For many years, Battersea Power Station has been an architectural icon of London, whether it was in use as a power station or not. Prior to the 1930s, power to the city was supplied by multiple smaller companies that supplied power to industries and sold the excess to the public. Many of these small companies joined forces in 1925 to create the London Power Company. At the same time, Parliament came to a decision that London needed a central power grid with uniform voltages and standards. With this conglomerate of corporations ready to take up Parliament’s plan before they were forced into public ownership, they began to form a plan to power the city with a few large plants rather than many.
The proposal to build the city’s first superstation came in 1927. Battersea Power Station would be built in two segments and, once complete, would be able to generate 400,000,000 watts of electricity. Located on fifteen acres on the south bank of the River Thames, the proximity to the river provided an easy source for cooling and transporting the coal that would power the station. However, Parliament’s proposal immediately caused protests that the station would be an eyesore and that its smokestacks would harm the artwork at the National Gallery of British Art (now known as the Tate Britain).
These fears were slightly assuaged with the hiring of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, already a well-known architect who had designed many famous British buildings, including the Liverpool Cathedral, Clare College, Cambridge’s Memorial Court, and the nation’s iconic red phone boxes. The main architect was Leonard Peace, while Scott was hired to enhance the exterior and consult on the construction. Scott designed the exterior brick cladding as well as the tower bases of the chimneys. As to the pollution problems, permission to build was granted on the basis that the plant’s emissions would be treated so that it would be “clean and smokeless”.
Construction on “A” Station began in 1929 with Sir William Carrol & Co. erecting the steelwork and John Mowlem & Co. working on the remainder of the building. “A” Station was not completed until 1935, but began generating power in 1933. As construction of “B” Station did not begin until after World War II, for many years, the eastern wall of the boiler house was covered in corrugated metal. The construction started only months after the war ended in 1945 and would continue on until “B” Station was fully operational in 1955. This brought the station’s capacity up to 509,000,000 watts and made it the third largest power station in the United Kingdom. By this point, the London Power Company was no longer in ownership of the building as the electric companies had been nationalised.
Only twenty years later, “A” Station would stop generating power after having done so for forty-two years. In 1977, Battersea Power Station would feature prominently on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Animals”. The year after that, under rumours that the government intended to close “B” Station, a campaign began to save Battersea for national heritage. In 1980, Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, awarded the station Grade II listed status, thus preserving it from any demolition plans without Parliament’s approval. In 1983, “B” Station would shut down for good.
Throughout the Eighties, Nineties, and the early 21st Century, Battersea Power Station sat vacant while several development proposals came and went. In the meantime, it became a popular filming location, where “A” Station’s control room was used for the “Find the Fish” scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, the interior was used as a derelict warehouse for The Dark Knight, and the whole of the station became a manufacturing plant for a parallel world’s Cybermen in Doctor Who. Today, developers SP Setia and Sime Darby from Malaysia are in the process of preserving the station and converting the surrounding area into a mixed-use development that will provide shops, homes, and offices to accommodate London’s growth. In the middle of it all, Battersea Power Station will remain a feature of the city’s architecture.