Battersea Power Station: A Site of Power and Regeneration24 minute read

Occupying popular imaginaries for several decades, Battersea Power Station (BPS) has been explored from a historical perspective (Heathorn, 2013; Garner, 2008), and from the present through the ‘sublime’ (Koefoed, 2011). Instead of considering BPS across three periods – operation, abandonment, redevelopment – with bounded identities, this paper seeks to study the connections between various representations across time, while answering Till’s (2008) call for research on the multi-sensual, spatial memory practices through which people understand their environment. Building on historical work, this paper analyses BPS as a palimpsest, considering the contestation of the visible and invisible in the urban politics of collective memory, to unveil how and why representations of BPS have changed over time. It investigates BPS not as an object that reveals a previously obscured, given reality but rather where different truths interact to create a social reality.

A riverside landmark swept into the currents of power circulating London, BPS is analysed as a site of power struggles. Combining archival research, discourse analysis and ethnography, this paper will trace the power structures that inscribe space with identity through the theme of collective memories and nostalgia. Cultural and political elites shape representations of BPS, which are either co-opted or contested by the local community. Examining the decisions on heritage marketing, public aesthetics, functional reuses, and access to the site, this paper argues that collective memory frames BPS’s past from the present, influences today’s imaginaries and haunts the future.

Once called a temple of power (Stamp, 1979), as BPS is reconstructed through regeneration, it is worthwhile to deconstruct the power relations embedded in its new formations. Breaking down these temporal boundaries offers us a glimpse of what lies ahead for this well-loved site, moving away from Murray’s (2015) account branding Battersea’s post-industrial fate as a ‘failure’. This paper asserts that BPS has opened up new possibilities challenging the hegemonic order, with its future open to rewriting. Looking at the echoes between the past, present and future, its past is never truly forgotten, and instead resurfaces to create new representations and meaning.


Collective memory, nostalgia and the palimpsest

Highlighting the complex memory-identity nexus, scholars in memory studies (Halbwachs, 1992) argue that personal and collective memories are dynamic and contested, differing across space and time in response to societal values. Collective memory constitutes shared experiences that are relived through formal and informal commemorative practices (Kong, 1999). The community (re)negotiates narratives of themselves and their environment, normalising certain behaviours or possibilities in a particular time-space intersection (Till, 1999). Memory organises public consciousness (Lowenthal, 1975), rendering the past a social construct (re)defined by contextual political-economic, moral, aesthetic and cultural concerns (Halbwachs, 1992). However, memory-formations by an elite group may be distinct from popular memories (Till, 1999). Under an institutional sanitisation of the past, darker histories are erased, while other events are highlighted and “remembered” (Bunnell and Nah, 2004), to ensure future economic returns (Chang and Huang, 2005), legitimise the position of elites and foster cohesive identities (Till, 2008).

While history reveals new layers of pasts, heritage is a reading of the past infused with present agendas (Lowenthal, 1987). Individually, with perspective changes such as ageing, memories are rewritten with the pain removed (Crinson, 2005). Through remembering, the past is constantly reinterpreted and appropriated in the present, creating monuments that are reified as heritage and operate in coherent narratives of progress. However, the past has its own disruptive presence and does not necessarily serve present needs (Birth, 2006). Drawing on Dillon’s (2005) concept of the palimpsest, through the dialectics of remembering and forgetting in which past and present intersect, previously dormant residues of past experiences are relived in public consciousness (Brockmeier, 2002; Farahani et al., 2015). This re-reading of the past inscribes memories in new urban forms, projecting identities, recreating new symbolic meanings, and opening up a multiplicity of readings (Massey, 1995). The intersecting social histories resonating across space and time contribute to ‘haunted places’ (Jonker and Till, 2007), their material and non-material presences inscribed by social structures (Tuan, 1977). These spaces confront spectres of the past, aspirations and fantasies through which the urban environment is interpreted (Benjamin, 1986).

