Category Archives: Architecture

Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

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Miss World and the ruin of London

I have two events coming up where I will be discussing Battersea Power Station in collaboration with other writers. At the excellent Bookseller Crow shop in Crystal Palace I will be teaming up with Rob Baker of Another Nickel In The Machine for a London Night, where we will talk about low culture and high jinx in London. My talk will focus on some of the finer pop culture moments associated with Battersea Power Station, while Rob will talk about his blog, his book (Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics) and the Miss World protest of 1970.

This will take place on Thursday September 15th at 7.30pm, £3.

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This will be followed by a London Society event with Owen Hatherley, where we will discuss the redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea, and debate the limits of preservation and conservation in a talk titled The Ruin of London. This takes place at the Gallery on Cowcross Street on Sept 20th from 6.30pm.

Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jeater for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jeater told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.

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The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

Talking about Battersea Power Station

A lovely review of Up In Smoke has appeared on the London Society website this week, and I will be talking about Battersea Power Station at a London Society event alongside Owen Hatherley in September. More information on that soon. Owen and I discussed architecture and music on Resonance FM a few weeks ago, and you can listen to that here.

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Before that, I’ll be one of three speakers at a Londonist event on July 20th at The Pipeline on Middlesex Street, E1. I will tell some strange tales about Battersea Power Station, Amy Dickens will discuss her blog about commuters and Matt Brown will tell us that everything you know about London is wrong, which also happens to be the title of his latest book. All that for a fiver and chance to say hello. Doors open at 7pm.

To give you a taste,here’s a blog post I wrote about the power station’s current predicament for the New Statesman. I’ve also recorded something for their City Metric podcast – more information on that as it comes.  

 

 

Tate Modern – a tale of two power stations

I went to see the new Tate Modern extension yesterday and very impressive it was too. The extension by Herzog & De Meuron manages that rare trick of looking new and exciting while also reflecting the character and style its neighbouring building. It reminded me a little of the way the British Library sits so comfortably yet confidently next to St Pancras.

 

The interior is also neatly done, despite some very peculiar shapes in corners. There appears to be more public space than in the original galleries – although that may be because it was filled with only 100 or so journalist rather than several thousand tourists – and it feels genuinely sociable, as well as realistically industrial. The viewing platform on the 10th floor is great, although the vista to the south is sadly blocked by the hideous tower to the left of the image directly above.

The art was fun too, featuring some great oversized installations on the second floor, plus a mix of disciplines – including incredible street photography taken in Newcastle – and loads of women and international artists.

Naturally, this sensitive, thoughtful and exciting treatment of what was once Bankside Power Station got me thinking about its older sibling along the river in Battersea. Both buildings were the work of the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and so naturally share a similar style, most notably the use of decoration on the brick envelope to dress the mass, making it more palatable. Some critics believe that Bankside is the better building, describing it as Scott’s masterpiece.

It is certainly a fine building but I’m not even sure I was aware it existed until it was converted into Tate Modern in 2000. I would have walked past it, sailed past it, looked straight at it numerous times – but the fact of its existence escaped me. This is not uncommon I’ve found and Bankside, for many, only became noticeable when it was turned into an art gallery, finding in its second life a prominence that had eluded it for decades – and perhaps this invisibility is something Scott should be commended for, as the power station’s presence on the river opposite St Paul’s was immediately and understandably controversial.

Bankside

This is all in stark contrast to Battersea, a building that once seen is impossible to forget and which has always had a prominence you rarely find in industrial buildings, let alone their ruins. Only now, as Battersea disappears behind a curtain of contemporary glass and steel is that threatened – so while Bankside eventually found visibility in its afterlife, Battersea faces obscurity, with the thoughtfulness of the Tate’s new extension highlighting the brash ugliness of the new developments around Battersea.

High Street

 

As ever, one ponders alternative presents to that in which we find ourselves. When it became known in the early 1990s that the Tate was looking for a second building, having acquired a collection too large to be contained within the original Pimlico gallery, campaigners at the Battersea Power Station Community Group wrote to the trustees, suggesting they make a bid for Battersea Power Station, then still in the hands of theme park magnate John Broome but already in a terrible state. This, they argued, would make the perfect location for a new art gallery: it was huge, impressive, historic and directly across the river from the Pimlico site. Romantic as this might have been, Tate’s trustees – possibly alerted to the idea of using a power station by the campaigners – instead plumped for Bankside, which had closed in 1981 and facing demolition, for entirely practical reasons.

Bankside-Excavator-in-turbine-hall-Landscape

Inside Bankside before the art arrived

For one, Bankside is much smaller than Battersea, only a third the size. Secondly, Bankside is much easier to get to, surrounded by tube and rail stations, and even a new bridge to the City, while Battersea is strangely isolated despite its prominent location. Thirdly, Bankside wasn’t listed, making it much easier to convert -and later, to stick gargantuan limpet-like extension alongside, when it turned out the original building was too small.

Bankside was saved and the arrival of Tate helped precipitate a huge cultural change along that part of the river. Further west, however, Battersea’s struggles had barely begun.

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station published by Paradise Road.

Waterstones event

I will be giving a talk about Battersea Power Station’s failed dreams on Wednesday May 11 at 7pm at Waterstones in Clapham Junction. Further details here. Please come along and ask questions. It’s free.

A lovely review of Up In Smoke is on Caught By The River and I also wrote a long piece in The i Paper this week, exploring the power station’s history through quotes from those involved in its history. It’s pretty thorough and looks great. You can read that here.

