Diary

Will Self

‘Rome completely bowled me over!’ Hitler declared on returning to Germany after his 1938 state visit to Italy. Mussolini had laid on a grand night-time tour that climaxed in a visit to the Colosseum, which – according to Christopher Woodward in his excellent In Ruins – ‘was lit from inside by red lamps so that, as if ablaze, it cast a bloody glow on to the grass and the ruddy brick ruins on the surrounding slopes.’[*] Descanting to Albert Speer, his pet pseudo-classical architect, Hitler explained that ‘ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture … What then remained of the emperors of the Roman Empire? What would give evidence of them today, if not their buildings?’

I often think of Hitler and his ‘Theorie vom Ruinwert’ – that only stone and brick should be used in Nazi buildings – when I gaze on the four great towers of Battersea Power Station. True, they are cast from ferroconcrete, the perishable material the Theorie sought to proscribe; and the underlying structure of the power station is welded from steel girders that would have been just as unacceptable to Hitler, but I feel the huge expanse of brickwork that clads the grand foursquare hulk would surely gladden his hypertrophying heart, as would the prodigious quantities of stone that line the stairwells leading up to its marble-lined control room. What he would make of the hundred-foot-long control desk, finished in enough walnut burl to furnish the dashboards of a thousand Jaguars, I have no idea, but overall I think the spectacle of Battersea, now on the brink of its fourth decade of ruination, would please him.

Woodward observes that Hitler – when it came to ruins at least – was a glass half full kind of guy. To him, the Colosseum’s sheer endurance made it a worthy monument to imperial ambition, one he wished to emulate with buildings that would also last a thousand years – although presumably he hoped they’d survive in better nick. Of course, by the standards of Rome and Luxor’s stonework – let alone Çatalhöyük’s – the Battersea brick pile is absurdly youthful. Still, I’d like to propose a sort of ruination coefficient based on variables of age, size and location, by which measure Battersea would rank alongside these far more ancient structures: the defunct power station, while only fully commissioned in 1955, is absolutely fucking huge (given a big enough counterweight you could lower St Paul’s into its now roofless turbine hall), and it’s also slap-bang in the middle of London.

From the roof level, which I visited the other day with its current developer, Rob Tincknell of the Battersea Power Station Development Company, the city heaves away on all sides in a modest swell of glass and masonry that stretches to horizons bounded by Battersea’s only real rivals: the escarpment to the north that supports the suburbs of Harrow, Hampstead and Highgate, and the one to the south where Wimbledon, Upper Norwood and Crystal Palace recline. Even with the new logo buildings – the Shard, the Gherkin, the Quill et al – spearing London’s lowering skies, Battersea remains unrivalled when it comes to that most banalised form of contemporary status: the ‘iconic’. Certainly Battersea’s iconic status was uppermost in Tincknell’s mind as he led me, together with his head of communications, Alison Dykes, through freshly landscaped grounds – hardwood decking, raised flowerbeds, gravel pathways – towards the sales suite, pointing out on the way a scale model of the power station about the size of the average family home. ‘Isn’t it fantastic,’ he enthused, ‘it’s the one they used for the Olympics’ closing ceremony, one of only seven iconic buildings that Danny Boyle chose.’

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[*] Gillian Darley reviewed In Ruins in the LRB of 29 November 2001.