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Roll Up, Roll Up! Battersea Power Station Plays Open House For The Last Time

Posted: 20/09/2013 17:35

For much of the 20-odd years I've been working in London, my daily commute has taken me within easy viewing of Battersea Power Station. There was even a time when I was lucky enough to work in the direct shadow of the familiar landmark - one positive memory from 12 months at the doomed ITV Digital in the nearby Marco Polo House.

My journey into work is nothing unique of course; in fact there are a few hundred people crammed into my train carriage at this very moment enjoying the view of the four chimneys. Well, they might be if they weren't trying to forget they're actually sardines. But what my train ride does offer me is the sheer joy of seeing one of the city's, and possibly the world's, most famous industrial landmarks every day. It's still there, still standing and on a clear blue day still majestic in spite of the shameful neglect it has suffered for decades. Battersea's sheer bloody-minded defiance in the face of unfulfilled promises and false dawns is something to behold.

As for many other people of a certain age who weren't born Londoners, Battersea Power Station seeped into my world through Pink Floyd's 1977 album, Animals. Not one of their greatest albums perhaps, but certainly one of their best and most recognisable album covers and one which has held more fascination for me over the years than the music inside. That fascination with the power station itself has continued ever since. Even standing well beyond the station's perimeter, the scale and magnitude of the building is still awe-inspiring. Previously I have had just one brief opportunity to get inside the gates, which is why this weekend's offer is one not to be missed.

As part of Open House London, the art deco building will be opening its doors to the public for the last time before they're firmly shut for development - there have been construction workers on site for months already. This will be only the second occasion that the general public has been allowed into the building after it was decommissioned in 1983 and since when it has faced an uncertain future in spite of the Grade II listed status it was granted in 1980.

An annual event, Open House London gives people the chance to see buildings not normally open to all; even Number 10 is on offer this year although I suspect you'll probably have needed to book that one by now. At Battersea visitors will follow a route that takes them through the central Boiler House at the heart of the building and then into the minimalist post-war architecture of Turbine Hall B that came into operation in the 1950s and which is the size of Tate Modern, the art gallery just a few miles east that was born phoenix-like from another ex-power station, and whose spectacular transformation just rubbed more salt into Battersea's already very open wounds.

The area around Battersea Power Station will eventually be swallowed up as the 39-acre, £8 billion office, shopping and apartment 'village' takes shape but the heart of the project, the station itself, will remain and be highly visible, a symbol of survival in a rapidly changing environment.

Building design is very subjective - remember Prince Charles' carbunkle comments - but I wonder how many of the grand constructions appearing in the capital will achieve such iconic status as Battersea. It doesn't take much for something to be hailed as iconic these days but the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard? Quirky yes, interesting without doubt, but will they be revered by so many in years to come? What is it about Battersea that continues to draw people in?

Perhaps it was because the power station was there for the wider good. It was a utility and so its presence was, and still is, seared into people's consciousness - it turned the lights on in the capital and it looked pretty stunning whilst it did the job. Today's landmark buildings appear to have far less to do with public service; they might look impressive but it's difficult to feel any great affinity with them.

Of course, this weekend is going to be busy - the last time the doors of the station were opened, 14,000 people turned up. So, I'm ready to queue but I'm also ready to be rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of an important part of our capital's history. And as I'm pretty sure I won't be able to afford one of the apartments there - £6 million penthouse, anyone - I'll enjoy the view inside for this one and only time.

 

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