Perhaps I should have asked Brian Barnes to knock up some posters? This is one of us from the 1980s.

BPSCG 1988 from Spectacle blog

Talking power station with Robert Elms

I was invited on Robert Elms’ Radio London show yesterday to talk about Battersea Power Station.

You can hear me here, from around 1 hr 39 minutes. Thanks to Robert’s team for inviting me on, and for Robert asking such excellent questions. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Listening to Robert Elms’s show in the late 1990s was fundamental to developing my fascination with London so this was quite an exciting event for me. In many ways, the nature of my love for London was more influenced by Elms than it was the likes of Sinclair or Ackroyd.

Incidentally, this was also the first time I had visited the BBC at Portland Place since 1999, when I was one of a handful of journalists invited to see a demonstration of TIVO by the BBC’s Head Of Future, who paused and then continued watching a live weather forecast. Many of us believed we had witnessed a form of witchcraft; one reporter even accused him of manipulating a VHS tape.

I also had a piece in Time Out this week, listing ten things you didn’t know about Battersea Power Station. You can read that here.

 

 

 

 

Top ten: Battersea Power Station in popular culture

While I dedicate a chapter of my book about Battersea Power Station, Up In Smoke (now available to purchase from the publisher), to the chaotic photoshoot for Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover, this was not the only time the building has been used in popular culture. Here I’ve listed some of my favourites, but there are dozens more involving Dr Who, Slade, The Jam, Richard III, The Who and The Quatermass Xperiment. It was also used as otherwise anonymous filming locations for numerous TV shows, pop videos and films, including Superman III, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Texas, Manson and The Dark Knight but I’ve chosen the moments that made the building the star.

1 Sabotage  (1936)

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Hitchcock, a Londoner with a sharp eye for locations, was one of the first directors to note the visual potential of the power station, using it in early scenes of his 1936 film Sabotage. Here the power station has only two chimneys, the second half was not started until 1937 and the final chimney not added until 1955.

2. High Treason (1951)

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This superior Cold War neo-noir b-movie includes a thrilling climactic scene at Battersea Power Station, where there’s a great shoot-out amid the clanging pipes and hissing steam. Worth seeking out.

3. Up The Junction (1963)

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Nell Dunn’s non-fiction collection of writing about Battersea woman is set in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. The poetic back cover blurb for one early edition stated, “Innocence in Battersea lasts as long as the flower remains unsooted by the power station.”

4. Help! (1965)

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In The Beatles’ film, the power station is shown blowing a fuse at a critical juncture, causing a black-out and allowing the Fabs to escape their bolthole in Buckingham Palace (“A Well-Known Palace”).

5. Smashing Time (1967)

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This goes a step further, with the restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower revolving so fast it causes the power station to explode. London’s brash newest icon annihilating a venerable predecessor – a metaphor for the 1960s if ever there was.

6. Quark Strangeness And Charm & Lights Out (1977)

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ufo

Despite the Animals debacle, album sleeve artists Hipgnosis returned twice more to the power station in 1977, photographing futuristic interior covers for Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm and UFO’s Lights Out.

7. The Borribles (1983)

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A wonderfully feral cover for this brilliant 1983 children’s novel about a group of cockney elven urchins – Borribles – who are at war with the Rumbles, a group of rat-like creatures that are thinly disguised Wombles. The action begins in Battersea, hence the power station backdrop. I loved this book as a child, and the cover was part of that initial attraction.

8. Jet Set Willy (1984)

jet set willy

This level of the classic ZX Spectrum computer game was one of the first products to reference both the power station and Algie the flying pig. I played this game endlessly as a child – though I’m not sure I really got the pop culture or architectural references.

9. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” (1992)

Moz

I was obsessed with Morrissey in 1992, and while I didn’t like this song much at the time, I did love the fact the power station featured a couple of times. Now, I think it is one of Morrissey’s finest pop moments, and the shots of the power station still delight me. A couple of years after this, I saw Morrissey play a gig at the power station, although in the dark and funnelled through tunnels, it was impossible to tell that’s where we were. Morrissey was rubbish too.

10. Children of Men (2006)

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A striking scene in Children Of Men takes place at the power station, which has been converted into the Ark Of The Arts, containing the world’s most priceless artefacts in this dystopian future London – Alfonso Cuaron, like several other film directors, saw Battersea as the sort of building only a totalitarian could love. Note the pig, flying between the chimneys. The film’s location manager told me, “We wanted strong images that had to represent London but not cheesy London. Using somewhere like Battersea meant there was no question of where you were, it was London but proper London, authentic London.”

Dream City – London’s unbuilt Edwardian theme park

I have a post on Londonist about Dream City, a theme park concept cooked up in 1907 by an American developer for a disused waterworks, a site that was later occupied by Battersea Power Station.

You can read the full story here.

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Dream City

The unbuilt Dream City is also the starting point for Alice May Williams’ short film about Battersea Power Station called Dream City: More, Better Sooner produced by the Film And Video Umbrella. The fvu have organised a talk on Friday (April 15) at the Battersea site of the Royal College of Arts by Owen Hatherley called Monetising The Ruin: Batterseas Old And New.

I will be attending the lecture and also selling copies of my book Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station.

Up In Smoke

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station has a release date of April 26.

You can find out more at this website, which also tells you how to get in touch if you want me to do any talks or events.

UpInSmoke

Expect me to be writing about this a lot more in the next few weeks.