An Engineer in Wonderland – Madness in Battersea

Battersea power station in London, with its chimney at each corner, is an icon – not least for having made it onto the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album and having been designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – he of red telephone box fame.

30jul08batterseaem1-small.jpgBattersea power station in London, with its chimney at each corner, is an icon – not least for having made it onto the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album and having been designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – he of red telephone box fame.

There are plenty of other reasons to love the place, including a rather fine art-deco interior and it once having been part of a large CHP (combined heat and power) scheme that heated a housing development on the other side of the Thames.

But an odd thing is going down at the site, which has been derelict for years and is prime building land.

30jul08batterseaem2.jpgThe main building is well worth saving as is has two beautifully decorated cathedral-like spaces solidly built in brick – it is the biggest brick building in Europe.

However, those famous chimneys have to come down. They are fatally riddled with cracks – the result of an incomplete understanding of reinforced concrete when they were built.

Here comes the madness:

The building is Listed, and the protectors of such structures are insisting that the chimneys be rebuilt as they were – in thousands of tonnes of reinforced concrete.

Surely, it would be simpler to replace them with something else, such as steel towers clad to look like chimneys – after all, steel framing is exactly how the brick part of the building is supported, no one is going to want to put flue gasses up there again, and clad steel appears to be good enough for the Statue of Liberty.

Or leave them off all together as happened at Bankside power station, also by Scott and now the Tate Modern.


The Battersea site’s current owner plans to erect a huge wide structure with an enormous tower next to the power station anyway, which will dwarf the power station and blot its chimneys from the skyline.

Incidentally, this tower is a bit strange in itself.

It is supposed to be a self-cooling eco-tower, but I notice from the plans that it is still connected to the National Grid and, by barge, it will need to be supplied with mysterious non-food-crop bio-fuel from unspecified sources – presumably from the huge un-touched forests of Oxfordshire*.

And an eco-tower sits slightly strangely against the vast amount of CO2 embodied in re-built concrete chimneys.


* Just for the record, there are no un-touched forests in Oxfordshire, or anywhere else along the Thames.

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Photo Credits:
interior: Caroline Cattini
exterior: Emma Makins
Art deco detail: Emma Makins



  1. I am sorry that Mr Bob Watt does not understand the principles of conservation. I also suspect that he has not understood what has been said about what would be required from English Heritage if they were to be able to help with a repair grant to this church.
    Like for like is what is normally desired. If there is a design fault it is often the way in which Victorian designers did not consider such things as maintenance and clearance of simple things such as gutters.
    Most causes of rot in buildings of this age are caused by blocked downpipes, gutters and drainage systems. Also by poor general building maintenance because the buildings owners/custodians cannot afford to carry out such regular corrective measures.
    EH is such an easy target – try to see it differently Mr Watt. The organisation has very limited finds and its reason d’etre is to keep listed buildings in use and in good working condition. Not to aid their alteration especially when it is not needed!

  2. In its heyday Battersea Power Station was an iconic building but for the last 25 years the site has been an absolute eyesore. I was once in favour of reusing the shell but now I think it should be demolished and replaced with something useful, preferably as soon as possible.

  3. The ‘protectors’ are good at this sort of thing, as the following story will show.
    My parents’ local church (St Mary’s, Handsworth, Birmingham) is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Engineers’ because James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdock are all buried there. A memorial chapel to James Watt was built about 100 years ago, and because of design flaws had serious dry rot in the roof. The cost of repairs being considerable, the council approached English Heritage to see if they could help. EH’s response was that they could only consider a grant if the reconstruction followed the original in every way, thereby guaranteeing more dry rot in 80-100 years time.

  4. I agree as someone that once commuted from London Victoria for some 13 years it was always a joy to look at – unlike the incinerator you see when you leave London Bridge i cant see them listing that in 70 years time. We dont take pride in our industrial buildings as the victorians did they are just there to be functional so generally end up quite ugly blots on the landscape.
    The adjoining tower on the new scheme at Battersea will have flats attached to the outside to provide the necessary waterfront flats for ‘the super-rich’ to make the project economically viable and hence why it is so tall.

  5. As a Pink Floyd fan who has regularly travelled south from Victoria station past the Battersea Power station, it sure makes a mark.
    Okay, it is slight madness to slavishly recreate past building methods, but at least the building will stay. It’s a hugely impressive monument of old industrial London and should definitely remain, as an historic presence. I know some people want to just clear the site and build (more) housing. More exclusive waterfront flats for the super-rich, presumably.
    Agree about the adjoining tower, to. What’s the point in that?
    It’s a great picture of the art deco interior, btw. Thanks for that.

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