THE PLACE OF THE RUIN  -  Wednesday August 26th, 2009

Battersea as it was, and as it could be…

Millennium People projects a garden into the turbine room.

Soane’s Bank of England.
Over the last quarter of a century London’s Battersea Power Station has been the subject of several redevelopment plans, from industrial-themed amusement parks to 200m tall eco-towers. And yet since the first energetic works in the mid-eighties, when the roof and a fair section of wall were torn down, almost no visible advance has been made.

In fact, there is a convincing argument that says the building will likely remain a ruin forever. Developers seem to simply be sitting on the land and, in a series of Ponzi-esque transfers, selling it on after a few years of having done nothing to it. At a certain point you have to ask: why can’t this exchange be somehow perfected and the building left in peace to become a ruin?

Perhaps the real question is: can it be left as a ruin at all? The British architect John Soane imagined his own Bank of England as a ruin even before it had been built, depicting a parasoled public strolling about the broken arches and partial columns as they might the Diocletian baths. Of course the Bank of England was not left to this fate, but ruthlessly demolished in what architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called “the greatest architectural crime in the City of London of the twentieth century”.

Should it have been left to fall apart? Integrating itself into the urban fabric as a monument to previous eras, slowly transformed into a pleasure garden of dilapidated folies? Could Battersea become a modern-day equivalent: iron colonnades, tidal ponds connected to the Thames, sunken amphitheatres of smashed brick?

Predictably, the only part of Soane’s Bank that survived was its fa├žade. Similarly, given the iconic nature of the Station’s silhouette, any future building on the site would almost certainly be a piece of three-dimensional facadism for the twenty-first century. Flats and boutiques crammed into the husk of a former powerhouse.

The only real value of the architecture is the architecture itself. It is the hard materials and industrial detailing that makes it unique. It is the overwhelming scale of the spaces that makes it impressive. The volumes do not have inherent meaning, which is why retaining their proportions in new buildings is so redundant as a design theory. I find the whole modern practice of retaining previous structure’s footprints as part of a historical argument highly suspicious- it is the qualities of the limits of the spaces, not merely their measurements, which instil a sense of place. Without the original walls the site will inevitably take on an atemporal and homogenous quality. At which point you may as well demolish the thing and have done with it. Which in some ways I almost wish they would do, being preferable to a lobotomy of the building’s industrial aesthetic.

In reality, the city doesn’t really design dilapidation, it just happens. Ruins are the result of negligence, not intent. Could that, or should that, change? Will the architects and landscapers of the future be more like geologists, learning to read every depression and protrusion of these forgotten territories?

When talking about how to combat the uniformity of global architecture in our cities, certainly icons like Battersea Power Station become fantastically important. But can we come to think about their preservation as an engineered ruin? What, if any, is the place of the industrial epoch in the post-industrial city?

3 Responses to “THE PLACE OF THE RUIN”
  1. Tristan says:

    Thoughtful post! I think there is definitely a place for the ruin in the modern city, and I agree with you that mimicking the volumetric properties of the previous building does nothing to truly remember it.

  2. Max says:

    why is it that no proposal yet for that site (barring making it a modern ruin) really does justice to the battersea power station? They all look like their over-crowding it, as if it needs more of its own space. Perhaps making it into some developer driven push for more apartments and more retail space is crushing the creativity of the project

  3. Jack Self says:

    I guess that's the nature of contemporary architecture (or at least it was until very recently) – essentially an exercise in icon making and square-metre maximising.