The city acts as the locus of collective memory (Rossi and Eisenman, 1982). Individual actors’ decisions and wider socioeconomic forces cause the spatially uneven treatment of the urban environment, where valued places are preserved and adapted while others are left derelict or replaced (Madgin, 2008). Cultural imaginaries and collective memory depict who has the right to belong and define the prevailing dominant representation of a place (Zukin, 1995; Harvey, 2002), with the role of aesthetics in representing voices in political space (Ranciere, 2009). Contrasting representations of what belongs in a place are supported by their respectively different interpretations of the past (Massey, 1995). BPS exemplifies this interplay between collective memory, place identity and urban transformations. Borrowing Chang and Huang’s (2011) framework, the discussion below evaluates how selective remembering informs attempts to reclaim function, access and local identity.


Methodology

Firstly, archival research was conducted to uncover representations from the past that are invisible in the present. Photographs and documents were accessed at London Metropolitan Archives, detailing the site’s origins, justifications for aesthetic and management changes, and public reactions to the site. Additionally, oral histories of elderly Battersea residents were obtained through the Nine Elms Past & Present project by Chocolate Films in 2015. These accounts were useful in examining how histories are “socially constructed and technologically mediated” by actors “ordering time and space to rationalise their experiences” (Benjamin, cited in Keith, 2008:413). Using archival sources permitted comparisons across temporalities, revealing how past power relations affect present politics of space. However, non-neutrality issues arise due to the curator’s framing, reflecting the power in accumulating, hoarding, and organizing knowledge in a particular way (Sekula, 1986). Acknowledging these limitations, the material was critically examined for biases, assumptions, and intended audiences in relation to other sources.

Discourse analysis was conducted to deconstruct the power relations and ideologies embedded in representations of BPS (Derrida, 1977), noting how icons are utilised by actors to evoke certain reactions. The marketing materials and masterplans from the Battersea Power Station Development Company, failed regeneration proposals, and representations in popular culture were reviewed. These sources served as a starting point to understand the specific geographical context and wider socio-political relations and processes (Cloke et al., 2004). However, visual methodologies employed at a distance may fail to address the experiential, thus, ethnographic methods were used to supplement findings.

Participant observation was adopted. To understand whose position and perspective of the site was privileged, this writer experienced BPS as a pedestrian, from the bus and train. As the site is currently under construction, public spaces in its immediate surroundings were observed instead, however, the writer’s own experience of the station was mediated by other people’s accounts. Nevertheless, these methods inform each other and overall explore the implications of power in BPS.


Discussion

Figure 1: Local newspaper comic on BPS redevelopment (BPSCG, 1998)
Figure 1: Local newspaper comic on BPS redevelopment (BPSCG, 1998)

Various actors have sought control over how the site is represented, forming different narratives contextualising BPS’s past, present, and future, in order to serve their own agendas. BPS was a site of local politics, the stage upon which local politicians attempted to justify and further their agendas. In the Thatcher-era, BPS represented a ‘slumbering giant’ rescued by entrepreneurship (Young, 1988); for Cameron, BPS was the remnant of a proud industrial past (BBC, 2013); whereas Miliband used the site to criticise rising costs of living (Rucki, 2013). Locals also staged protests about the redevelopment schemes (Mackle, 1978; Lowe, 1995). Figure 1 paints the conflict between ‘Batterseaman’, representing public interests, and their ‘arch enemy’, a villainous profit-making developer, implying BPS’s needed rescue. Thus, different actors have situated BPS in different ways to support their perspectives about BPS is and should be.

Cultural elites also drew on the site. Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover immortalised BPS in a stage of transition between closure and redevelopment. Deeply embedded in popular imaginaries of BPS, members in the local community were quick to adopt this representation of the site, asserting working-class nostalgia, critiquing creative destruction, and more importantly drawing support for BPS’s preservation (Luckin, 1990; Stamp, 1981), despite the band’s vastly different interpretations (Watts, 2016).

In light of its present redevelopment, representations of Battersea Power Station’s past by key stakeholders have changed, reflecting how nostalgia has influenced collective memory and revised perceptions of the past. Efforts to rewrite the site’s history are evident in marketing materials by the development company and the local community.

