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Power Stations

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Around the world, coal-fired power stations around the world were often located along rivers because barges of coal needed to come upstream to the power stations built near to where the generated power was to be used. The current power loss in transmission and distribution is currently about 6% so the loss of early electricity networks must have been huge. London’s River Thames had 23 power stations along (at Bankside, Barking, Barnes, Battersea, Belvedere, Blackwall Point, Brunswick Wharf, Coryton, Deptford, Fulham, Gravesend, Greenwich, Hammersmith, Kingston, Littlebrook, Lombard Road, Lots Road, Northfleet, Stepney, Tilbury, Wandsworth, West Thurrock and Woolwich). The three Londoners are most familiar with are Bankside Power Station (opened 1891, decommissioned 1981), Battersea Power Station (1935, 1975) and Lots Road (Chelsea) Power Station (1902,1985) that provided power for London’s Underground. Battersea Power Station is the most celebrated of the three yet it had the shortest working life. It’s probably just as well. At its peak which was probably in the mid-1950s, it produced 20% of London’s power by burning 10,000 tons of coal per week to produce 20% of London’s power and approx. 28,600 tons of CO2. London’s Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.

Power stations were designed to do only one thing and, as it is with anything designed to perform a highly specialized function, there’s a problem once they’re decommissioned. Power stations have a better chance of an afterlife than aircraft carriers even though aircraft carriers being as large as shopping malls and have hangar decks larger than a turbine hall. Only a few aircraft carriers get to be a museum of themselves but the others are scrapped, along with submarines that have even less potential for repurposing. Another problem is that, despite Hans Holleiin’s efforts, aircraft carriers have no identity as a landmark. They’re on the wrong side of the waterside. Moreover, power stations were seen as symbols of progress and attention was paid to the design of the early ones. They were also guilty to last, understandably. They’re difficult to demolish and they don’t become ruins overnight. Despite all this, the thing we currently see most value is their large single-volume spaces that formerly housed the turbines. Turbines are heavy things that needed to be trucked in and then positioned by gantries. These large spaces are therefore associated with a clear and large axial approach. This is good. So far, we’ve come up with three ways of repurposing a decommissioned power station.

Art Gallery

Here’s a few power station art gallery repurposings I found. I’ve only been to two of them – London’s Tate Modern and Shanghai’s Power Station of Art (PSA).

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto 1987
Tate Modern, London 2000
Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2012 [By Fayhoo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]
GES-2 House of Culture, Moscow, 2021

Tate Modern we know about. Art galleries are the first choice for repurposing a power station because art requires only a loose fit. Art comes in all shapes and sizes and, if a space is too large for most art, then it’s reason enough to commission some large art to fill it. As is the way, how a humungous work of art “fills” or “uses” these large spaces is the main criteria by which the work of art is judged a success or failure. Never mind that the turbines were the reason that space existed – retaining a gantry running the length of a turbine hall is sufficient to indicate 1) the former industrial use and 2) an effort to honor it.

The Shanghai Power Station of Art was not built in the “Brick Gothic” [who knew?] style of Bankside or Battersea Power Stations. The first Nanshi Power Station was built in 1897 but the existing structure dates from 1985. This is it then and now. It’s a shed that’s had some work done by Original Design Studio architects who converted it into the Pavilion of the Future for the 2010 Shanghai Expo and into the Power Station of Art that opened in 2012.

Inside, the former turbine hall is kept as a large entrance. (You can visit the architects’ website here for more before and after images.) You go up some stairs and escalators, see various galleries. There’s a variety of spaces of different sizes, characters and types of illumination. It’s big. It works. The gantry has been kept, along with various pipes. The smokestack is a presence.

