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Starting the ball rolling. The first forum

In the early hours of a frosty 14th February this year, members of Battersea Power Station Community Group (BPSCG) entered the famous London landmark on an important mission. The following morning, commuters on passing trains saw the outcome: a valentine to Battersea Power Station in the form of a love heart and the message "Love Me" on a 40ft banner draped over the west wall.

BPSCG is probably best known for stunts such as this, designed to keep Battersea Power Station in the news and to focus attention on its deteriorating state and the neglect of developers and protection agencies alike.

BPSCG is perhaps less well known for the series of public meetings it has organised at intervals in its twelve year history. By the middle of 1994, we felt that the time had come for a further meeting in order to review the situation in the aftermath of the , supposed, change of ownership of the building from Battersea Leisure o Parkview International of Hong Kong. Thus the Battersea Power Station Forum was conceived.

Its success would hinge on the quality of its speakers.

Will Alsop, the internationally famous architect based in Battersea, was approached and agreed to be the keynote speaker. Dr Alan Powers of the Twentieth Century Society, Rob Cowan of Vision for London, Peter Kreamer of Capital Power & Waste and Charles Madden of Parkview International also agreed to speak.

We were especially fortunate in having Anita Pollack MEP for London S.W. and EEC spokesperson on environmental issues chair the morning session and Bob Colenutt of Docklands Consultative Committee, chair the afternoon session.

The Forum took place on 25th February 1995 when eighty people packed into St Paul's Church Clapham Junction to hear that it doesn't have to be like this.

Anita Pollack opened the proceedings with messages of support from Lord Alf Dubs, former MP for Battersea, Tom Cox, MP for Tooting and Sir Ernest Hall of Dean Clough in Halifax.

In the first talk of the morning session, Brian Barnes of BPSCG, put the failure down to the nature of the scheme put forward by John Broome in 1986: a leisure centre reliant of large numbers of car bourn visitors drawn from a regional catchment centre. An unfeasible solution, given the difficult location of the building, offering nothing to the local community.

The solution, for BPSCG, is a scheme more closely related to the locality, responding to local needs and to London as a whole, and connected to the city with improved public transport. A diversity of uses is also important.

"We would have theatres, cinemas, art galleries, a sculpture court, a sports arena, an ice rink, a gymnasium, recording studios, a business centre and a museum of energy centred around the Art Deco control room in the Battersea 'A' station."

Will Alsop, the following speaker, went on to describe a process by which the desirable state of affairs described by Brian Barnes could come about, drawing upon his practice's experience in several European countries over the last ten years.

In 1985, also had taken part in a 'Bauforum' in Hamburg, arranged by the director of planning of the city, Egbert Kossak. In a situation very similar to Battersea, a derelict area of the river front had fallen into decay and disuse. Recognising the problem, the City invited a number of well known architects (including Alsop) as well as local architects to consider the problem and to come up with ideas.

Alsop recalled: "It was a very interesting experience. So that as you were working and discussing ideas, there was a series of lectures, particularly in the early evenings. The public were allowed to come in at any time that they wished, to talk with any particular group or to have various ideas and thoughts explained. And all done in a very good spirit. So there was a rather festive attitude."

The results of the Bauforum were published and recommendations subsequently adopted by the city as policy, with specific strategies identified for particular sites. On one of these sites - for a ferry terminal - a competition was organised, which Alsop won.

Alsop's ferry terminal is now complete and the riverfront n general has enjoyed a renaissance of life and activity. Alsop went on to describe similar projects his practice has been involved with in the Port de la Lune area of Bordeaux and in Geneva, where initiatives to bring new life to decaying urban areas and derelict industrial buildings have all met with success.

Battersea, on the other hand, continues to languish, although clearly the bauforum process is directly transferable to London. At Battersea, Alsop thought, a bauforum would cost in the region of £150,000. So why hasn't a similar project been initiated here?

Delegates to the Forum did not have to wait long to find out: there isn't any money and in any case, it is for the developer alone to come up with a solution for the site. This combination of tightfistedness and political bigotry was articulated from the floor by Councilor Guy Senior, chairman of the planning committee of Wandsworth Borough Council.

On the first point, Guy Senior was challenged by another delegate, Lisa Foster, working on historic buildings issues: "You could obtain funding to do a feasibility study and have a Hamburg-style feasibility week, sponsored by lottery funding. There's a pile of money out there to be used and these are appropriate projects for it".

As for Senior's second point, that the developer should decide, it was left for the developer himself to demonstrate the folly of this course of action.

Charles Madden of the Hong Kong based developer Parkview, told the meeting that plans would not be unveiled until ownership of the site was theirs. Curiously however, this had not prevented Parkview from proceeding to draw up plans which (it emerged at the Forum) were so far advanced that in January they had been shown to the London Advisory Committee of English Heritage.

As Brian Barnes had earlier revealed, to Madden's obvious annoyance, the scheme shown to English Heritage proposed a Canary Wharf type tower, sixty storeys high, next to the Power Station.

English Heritage have in fact thrown the scheme out, Parkview are apparently considering alternatives. Essentially though, it seems that Parkview are doing little more than picking up where John Broome left off; brushing off Broome's scheme for reviving the ailing leisure centre by surrounding the Power Station with offices, a conference centre and hotels. Depressingly, Parkview have even hired the same mediocre architects, Renton Howard Wood Levin.

With their assurance that local views would of course be taken into account, Senior and Madden did little more than patronise the Forum. Clearly, Madden's subtext was that by the time Parkview own the site, proposals will be so far advanced that the public will have little choice other than acceptance. Madden's further implication was that, if the public didn't like it, then there was always demolition.

The Forum's first achievement therefore was to highlight the continued poverty of thinking at Battersea, that over twelve years has brought about the ruination of the building. On Wandsworth's part, a combination of a politically hidebound approach to planning issues and seemingly total ignorance on the part of planning officers about the possibilities for regeneration and reuse of industrial buildings, and of achievements elsewhere in the world.

On Parkview's, a ruthless and narrow minded approach to development that has no time for local opinion of needs, combined with a shockingly backward approach to architectural design and patronage.

On the positive side, the Forum set out an attractive vision of what Battersea could become. By focusing the discussion on successful regeneration schemes from Europe, north America and northern England, as well as the detailed discussion of funding issues, it also set out a means of achieving its goals.

The issue over the next few months will be whether the enlightened process described by Will Alsop and others at the Forum can be set in motion, or whether Wandsworth will sanction another ill-conceived and inappropriate scheme, ushering in another period of strife of the kind that characterised the attempt to turn the Power Station into a Disney-like theme park in the late eighties.

With a project of the size of Battersea, the process becomes as important as the end result. Will Alsop summed it up perfectly: "This is nothing to be miserable about. This is an opportunity go forward and try to do the right thing and enjoy the process of doing it".

 


© Battersea Power Station Community Group 2011

 

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