Faced with planetary catastrophe, does the future of energy generation lie in a return to its historical origins?
Of all the failures currently threatening global politics, none is quite so baleful as the refusal to tackle climate change. Architecture is, like all technological activities, deeply complicit in this negligence. Although this is a systemic problem, which can in no way be reduced to a single type of building, the power station can be taken as emblematic of this failure, not least for its ongoing proliferation. And yet, as well as failure, the power station also represents a great success story, which has – at least for the time being – transformed the lives of so many people for the better.
Source: Simon Webster / ALAMY
This story begins a long time ago, and at first it seems to follow the old narrative of evolutionary technological progress. The earliest structures used to generate power were waterwheels, which have existed since at least the third century BC in the Middle East. They were followed by the treadwheel, which harnessed biological power in the slave-based Roman economy, and was often used to drive cranes in construction projects. Windmills, a more substantial architectural form, originated in the early Middle Ages, also in the Middle East. Some very old Persian examples survive, including one in Nashtifan, northern Iran, which is claimed to be 1,000 years old and is still in use today; the more familiar European style of post mill probably originated in the 12th century.
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Source: Mohammad Hossein Taghi / Tasnim News Agency
Windmills, watermills, treadwheels and horse mills all proliferated in the early Industrial Revolution, until they were superseded by the introduction of electricity. In 1881, the first hydroelectric power station began operating at Niagara, and the following year, Edison opened two steam-powered electrical power stations in London and New York. The latter building soon burned to the ground, demonstrating one of the environmental hazards of generating power in the city; the more chronic problem of emissions was also quickly recognised, and so London’s first ‘central’ power station – that is, one that supplies distant users – was exiled to the remote south bank of the Thames at Deptford in 1889.
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As demand for electrical power grew, ever larger facilities were developed. Generally speaking, these were, and continue to be,a form of architecture without architects. For instance, a very early example of a large-scale plant, Neptune Bank Power Station in Newcastle, was designed by electrical engineer Charles Merz; it went online in 1901. The corrugated iron sheds of Neptune Bank were quite nondescript, as was the case with many subsequent examples of the type. The most striking architectural features of these facilities are vertical: flue-gas stacks, through which exhaust from combustion is evacuated, and cooling towers, used to condense steam after it has passed through the turbines. The instantly recognisable and elegantly spare hyperboloid design for cooling towers was patented in 1918 by Dutch engineers Frederik van Iterson and Gerard Kuypers; the first examples were built in the Netherlands the same year.
Architectural treatments of the type have only occasionally been attempted, and then usually half-heartedly. One thinks for instance of Frederick Gibberd, who was involved with Hinkley Point, Dinorwig, Sizewell A and Didcot, albeit largely in the sense of advising on the disposition of the various elements. In the case of the now-demolished Didcot, this at least resulted in a very striking composition. There were, however, some early curiosities of more elaborate design, such as the impressive Neoclassical Ontario Power Company plant at the foot of Niagara Falls in 1904, the charmingly silly ‘Jugendstilkraftwerk’ at Heimbach in North Rhine-Westphalia, built in 1905, or Gaetano Moretti’s bizarre Centrale Idroelettrica in Taccani of 1906, which has a vaguely pre-Columbian appearance. There have also been some virtuosi of the type, among them Piero Portaluppi, who constructed several hydroelectric plants for the company Conti from 1912 until 1930. These are very idiosyncratic, ranging from the Tibetan Crevoladossola temple to the palatial Centrale di Verampio with its formal gardens.
Source: Graham Barclay / Bloomberg News / Getty Images
Perhaps foremost among power-station builders is Hans Heinrich Müller, house architect for Bewag, the Berlin electricity company, from 1924. His substations still dot the city, severe quasi-Expressionist presences blending motifs from north German brick Gothic and ancient Near Eastern monuments. He followed the example of Peter Behrens, whose 1909 AEG Turbine Factory attempted to re-enchant modern technology by assuming the form of a temple. Müller’s finest works are the Abspannwerk Humboldt, a fantastic ovoid tempietto squeezed into an arched courtyard, and the wasps-nest-like corner accretion of Abspannwerk Buchhändlerhof.
