the cover of a Petula Clark boxed set, Meet Me in Battersea Park. It also appears on the cover of Jan Hammer's 12" single of The Runner (marathon mix).

It was a setting in Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film Sabotage. It appeared for a moment in the British Doctor Who television science fiction series in The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1963, which saw the station in the 22nd century, having been converted to nuclear power. It appeared briefly in The Beatles' 1965 film Help!, and many years later the interior was seen in the "Find The Fish" segment of Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life. The Battersea Power Station was also used as the façade for the Ministry of Love in Michael Radford's 1984 film of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The streets surrounding the Power Station and its interior were also used in Cry Havoc, a 1991 epsiode of the long running police drama, The Bill.

The station (rather unconvincingly) stood in for an Eastern European military camp in the MacGyver TV movie The Lost Treasure of Atlantis, and it appeared briefly in the background of an episode of the ABC television series Lost entitled "Fire + Water". Originating from a statement in the official Lost Podcast, controversy surrounded the signage which appeared on the building, as it was believed to be a huge clue for future episodes. The building was also used as inspiration for the "Advanced Power Plant" structure in the PC game Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It was rented by Bruce Dickinson to be a film location of three of his videos, but only appeared in one, "Man Of Sorrows", in 1999.

In recent years the building has occasionally played host to concerts and to performances by the Cirque du Soleil (in a nearby marquee). In Ian McKellen's film of Shakespeare's Richard III, the derelict power station surreally stands in for Bosworth Field in Richard's final battle scene.

During Pink Floyd's 2005 Live 8 performance, during the song Money, Battersea was briefly shown when the camera panned out away from the stage.

The power station made a reappearance in Doctor Who in the 2006 series. In the episode Rise of the Cybermen it is used by Cybus Industries as a factory which upgrades people into Cybermen.