Shopping Mall a.k.a. Exciting New Lifestyle Destination

It’s not just art galleries that are a catalyst for further local development. Power stations were originally located close to where the power was to be consumed but in many cases not too close. London’s Battersea area has only recently become upmarket and then only certain parts of it. A view of the River Thames wasn’t so prized when coal barges were chugging up and down it all day. In short, many power stations were located in once-undesirable residential areas. It’s pointless finishing that sentence with “for better or worse.” Development will happen anyway. Battersea Power Station lay derelict for longer than it was ever operational, waiting for the sums to stack up. In this case, the turbine hall becomes an atrium that’s a bit wider than most shopping mall atriums, but still an atrium. The elevated walkways somewhat kill the grandeur of those columns but the good thing about those columns is that we don’t notice how much wall has been removed to make the shopfronts. On the other hand, putting a shopping mall in a decommissioned power station doesn’t require too many new openings to be made to the exterior. There’s a good reason why shopping malls have atriums. It seems popular.

Here’s another power station shopping mall conversion proposal. This time it’s BDPs proposal for Shanghai’s Yangshupu Power Station. You can read more about it here.

This is Broadway Malyan’s take on it. You can see a bit more here.

Residential Development

Converting a power station to residential makes a certain kind of sense if it is located in a borderline upmarket area, as is London’s Lots Road Power Station. It’s a strange location, adjacent to the once functional Chelsea Creek, and not far away from the upmarket Chelsea Harbour development to the west, but the once social housing World’s End Estate to the east. You can think of it as lower Chelsea or east Fulham. Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge home ground is quite close in the north but fans wouldn’t pass along Lots Road to or from.

It’s not a horrible location but only two of the four sides will have river views to the north-east or south-easy. Whoa! Upon seeing this third photo below, I don’t think that’s going to matter much.

The design architect was Sir Terry Farrell but the Architects of Record were Formation Architects: It’s obvious the power station restoration and conversion was the carrot to entice the borough’s council to allow the real moneymaker development on the riverfront. Thanks to Barbara Miranda for way back in2011 posting the below sketch and layout of the proposed development. It’s what happened to the power station that I’m most interested in. Removing the brick between the exterior pilasters on the river/creek side was the obvious thing to do. It doesn’t upset the facade at all, and is what happens on the north facade fronting Lots Road anyway. Doing away with the brick walls between the pilasters must have been on (Sir) Terry Farrell’s mind because his 2011 proposal for Battersea Power Station (right, below) did just that. Unfortunately, that’s all it did and all the scheme offered the surrounding residential development developers was some open space.

The third thing one can do with a disused turbine hall is to leave it empty to create some space between windows of opposing apartments and that’s what happened. Lots Road Power Station originally had four smokestacks and this next plan explains why two bays on the south side aren’t windowed and balconied. The adjacent apartments could have incorporated part of the massive smokestack as a wall but, when the other apartment layouts are this uninspired, it’d be odd to have four out of 37 apartments making a interesting feature out of what’s already there.

Let’s take a closer look at that typical floor layout.

  • The atrium is used as access lobby for all apartments. It’s not clear what’s happening at lobby level but I can imagine a Starbucks and a Seven Eleven. The mandatory gymnasium, management offices.
  • The elevators look as if they might be glass which will add a bit of movement to this atrium over which all bedrooms face towards. Judging by the size of the beds, opposing bedroom windows might be 12 metres apart.
  • There are ten elevator lobbies, four of which access only two apartments, four of which access three apartments, one (the upper right) that accesses five and one, (the upper right) that accesses twelve apartments, most of which are pretty miserable, especially the three with only atrium views. The maximum distance to a fire escape appears to have been exceeded, unless there’s a second door to the fire escape staircase on the lower left (SW corner). This corner of the building must be the affordable housing component, meeting some requirement in terms of percentage of the required number of units, not the percentage of the total area. This regulation has the effect of making affordable housing even smaller to increase the number that can be squeezed into the least attractive corner of the development.
  • The one-bedroom apartment on the lower west inside corner has a view of the smokestack maybe eight meters away from its only windows. That’s it at the end of the atrium in the above image. That internal corner behind it is particularly nasty with a living room window of that apartment sharing a right angle with the living room of its neighbor.

Maybe the as-built isn’t like this at all, but know planning like this all too well. It’s probably already a template for repurposing other decommissioned power stations as perception management obligations cloaking massive development gain elsewhere on the same parcel.

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    • Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, by Daniel Libeskind, former small PG&E electric power plant, historic fascade preserved.