Source: Marc Rasmus / Imagebroker / Getty Images
In Britain, Giles Gilbert Scott is usually associated with the type; like the architects mentioned above, he also elected to recycle ancient forms for his designs for the power stations at Battersea (1929-55) and Bankside (1947-63). The extent of his involvement in the former project is somewhat dubious, since he was taken on late in the day to placate the wealthy residents of Chelsea just across the river; his involvement in the latter was doubtless similarly motivated. But while this was clearly a cynical move on the part of the power companies, it nevertheless resulted in two very striking structures that integrate their chimneys with their turbine halls, trying, as with Müller’s work, to express the invisible force of electricity using the language of older invisible forces (it is striking that Britain’s two most prominent power-station designers had also built cathedrals). A less historicising attempt to achieve this effect had been sketched by Antonio Sant’Elia in 1914, but nothing of such bold simplicity was built until well after the war – unless, of course, one takes the view that the ‘unarchitected’ stations had all along been doing precisely what Sant’Elia sought, without any need for professional interference.
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Source: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre / Tristan Hoare
Source: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro / ALAMY
In the years following the Second World War, power stations tended to be built far from conurbations, frequently in coastal areas where water could be taken directly from the sea for cooling. The introduction of relatively untested nuclear technology made this withdrawal even more desirable. The queen officially opened Calder Hall power station, the world’s first commercial reactor, at Sellafield in 1956, but the site had covertly been in use for some time. It produced fissile material for warheads, which were tested in the Australian outback, killing Aborigines and contaminating their land. The slogan ‘atoms for peace’ was a cover for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and continues to be so – for instance, in Israel and later in Iran. Most nuclear power stations are unselfconsciously pragmatic in design, and some thereby achieve a sort of blank grandeur, such as the massive dome of Sizewell B. Only one reactor, as far as I am aware, has been given a representational design: Philip Johnson’s Soreq Nuclear Research Center in Israel. What he called ‘my temple in the desert’ was an atomic fig leaf intended to disguise his Nazi past.
Source: Luis Asín
Source: ITAR-TASS News Agency / ALAMY
Johnson’s plant (not, it should be noted, a power station) returns to the Behrens model of technology hidden behind the veil of the temple. Less mystifying approaches have also been attempted, however, among them Hans Hoffman’s crystalline 1953 turbine hall at Birsfelden in Switzerland, and the attractive plants Joaquín Vaquero Palacios designed for Spanish energy company Hidroélectrica del Cantábrico from the 1950s to the ’80s. Most of these buildings feature Op Art abstractions in the turbine halls; art for the workers, an unusually generous approach. Of Palacios’s stations, the most extraordinary is Proaza, a Brutalist crystal with diagrammatic murals, opened in 1968. These are highly unusual instances of the type, but they are perhaps even more remarkable as rare examples of Modernist architecture built in Francoist Spain. No doubt the fact that Palacios’s father was a director of the electricity company helped facilitate their creation.
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Source: Derek Jarman / Basilisk Communications
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As the environmental cost of electricity generation has become clear, the design of power stations has been remarkable more for its problematic than its architectural aspects. Accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have all made nuclear fission deeply controversial, as has the increasingly apparent cost of disposing of the resulting waste – not that this has stopped governments commissioning new plants, both here and abroad. In Russia, a floating nuclear reactor, the Akademik Lomonosov, was launched in 2010, to the horror of environmental campaigners (this is not the first mobile reactor to be tested by the Russians: in the ’60s they mounted small reactors on tracked vehicles for use in remote areas).
