Published  12/01/2007

Battersea Power Station Update: an Old Man River Saga

New Chinese art will fill and fill the giant space. Already, 22 Chinese artists are free-ranging within the derelict site. Because of the considerable distances across the site, bicycles are made available to visitors (those familiar with the Beijing traffic lights as a starting grid will relish the thought). Within, too, Liu Ding makes projections on brick walls. However, despite the humming shop, all has a kind of post-nuclear, late Chernobyl clamminess about it. This is nothing to do with Chinese culture, just the continuing effect of the abandoned, megalithic building. Victor Hwang's Parkview International is the development company that took it over from the remnants of John Broome's Alton Towers follow-up, after that collapse. Everywhere along the line there seems to have been a long chain of denial about the progression to date, yet Victor Hwang is clearly an optimist with ambition.

The power station itself looks like an expired, four-legged gargantuan on its back (indeed, perhaps, awaiting conversion into 50,000 Chinese suppers), but it was designed by the renowned Giles Gilbert Scott and one J Theo Halliday, only to last 60 years, when construction began in 1928. Now it seems to have gained the permanence of the outsized. Perhaps even the Millennium Dome awaits such a fate. Equally famous occupants of the site have been the Battersea Dogs Home for London strays, and, less beloved by Londoners, the Battersea car pound, from where one can retrieve impounded vehicles. The four tall chimneys, or upturned legs of the beast, if you are romantically inclined, are now deemed fit for the quizzical attentions of Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, star architect and President of the Royal Academy. Witty and irreverent architect Will Alsop might have done a good job, too, remembering perhaps the choice by Pink Floyd to use the power station on the sleeve of 'Animals'.

'The curse of Battersea power station is to soften the brains of everyone who approaches it', says author Stephen Bayley. The Architectural Review's famous 1960's/1970's writer and conservationist, Ian Nairn, once said, 'The timid fluting on brickwork and chimneys would have made Telford or Rennie throw up'. This was, after all, an Art Deco post-Lutyens contrivance. Soon to come will be high-rise hotels. A mega-global London conference centre (Heathrow is within easy reach), up to 3,000 parking spaces, retail malls, piazzas smelling of pizzas and Chinese suppers, but constantly sprayed with orchid essence, the 12-hectare main site will eventually be buzzing with activity of all kinds. No longer will there be snatches of 1960s Pinteresque London from across the river on haunting autumn evenings, China Power Station will be a 24-hour blaze of light. Even now, the process has begun. Artist Gu Dexin has dreamed up an installation of 100,000 mouldering apples, a collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery. Cecil Balmond, the engineer, agrees that Nick Grimshaw will enhance chimneys by replacing them with replicas. Hwang is hooked.

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