The Fourfold Battersea Power Station

Sometimes I find myself in disagreement with Kathleen Raine, but hey! it’s okay for
Blakeans to disagree. It’s not like when Marxists disagree. This time I suspect I won’t be the only one who disagrees with the great lady and self-styled ‘Blake’s Secretary’. One of the essays in her book Golgonooza – City of Imagination meditates on ‘beautiless’ cities:
‘When I was young, and together with my Cambridge contemporaries, more or less influenced by Marxist idealism we were supposed to admire the then newly-built Battersea Power Station. It was the work of one of our best architects, Giles Gilbert Scott, and conceived as an example of architecture embodying the socialist ideal of a Worker State; a totally work-orientated secular society of collective effort towards a materialist Utopia in which all material needs would be satisfied. There was much talk about building beautiful factories for the workers, in those days, and of adorning them with modern art. And yet the utile, however worthy the purpose or technically impressive the construction, has never yet succeeded in creating an architecture that speaks to the imagination in its own language. Blake would surely have seen, in merely decorating factories or machines in themselves expressing material values, a false view of man and his purpose on earth, an evasion of fundamental issues, a merely superficial decoration of the ever-desolate streets of Babylon. Technology does not address the soul, does not speak to, or from, the archetype. We may admire the functional utility of Battersea Power Station but we cannot love it; our souls cannot inhabit it, as we can the cathedrals of Durham, or of Chartres, or the temples of Athens or Karnak, or the mosques of Agra or Cordova, or any temple of the gods under whatever name. In the sanctuaries of all cultures we feel at home, we feel a sense of familiarity, whereas in the secular cities of the modern West we feel strangely alien, perpetual exiles … from something that is not reflected back to us by our surroundings, whose absence is ever-present to us.’
Assuredy, I understand Raine’s sincere alienation from the sordid aspects of modern urbanity as well as the transcendental sensation one experiences when visiting holy sites. My personal favourite is the Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, an outdoor platform with a commanding view of the city in all directions, at the centre of which is the astonishing Dome on the Rock.
But I cannot share her critical attitude towards Battersea Power Station. Can anyone? I have never been inside any of its incarnations but I love the exterior designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station). The four white chimneys add a ‘spiritual fourfold’ dimension to a building which looms like an ancient Babylonian temple on the London skyline. The religiosity is perhaps suggested by its ‘brick cathedral’ style; and it was hailed as a ‘temple of power’. It was and remains a cult classic. Though now converted to luxury flats one can imagine the great furnaces raging in the 1940s as it burnt the coal necessary to fill London with energy. Far from Blake disapproving, am I the only Blakean who can see Los with his hammer amid the original flames of a riverside site which seems straight from Golgonooza itself? Coincidentally, it is only a stone’s throw from where Blake married a local girl in 1782 at St Mary’s Battersea Church.
Niall McDevitt

About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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