POWER to the PEOPLE
Reborn electricity plant and new rapid-transit line generate buzz in British capital When Britain backs big infrastructure, from the Elizabeth Line ... to the redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station, it does so with aplomb.
Any aficionados of prog-rockers Pink Floyd will be familiar with their 1977 album Animals and its surreal pig floating above a hulking power plant topped by four thrusting chimneys.
Less well known, perhaps, is that the red-brick behemoth used as the backdrop to one of pop-culture's defining rock images was a rock star in its own right — the totemic Battersea Power Station in London.
When that pink porker was captured for posterity in the 1970s, Battersea was still generating juice for thousands of homes and businesses in the British capital from what was then a brawny but unloved stretch of the south bank of the Thames River.
It wasn't quite the dark side of the moon, but it wasn't far off.
Few would recognize the site 50-odd years later, now a splashy 42-acre (17-hectare), leisure-retail-office complex jolting to life the once-forsaken Nine Elms neighbourhood, which is itself anchored by the striking new U.S. embassy building.
A decade in the making, the rebirth of Battersea Power Station is one of two major infrastructure projects unveiled in the past year — the other is the Elizabeth Line rail service — that have transformed life for thousands of tourists and London's eight million residents.
Battersea's resurrection is especially notable. In danger of becoming a brooding memorial to industrial dereliction, its rebirth after 40 years of false starts has been heralded by The Times newspaper as a “triumph” and a “towering achievement,” while the Daily Mail called it “London's new A-list address.” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Battersea Power Station will breathe new life into this corner of London and boost our economy as we build a better London for everyone.”
Built in stages between 1929 and 1955, it was the third largest power plant in the U.K., keeping the lights on at London landmarks including Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the Wimbledon tennis courts before being decommissioned in 1983.
Despite its utilitarian role, the plant was built to impress, its art deco flourishes and lavish interiors designed by the same man, Gilbert Scott, whose cherry-red phone booths became visual shorthand for British life.
At 170 metres long and 160 metres wide — big enough to contain St. Paul's Cathedral — its two turbine halls, switch houses and flanking central boiler room pumped out a fifth of London's energy needs at its height, earning it the title, “Cathedral of power.” It had an appetite to match, devouring a million tons of coal annually.
It was never going to win any green awards, and when the plug was pulled in the early 1980s, it didn't take long for Battersea to earn a new moniker: “embarrassing eyesore.”
In the ensuing decades, several proposals were put forward for its rescue — everything from a new soccer stadium for Chelsea FC to a nostalgia-tinged theme park to a monster roller-coaster were suggested — but it was a £9-billion ($15-billion Cdn) scheme by a group of Malaysian-led investors that finally turned the tide.
Now, after eight years of restoration work, Battersea is once more a humming beacon, with a new Underground station, dockside green spaces and architecturally striking apartments lining the pedestrianized Electric Avenue all adding to its allure.
The high-end merchants in the cavernous main hall are somewhat incongruous given Battersea's blue-collar heritage, but the developers have done a thoughtful job of incorporating exterior information posts outlining its history, while on the ground floor a free exhibition, Power of Place, charts its transformation in detail.
One of the four chimney stacks, all carefully rebuilt using original construction methods and 375 litres of paint, is now an elevator whisking tourists to a glass-walled platform boasting 360-degree views of London's skyline and a “one-of-a-kind view back on to the power station.” At £23.60 (roughly $40), the 109-metre journey is not cheap, but nothing better captures Battersea's remarkable transformation. An exhibition of original records and multimedia displays round out the experience.
To get a feel for the bells and whistles that make a power station click, check out the cocktail bar at Control Room B, or recharge overnight at London's first Art'otel — described as an art-inspired, luxury lifestyle hotel with 164 rooms — which launched at Battersea earlier this year. Shoppers can support local businesses and boutiques with a purchase at Curated Works, one of dozens of retailers, with more to come this year.
Less visible but just as significant was the opening last May of the $33-billion Elizabeth Line, whose “soaring popularity” has already made it the single busiest rail line in the U.K. Running 100 km from the town of Reading in the west to Shenfield in the east, the purple-hued “Busy Lizzie” has added 10 per cent more capacity to central London's transport network.
More importantly for Canadians arriving at Heathrow Airport, it offers an efficient alternative for travel to central London. While not as fast as the Heathrow Express, which whisks riders from the airport to Paddington station in 15 minutes, the Elizabeth Line — named after the late Queen — is much cheaper: £10.70 ($18), for a single trip during off-peak hours versus as much as £25 ($42).
Both big-money projects have been hailed in the British press, not generally given to gushing domestic praise, as bold statements of confidence and aspiration.
“When Britain backs big infrastructure, from the Elizabeth Line ... to the redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station, it does so with aplomb,” wrote Alex Brummer of the Daily Mail.
When Pink Floyd chose Battersea for its seminal album cover, neither the band nor its fans could have foreseen its stunning turnaround half-a-century later. It didn't help that the floating pig broke free of its moorings and drifted all the way to the south coast of Kent, tracked by police helicopters.
But if that was a bad omen, no one got the memo. Today, a new generation of tech-savvy visitors are framing majestic Battersea as the backdrop for countless videos, selfies and curated social media content.
London's old spark is well and truly back.