Figure 2: BPS marketing posters (BPSDC, 2015)
Figure 2: BPS marketing posters (BPSDC, 2015)

For the present development company, BPS’s redevelopment signals the continuation of its an utilitarian approach to heritage, invoking industrial nostalgia to appeal to potential buyers. The analogy of rockets taking off alludes to the theme of modernity in BPS’s industrial history, and suggests that its future economic development will be equally ground-breaking. This demonstrates the rewriting of the past into a coherent and linear narrative, as well as cultural-led regeneration, where practical usage of BPS’s industrial heritage catalyses the engine of regeneration. Yet, the blue skies and clear waters reflect a sanitised economic takeoff, ignoring the pollution that once plagued Battersea. Thus, popular imaginaries are (re)constructed to reposition BPS as a pioneering catalyst of growth. The deliberately sanitised portrayal of BPS’s past reveals private developers’ intentions to restore BPS as a site of production, albeit from power generation to cultural production of economic value.

The local community is also complicit in this rewriting of history. Upon its completion in 1934, architectural critics lauded the design although “among the less artistically conscious the new station was unkindly referred to as a stranded elephant or a giant upside- down table” (Mackle, 1978). Nevertheless, within several decades locals adopted the view of BPS as a cherished icon with distinctive architecture (Binney and Stamp, 1981). The Battersea Power Station Community Group (BPSCG) website fondly narrates its history as a well-loved community symbol, its technological advancements, architectural monumentality and emphasises its centrality in popular culture. In 1990, then RIBA president Max Hutchinson stated that “[BPS] is enshrined in London folklore. We all remember the Pink Floyd “Animals” album cover … it’s unthinkable for London to be without it”. Under this circular argument, BPS remains central in popular imaginaries, a spectre of the past, as a long-time resident reflects:

“[BPS] is one of the most iconic buildings in Battersea, London, England, the world possibly! I got involved in various committees with very long titles around [BPS]. … you feel passionate about it, you come to it in lieu, you find out what’s important about it and I suppose that’s when these things were then being attacked, people’s needs not being met, that’s what got me involved in whatever campaign that happened to come up.” – Jeanne

Thus, in the spatialisation of memory in contemporary urban space, collective memory is manipulated by private actors and co-opted by the community, presenting a sanitised, ordered account of BPS’s past.

However, tensions arise when these stakeholders disagree how and to what extent BPSCG and the development company strongly disagreed over the demolition of BPS’s chimneys. To local residents, BPS represented a period of economic stability and secure employment, with the preservation of the chimneys key to communal identity and to protect a vision of the past valued in the present (Searle and Byrne, 2002). Thus BPSCG argued that it was technically achievable and desirable for the existing chimneys to be repaired and maintain the building’s character. However, the development company, supported by Wandsworth Council and English Heritage contested that repairs were insufficient for long-term viability, concluding that it was sufficient to reconstruct the chimneys in their original image, height and appearance, with longer-lasting materials (Sweet, 2009). To alleviate community concerns over permanent demolition of the chimneys, partly due to the prior deliberate abandonment of the site (Private Eye, 1989), the development company agreed to demolish and reconstruct one chimney, before proceeding with subsequent demolishment (Watts, 2016). However, locals have not protested the demolishment of the East Wall (Spectacle, 2016) which developers carried out to allow light into office developments. This exemplifies the uneasy compromises and inconsistencies of heritage preservation, where different aspects of the site are valued more than others. Traces of the past in the present thus persist under specific conditions, determining what eventually constitutes the site’s heritage.

Echoes of the past can be seen in BPS’s planned functions after redevelopment. BPS has consistently been subjected to the dynamic colonisation of space by capital. Both BPSCG People’s Plan and the various proposals by private developers suggested BPS to be reused for leisure; however, where BPSCG aimed to primarily serve local interests, private developers had global aspirations, which reflected in spectacular imaginaries and highly orchestrated landscapes (Glancey, 1993). BPS’s fate was determined by political- economic processes such as the creation/destruction of value and privatisation of the public realm, and uncertainties shrouding its future were linked to asset speculation. Its unrealised futures in the past have become part of the future. Keeping the signature Viñoly masterplan, BPS is set to house commercial, non-pollutive activities like its preceding redevelopment proposals; however, there is significant proportion of office and luxury housing. As Wright (2011) argues, architectural repetitions in terms of redevelopment proposals demonstrate the revisiting of ideas, objects, spaces, introduced from different perspectives to produce different meanings. Recently, it was reported that the developers would convert two residential buildings to offices, responding to changes in demand (Evans, 2017). Thus, BPS has been critiqued as part of the countless flagship riverside projects designed by starchitects and act as mere government-sanctioned safe sites for global investment (Wainwright, 2017). The clear economic prioritisations, and dominance of private over public interests, pervades to present day. The prevailing development plan is the one that is deemed more important for the local economy, and is legitimised to maintain elite power.

