Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The strange saga of London’s Battersea Power Station, where pigs once flew.
Every classic rock fan recognizes London’s Battersea Power Station. It’s the huge power plant featured on the cover of Pink Floyd 1977 concept album Animals, with an inflated pink pig flying between its enormous chimneys. This week, that indelible image is floating back into the public eye once more. Yesterday, it was revealed that Apple will move its U.K. headquarters to the building, eventually occupying all six floors of a freshly converted office space that could ultimately house 3,000 employees.
For London-watchers, this relocation had particular significance. Battersea Power Station’s size, location and unmistakable silhouette make it one of only a few 20th century structures in London that truly deserves the epithet “iconic.” And in many ways, the vagaries of its 81-year history reveal the twists and turns in London’s recent path. And the view from that path hasn’t always been pretty.
This monument to Britain’s former industrial might has seen some dramatic reversals of fortune. When Battersea began operating in 1935, Britain was still a manufacturing superpower, fed by huge quantities of coal from its own mines. It made sense for the facility that harnessed this energy to be as monumental as the cathedrals of the medieval era, so Battersea was constructed along grand lines. Architect Giles Gilbert Scott (who also designed an actual cathedral for Liverpool) envisioned a powerhouse with four sentinel towers topped with fluted columnar chimneys, both awe-inspiring and graceful. It was also one of the most dominant buildings on London’s then-low skyline.
By the time it was decommissioned in 1983, however, both Battersea’s antiquated technology and Britain’s coal industry were on the ropes. (Pink Floyd wasn’t doing great either: Their disappointing last album with then-leader Roger Waters appeared that year.) Despite its grandeur, no one really knew what to do with the vacant building. It was listed as a historical monument, so demolition wasn’t an option. Stuck in a quandary, London came up with possibly the worst solution imaginable: They granted permission to turn the place into an indoor theme park, where roller coasters would roar instead of electric turbines and giant slides could spiral down the chimneys. This idea went down extremely well with the writer of this piece, then a small child, but it hardly seemed a proper adaptive reuse of what might be London’s most impressive 20th century structure.
Then the theme park project ran out of money, leaving Battersea in a rather miserable limbo. Developers had wrecked the inside and removed the roof, making it an elegantly ominous ruin whose foundations were prone to flooding. Flummoxing planners and investors, it just sat there on the riverside, sullen and neglected, but still just about standing.
In the Britain of the 1980s, Battersea and its grimy environs were not held in high regard. The Conservative central government of the time, with their power base in the prosperous suburbs, regarded cities with suspicion, so London’s infrastructure was a tottering, Dickensian mess. Certain buses and trains came so rarely and so late they were rumored to be mythical, and the city they served was an often dank, seedy place where centuries of coal soot still coated many buildings. Battersea’s decay, deplored by many, seemed at the time consistent with the city and the nation around it.
Of course, if Battersea had clung to life as a power plant for decade or so more, it might have been converted into a major cultural institution, as happened with Giles Gilbert Scott’s other London masterwork, Bankside Power Station further upstream. This was reincarnated in 2000 as Tate Modern, now world’s most-visited modern art gallery. Unfortunately, Battersea remained a shell during this period, due to developer and funding wrangles. When the city finally got round to settling on a plan for it, it would not be as a public building, but as another body destined to host London’s newest fever—spectacular real estate development for the superrich.
In Battersea’s newest incarnation, the building’s shell would contain office space and 800 apartments, the land around it to be built up with a swirl of luxury towers. Among them will nest the new U.S. Embassy and a tube station. As a condition of redevelopment, the plant’s mighty chimneys were carefully disassembled and then rebuilt to make them structurally sound. Thus stabilized, Battersea is now poised to become a monument to the new London—part of a development where apartment prices start at £1.39 million ($1.8 million) and climb up to £30 million ($39 million). It’s a complex that seems to be aimed mainly at absent plutocrat investors, a forbidding fortress without but an exclusive wannabe village within.
Still, you cannot argue that the building’s developers fail to recognize that the site is iconic—they’ve done this by printing the word iconic all over the construction walls.
This is the complicated fabric into which Apple will now weave itself. By 2021, the technology firm’s British employees will be working in what was originally the plant’s boiler room. If this symbol of a vanished industrial era is to reassert its heroic presence in London public’s eye, then maybe Apple, a company whose products are beloved by many consumers, isn’t the worst tenant to have. They could even bring some fun back by tethering a flying pig back to one of the columns.
Then again, maybe not. Right now Apple is in pretty hot water in Europe. Their main European head office is still in Cork, Ireland, where they were attracted by extremely low tax rates. So low, in fact, that last month the E.U. ruled that the rates constitute illegal state support. Now Apple must pay the Irish government close to $17 billion in unpaid tax.
The company is fighting that decision, with the somewhat masochistic support of the Irish government, and may yet win. For critics of Apple’s conduct, the cover of that Pink Floyd album—which was, remember, an elaborate critique of capitalism inspired by George Orwell—could finally make sense. It wasn’t a barbed bit of 70’s surrealism after all. That inflatable pig, soaring oblivious over what was to become a supremely expensive citadel for borderless wealth, was in fact something else—a vision of Battersea Power Station’s future occupants.