Battersea Power Station's four chimneys are instantly recognisable and a much-loved feature of London's skyline. All four chimneys have now been completely rebuilt to match the originals.
What happened to the chimneys?
By the time serious work began on redeveloping the Power Station, the original chimneys had deteriorated beyond repair. They had sustained a great deal of damage from many years of channelling corrosive exhaust gases and from water ingress. Their reinforcement had also suffered due to the concrete having been made using salty Thames water during their construction.
It was decided, in cooperation with Historic England and Wandsworth Council, that the chimneys would have to be replaced. Work began on this in 2014. The dismantling was a complex project in which travelling rigs moved down, channelling debris down the centre of the old chimneys and safely out of the Power Station without damage to the building or danger to the workers restoring it. Much of the debris has since been re-used in the restoration programme.
The new chimneys were painstakingly constructed to resemble the originals. The only difference is that the metal reinforcement hidden within the concrete is arranged in a modern gridwork rather than the unusual helix-like arrangement found inside the old chimneys. The new concrete was allowed to set in layers, just as with the original chimneys, producing the distinctive horizontal rings.
What’s the latest?
Reconstruction of all four chimneys is now complete.
Have the chimneys been painted in the same colour as the originals?
The originals were actually repainted on many occasions and during the investigation works many layers of paint were revealed. Samples were taken of the original paint and it was meticulously colour-matched to determine the choice of paint being applied. The name of the paint is Light Ivory, RAL 1015, and it is from a UK supplier: 375 litres of paint are required for each chimney.
How much is it costing?
The entire restoration of the Power Station is costing more than £1bn, at the end of which it will have its roof reinstated after thirty years; its east and west Boiler House walls will be rebuilt; the four chimneys are being renewed and the building will be open to the public.
Have you used the same materials to restore the chimneys?
The chimneys consist of the same materials as the originals, but with more modern steel reinforcements within the concrete to provide a more permanent solution to their conservation. For each chimney, approximately 600 tonnes of concrete were removed and a similar volume used in the rebuild.
Is there any difference between the new chimneys and the old ones?
The new chimneys are visually identical to the originals, except that the new ones are undamaged: unlike their predecessors, which bore the scars of discharging 500 tonnes of CO2 per hour over the course of half a century.
The painting of the chimneys involved using colour-matching techniques that will ensure their original colour is maintained.
- The four chimneys are 101m in height at the top
- The Power Station's designer, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, originally proposed that the chimneys should be square instead of circular
- The chimneys are made from reinforced concrete and contain two layers of steel to provide strength and reinforcement to the structure
- The chimneys were built sequentially and took six months each to complete
- The first chimney built was the north west chimney in 1931 and the final chimney was the south east chimney in 1955
- Battersea Power Station was the first London Power Station to use reinforced concrete chimneys
- When the Power Station was first built, the west chimneys were the tallest in London
The old chimneys had tile lining instead of brick lining, an uncommon feature for a power station. This is due to the belief that the harmful contaminants and heat were largely removed during the gas washing process.
In 1940, RAF pilots used the plumes of the white vapour from the chimneys to guide them home in the mist. The Luftwaffe also used the plumes for navigation, which may explain why the Power Station did not suffer major bomb damage.
The Power Station famously appeared on the cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album, Animals, on which it was photographed with the group's inflatable pink pig floating between the chimneys. The inflatable pig was tethered to one of the power station's southern chimneys, but broke loose from its moorings and, to the astonishment of pilots in approaching planes, rose into the flight path of Heathrow Airport. Police helicopters tracked its course until it finally landed off the coast of Kent.
Welcome to a national treasure. Things are going to be changing around here very soon, but it will all be for the better. Battersea Power Station will be at the centre of a new six-acre riverside park, and Londoners from far and wide will be able to come here and experience all that is best about modern urban living. And that is where our story rests for the present – with a strong investment and commitment to the future, based upon principles of heritage, conservation and regeneration. Watch this space for a happy ending…
Our story begins just as the shadows of the Victorian era were beginning to lift from the rooftops of London. A scent of progress was in the air, of hope and rebirth. Britain was leading the world in science and industry, and London was the most powerful place on the planet, the hub of an immense empire – ambitious and forward-looking. In this great city, men of vision came together to devise a new and efficient way of lighting up people’s homes and bringing energy to the masses. They conceived a mighty, single organisation, The London Power Company, to meet the city’s rapidly growing needs, and in 1927 they set about planning a new super-station to house their concept, right here in the centre of town.