Figure 3: CGI of BPS Electric Boulevard (BPSDC, 2017)
Figure 3: CGI of BPS Electric Boulevard (BPSDC, 2017)

The local council has consistently attempted to convince local residents to support BPS redevelopment schemes. In its days as a power station, the pollution was tolerated for its importance to the daily functioning of the local community in Battersea. In the present, the local authorities attempt to reassure the locals by emphasising benefits such as the Northern line extension funded partially by the development company, which is expected to catalyse local growth, attract foreign investors and key stakeholders such as the US Embassy, and generate economic activity (Wandsworth Council, 2012). On its part, the development company has deliberately displayed its interest in community involvement, undertaking public consultations, organising exhibitions with local organisations and even promoting a community choir (BPSDC, 2017). However, in doing so, it takes over what is represented and strengthens control over the hegemonic discourse under the appearance of ground-up participation.

Similarly, aesthetic decisions over BPS continue to be implicated in relations of power. Established architects (dubbed ‘starchitects’) are used to elevate the site’s status in public consciousness. In PBS’s early days as a power station, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was exclusively requested to improve the building exterior, as a “public relations exercise” (Stamp, 1981:5).

 

Figure 4: Present view of BPS (Author, 2017)
Figure 4: Present view of BPS (Author, 2017)

In the present, ‘starchitects’ such as Gehry, Foster+Partners and BIG similarly determine the appearance of BPS. However, the planned developments have attracted more criticism: Moore (2016) argues that the new developments seek to outshine each other, resulting in BPS being dwarfed and obscured. Instead of appeasing the public with more palatable aesthetics, the main purpose seems to be catering to private investors’ tastes. This can be gleaned from identifying who gets the privileged perspective of the famous chimneys. Once the site is completed, it can only be seen from certain perspectives from the ground, within a gated community exclusively for office workers and residents in luxury flats, and otherwise glimpsed from the rail train. Most locals experience BPS through the train ride; new luxury housing developments obscure their view of BPS. Visually, BPS is erased from the landscape, depriving residents of a claim to the space. As expressed by local activists Keith Garner and Twentieth Century Society: “if you surround it with buildings 15 storeys high, you don’t have a landmark any more” (Cochrane, 1975; Stamp, 2004). Again, this demonstrates how industrial heritage is commodified by both public and private actors, reifying BPS’s centrality in public imagination. Aesthetic power is thus exercised to determine how the site is seen and represented in public imaginaries. The power relations in terms of determining whose perspective is privileged and whose interests represented also reveals inequalities in
defining and claiming the space.

The site owners have continually sought to control access to BPS and regulate
behaviour within the site, enforcing the binaries of safe/dangerous, clean/dirty,
appropriate/inappropriate and order/disorder.

“It was rather like a classroom because we each had our own desk behind and in front of one another … In the summer we used to go up on the roof by the chimneys and have our lunch. One day … I started to go up one and somebody in authority came and saw me and said you must get down, so obviously I had to get down.” – Rita, shorthand typist in Battersea Power Station 1954-1957

During its period of closure, Treasury Holdings, the property company that was managing BPS, authorised monitored access to the site for public events and filmings, with restricted areas (Koefoed, 2011). Currently, access is limited to construction workers across the entire site for safety reasons. Even in open areas, conditions of access are regulated:

“While filming the new Riverside promenade, our naive crew, believing in the “public space” hype outlined by the developers, acted as if it was a real public area. Unfortunately we have been brought back to reality when the local security reminded us that the landlord decided that smoking was not allowed on the site.” – Spectacle, 2016

This encounter clearly distinguished private spaces open to the public from public spaces. The consistent assertions of the development company’s sole right to the place and decisions over access to the space, demonstrate its establishment, consolidation and exercise of power.

