Algie and the Cathedral of Electrons

The enormous pig had been designed by Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw and built by a German company called Ballon Fabrik. On a cold December morning in 1976, Algie, as they called it, was inflated with helium and was manoeuvred into position above London’s Battersea Station. A sniper was hired to stand by and shoot the balloon in case it broke loose. However, bad weather on the first day made it very difficult to work, so the photo session had to be continued the following day, but on this second day wind was so strong that Algie, eventually broke free, and the marksman, who had only been hired for one day, was not there to bring it down. The wind took it West, into the flight path at Heathrow, probably becoming a nightmare for air traffic controllers, and it finally landed near Kent, where it was recovered by a farmer who was definitely not happy, since Algie had apparently scared his cows.

 

Although in the end it had to be a montage from different pictures taken over the course of three days, Algie was the star on the cover of Pink Floyd‘s Animals album, and went on to become -together with Battersea- one of the most recognizable icons in music history.

 

The impressive Battersea Power Station is one of the biggest and most spectacular brick buildings in the world. It is also one of the UK’s most recognizable landmarks. But it stands now in a state of disgraceful neglect and incredible disrepair. So bad, that it is listed among the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites. This gives it an almost magical aura. The massive building, visible from the train to Heathrow airport, stands today an empty carcass, a monumental testament to progress and industry. Many owners have proposed different development plans (from amusement parks to malls) but all end up reselling it.

Architect Theo J. Halliday began construction of the power station in 1928. To appease growing public rejection to the size of the building, however, the London Power Company also hired architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, an incredibly prestigious and prolific architect, to help improve the project. He was famous for buildings such as the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial and St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was also responsible for the design of the Bankside Power Station, building that today houses the Tate Modern art museum, and interestingly, he also designed the classic red telephone box, still in use today in many cities accross the UK.

 

Halliday was responsible for the general shape of the building and the lavish art deco interiors, which included bronze doors showing figures representing Power and Energy, opening on to a marble turbine hall. Scott was responsible for the exterior styling, such as the art deco detailing of the chimney bases. It was also Scott’s idea to change the original square chimneys to the fluted classical columns that we can admire today. The power station is in fact two individual power stations that come together to form a single building. One was built in the 30’s, and the other in the 50’s.

 

The station has appeared in music videos and in The Beatles’ 1965 Help! Movie. In Alfonso Cuarón‘s film Children of Men, one scene takes place inside the station, between Theo (Clive Owen) and his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston). In a world of chaos crumbling around it, the building -which houses the Ministry of Art- provides a rare space of peace that allows for contemplation. The scenes even include a homage to Algie, who is seen floating around the outside. Today, it is the building that is literally crumbling on the inside.

The most recent bid for Battersea has come this week (4 May). Chelsea Football Club, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, has launched a takeover bid for the iconic building. The station and the 38 acres of surrounding land are considered the last major undeveloped regeneration site in central London. Knight Frank, the global real estate agency that is trying to secure a long-term owner, has said that this is the first time that Battersea Power Station has been offered for sale on the open market and it has attracted many of the world’s biggest property investors, developers and sovereign wealth funds.

 

The stadium Abramovich wants to build here would have capacity for 60,000 fans. The plan includes a full restoration of the building, the famous chimneys and the Art Deco control room, at an approximate cost of £150 million. The stadium would be at the heart of an important new £5 billion development, that has already been approved, and that includes homes, offices, hotel, retail and leisure facilities, and what would be London’s first public park in many years. The club would also make a “significant contribution” to help build a new Tube link to the Northern line. The offer has drawn some skepticism from local politicians who say the transport infrastructure is not prepared to give service to 60,000 football fans.

 

Who knows what Battersea will become, maybe a shopping center, maybe a hotel, or maybe a huge square stadium. But at least for now, the building that was once called the Temple of Power, can still be admired as a brilliant -if neglected- example of a type of power station design, popular at the time, that became known as brick-cathedral style.

Battersea’s future is uncertain and the debate of what to do with it is intense. It is such a unique piece of history and such a spectacular work of architecture. I think it should be turned into a Ministry of Art, like in the movie Children of Men. That would be much better than surrounding it with houses or offices, or inserting a stadium on the inside. After all that’s kind of what they did with the Modern Tate…and that wasn’t so bad. And as our world continues to crumble in values on the outside, it would be nice to have a place like this, an empty but magnificent Cathedral of Electrons, to come and pray.  

-To read my original article in PDF: Algie and the Cathedral of Electrons.

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One thought on “Algie and the Cathedral of Electrons

  1. I would point out that the Midland Grand Hotel, the Albert Memorial and St Mary’s Cathedral were all built in the early 1870’s not by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, but by his grandfather Sir George Gilbert Scott, an incredibly prolific Gothic Revivalist. Giles Gilbert Scott was born in 1880 and reconciled much of this traditional Gothic heritage with modernism to create some of Britain’s most iconic 20th century landmarks.

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