The problem was how to design an efficient, modern plant that would also look acceptable in a metropolis. The machinery was going to be huge and so the building would have to be constructed on an industrial scale, but it also needed to be beautiful. The engineers turned to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, one of the foremost church and public building architects of the day, to find a solution. Scott came up with a design of audacious grandeur – a vast cathedral of power, framed by four thrusting castle towers, out of which would rise four concrete chimneys, like giant classical temple columns, each 337ft tall.
After six years of planning and building, in 1933, the station’s turbines came to life and Battersea Power Station began to generate electricity for London. When complete, the station would be the largest brick building in the world and in time would be considered an architectural masterpiece. But it was not always as popular as it is today.
At the start, many thought it too austere, and journalists wrote gloomily about the prospect of smoky skies, sulphurous gases and mountains of burning coal. Their fears would soon, largely, be put to rest, because emissions from the four huge chimneys proved to be not nearly as dirty as many had predicted. Revolutionary and expensive gas washing systems were installed in the chimney bases, which removed 90% of the sulphur.
Cutting edge technology was also used to divert spare heat from the plant directly into domestic hot water supplies across the river. 11,000 people benefitted from this recycled heat. Despite the colossal amount of coal being shipped in and burnt daily, environmental concerns were always at the forefront of the London Power Company’s endeavours. During its first 25 years of operation, the Battersea Power Station doubled in size, until 1955 when the fourth and final chimney was completed. After surviving the blitz, along with St Paul’s Cathedral, the Station was seen a symbol of resistance and mighty London spirit. During the second half of the twentieth century its gigantic upside-down-table silhouette became one of the most striking icons of the city’s heritage, famously used in movies, photo shoots, music videos and record covers. And the focus of the Power Station’s potent appeal over the years was always the four great chimney pillars: bold statements of industrial design and power. Inevitably, as technology advanced, the age of coal power declined and it was no longer practical to fuel a huge power station in the heart of London. The famous chimneys breathed their last in 1983, the Station closed down, and the decay began to set in. Three decades of neglect ensued.
Rusting reinforcement bars, cracking concrete and chloride corrosion made the chimneys structurally unsound, even dangerous and so, we had to rebuilt them using the same methods as before, so that they will be identical, only stronger, safer, and secure for generations to come. The famous chimneys will be put to use as flues for harmless water vapour emission and air intake.
Our policy, like that of the engineers of old, is to minimize as much as possible damage to the environment, and, thankfully, we now have the expertise and technology to ensure that intention is fulfilled. We will use sustainable energy sources and, as before, utilize the heat that is generated by power creation to benefit the community. And there will be plenty of surplus electricity to feed back into the national grid.
The long winter of abandonment is over. Like the hulk of a faithful old battleship, Battersea Power Station has been lying unused, crumbling and rusting in an untended wasteland, for thirty years. Various ideas for redevelopment have come and gone, and meanwhile one of Britain’s favourite buildings has all but collapsed, a victim of indecision and bungled plans.
Now, the care of this monumental piece of London’s history has fallen to us, and at the core of our plans is a pledge to repair and conserve it for the future.
Our regeneration of this site is all about the Power Station – restoring it to its former glory as a beating heart at the centre of London. No longer will it be an inaccessible brick shell, the ghost of its former self, but alive, throbbing and useful, attracting people and serving the community at large. The dream of its original engineers and architects is re-emerging.
These iconic chimneys, so definitively imprinted on the south London landscape, are central to our design, our planning and our brand interests. The image of this building forms our corporate profile, and everything we do here is geared towards promoting and revealing the Power Station to its full advantage, standing tall above the capital.
Author, Roland Vernon