However, BPS has also been a site of resistance, representing alternative claims to space, challenging hegemonic discourse and upsetting binaries by permitting local communities to assert possible alternative futures. Fixed binaries under hegemonic discourse impose limits to what stakeholders imagine to be possible in the site and regulate present behaviour. During the period of uncertainty over BPS’s future, multiple interpretations were cast on the site, allowing for new possibilities which unsettle the straightforward pro-developer logic to emerge. Temporary appropriations of BPS, such as through films, blur the divide between fiction and reality. In Children of Men, BPS was reimagined with the Pink Floyd pig balloon, Tate Modern’s interiors, and positioned behind the Millennium Bridge. This reflected popular cultural reimagining of BPS in new aesthetic forms and functions. BPS has even transgressed boundaries between outside and inside, and between human and non-human spaces, with the presence of urban foxes at the site featured in the 2012 documentary Foxes Live: Wild in the City. Similar to BPSCG-organised protests and organised trespass in the past, ‘urban explorers’ have also used BPS in a performative act of urban transgression, questioning the divide between public and private spaces (Garrett, 2013). Perhaps ironically, the organisation of public events at BPS during its transition period to generate publicity and investors’ interest in the site, such as Holi festival celebrations and various concerts, showed the public a tantalising glimpse of what the future could have been, changing their perception of BPS as a public space. The alternative imaginaries occupying BPS as it was suspended in time and space continue to persist, offering opportunities to overcome the imprint of power on the city (Edensor, 2011; DeSilvey and Edensor, 2013) and to “imagine more fair and just possibilities” (Chinn and Oza, 2011:17). Introducing narrative turbulence to BPS’s history, these narratives attempt to redefine the site’s identity – a conflict that is never fully finished.

BPS represents a unique interplay of the past, present and future. It performs part of a physical remembering of the industrial era. Due to its entrenchment in popular imaginaries, memory and nostalgia continue to haunt present lived experiences. Thus, the past is never fully forgotten; ‘old’ ideas may be reintroduced in ‘new’ narratives, in contrasting or complementary ways, through re-readings of the past. Yet, BPS also suggests both dystopian and utopian futures, contributing to critiques of the present and imaginings of more egalitarian futures. Echoes of the past in the present, both materially and functionally suggest the contestations that lie ahead for BPS. While we should avoid romanticising the past, as Pinch (2015) argues, we should not forget alternative insights of BPS as a more meaningful space, and of the futures yet be produced. BPS’s future is hardly predetermined by neoliberal forces, with the multiple readings of BPS enabling a more progressive urban politics (Lefebvre, 1996). Reading BPS as a palimpsest contributes more nuanced understandings of the dynamic composition of power: how development processes have been mediated and the possibilities for future mediation and change. BPS becomes, simultaneously, a site where power structures are reproduced and restructured.


Conclusion

Through the lens of collective memory and nostalgia, this paper explores how and why representations of BPS manifest across various spatio-temporal dimensions. The past is romanticised through its sanitised, packaged retellings for heritage marketing by various actors, with BPS’s present state as a private land for productive use having historical basis. However, BPS demonstrates how various actors attempt to represent the site with their respective agendas. In particular, the alternative urban imaginaries that have persisted since its period in transition continue to challenge the hegemonic order, expanding awareness of public rights to the city and opening up new perspectives of BPS and other developments. BPS has been and still remains a site of possibilities, where public resistance challenges private development and sometimes succeeds with institutional mediation.

BPS is subject to the dynamic interplay of multiple layers from the past, present and future. Examining the recurring threads between past and present, this paper does not suggest the inevitability of certain outcomes in BPS. Rather, BPS demonstrates how elements of the past are continually reintroduced, giving nuance to contestations over space and reframing the debate. BPS defies easy definition and resists stereotypes, prompting us to rethink the narratives of other urban spaces, through the intersections of space and time.


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Images

Figure 1. Battersea Power Station Community Group (BPSCG). (1998). Battersea Bulletin 1998 Spring Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.batterseapowerstation.org.uk/bbmain.html (2015).

Figure 2. Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC). (2015). The Placebook: Battersea Power Station. Retrieved from http://www.jtp.co.uk/cms/pdfs/The-Placebook_Battersea-Power-Station.pdf Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC). Retrieved from https://www.designweek.co.uk/inspiration/battersea-power-station-posters-by-brave/

Figure 3. Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC). (2017). CGI of Battersea Power Station Electric Boulevard. Retrieved from https://www.batterseapowerstation.co.uk/#!/go/view/app/global-launch?view=phase3

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