Carbon-fuelled plants have been equally vilified, and with good reason, but this does not necessarily mean that hydro power is the answer: enormous dams, especially in the developing world, have been shown to destroy agriculture and homes, corrupt political systems, and, counterintuitively, produce significant quantities of greenhouse gas from the organic matter rotting in their reservoirs. Small dams, on the other hand, are much less damaging, and wind and solar power are even more promising. We return to the beginning of our story, with vast fields of elegant windmills sprouting in the North Sea, and enormous concentric solar arrays focusing the sun’s rays on pillars in the Moroccan desert: both exhilaratingly strange and novel forms of structure. But perhaps the real future of power generation lies in the development of photovoltaic building materials, which raises the tantalising possibility of rendering the power station redundant – by turning every building into a power station.
Amager Bakke Waste-to-Energy Plant in Copenhagen, Denmark, by BIG and SLA, 2017
As part of Copenhagen’s plan to attain ‘zero carbon’ by 2025, the city commissioned Europe’s most expensive waste-to-energy incineration plant, with a masterplan by BIG. The name of the plant Amager Bakke means Amager Hill, and refers to the geological profile of the building with its sloping silhouette. This plunging roofline will, in typically bumptious BIG fashion, eventually become an artificial ski slope, while the plant’s chimney is designed to emit smoke rings. Because the plant is intended to supply heat to the city, which has the world’s most extensive district heating system, it is located only 3km from the centre. Reassuring residents, the authorities insist that emissions will be negligible, something that critics have contested. It has also transpired that the plant requires more waste than the city produces in order to run at profit, and so Copenhagen has had to begin importing rubbish.
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Source: Søren Aagaard
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Source: Julien Lanoo
Energiebunker in Hamburg, Germany, by Hegger Hegger Schleiff Architekten, 2013
Germany is dotted with Second World War bunkers, which are often so massive that they defy convenient destruction. Various approaches have been taken to the reuse and adaptation of these buildings. In Hamburg, as part of the ongoing works initiated by the International Building Exhibition of 2007-2013, a huge concrete bunker has been remade as a heating plant for the neighbourhood. Inside the building, a two-million-litre capacity water reservoir stores warmth produced by a biomass-fuelled plant and from the solar panels mounted on the roof and south facade; these sources of heat also generate electricity. The planthas a visitor centre with a café and viewing platform.
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Source: IBA hamburg GmBH / Martin Kunze
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Source: Aufwind Luftbilder
Irving Street Brewery plant in Sydney, Australia, by Tzannes, 2014
In order to facilitate the ultra-dense conversion of a former brewery site in Sydney, it was decided to install a small ‘trigeneration’ power plant. This uses gas to produce electricity, hot water and cooling, and will eventually supply all the buildings in the new Central Park district. The generation plant itself is located underground beneath the former boiler house, one of the few bits of the brewery left standing; however, the design of the cooling towers, which could not be hidden, presented a challenge. This has been tackled by attaching them to the roof of the old building, where, shrouded in zinc mesh, they cling like some kind of parasitic orchid. The nearby brick chimney, another industrial relic, has been reused as the exhaust flue for the plant.
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Source: John Gollings Photography
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Source: John Gollings Photography
Gasholders in London, UK, by Wilkinson Eyre, 2018
When coal gas began to be produced at a commercial scale in the early 19th century, the gas holder or gasometer was quickly developed as a place to store gas and thereby regulate supply. The telescopic gas holder followed in the 1820s – once a familiar, but now increasingly rare sight due to the introduction of natural gas and improved pipelines, which mean users can be supplied directly. This obsolescence raises the difficult question of what to do with these impressive structures. In Britain, power companies have begun to remove them at breakneck speed; Southern Gas reported in 2013 that they planned to demolish 111 of the structures over the next 16 years. Other uses have been attempted, including housing: in Vienna in 2001, for instance, and more recently at King’s Cross. These gas holders once supplied much of central London; now they contain enormously expensive luxury flats. The challenge of forcing a square peg into a round hole has been gamely tackled by Wilkinson Eyre, but one cannot help but find the neighbouring example, left as a bare structure and filled at ground level by a small circular park, to be less silly.
Source: Peter Landers
Source: Peter Landers