For so long, Battersea Power Station held out. As the city around it consumed itself, and churned its culture upwards into gleaming skyscrapers, the power station remained abandoned and isolated on the banks of the Thames, a relic from a time when London made more than just money. I used to love gliding past the building on the train to Victoria. As the line bends around the edge of the site, Battersea Power Station would rotate before your eyes like a giant ridiculous cake.
Today, though, the place is a building site. After years of botched plans and shifting ownership, Malaysian development group SP Setia are at last transforming the power station into top-end offices and river-view "sky penthouses". The chimneys are being rebuilt, the cranes and dockside refurbished, and glinting, luxury erections are sprouting from the surrounding brownfield land. For a building so iconic and extraordinary, its redevelopment is utterly formulaic and thus depressingly typical for modern London. It includes homes for oligarchs and offshore investment funds (£1 million per bedroom), a hotel only professional footballers will be able to afford to stay in and a shopping complex packed full of the godawful stores already found inside the twin Westfields that chew at the edges of the capital.
It's a fate that, today, feels inevitable. But it was very nearly so, so different.
In 1989, Battersea Power Station was poised to become the most audacious, and ambitious theme park in the world. And while the Battersea theme park has become something of an urban legend among Londoners, few realise that the project was in fact fully funded, green-lit and midway through construction before things went wrong. Even the giant glass elevator shafts that would have shot punters around the building had arrived on site by the time property developer John Broome lost his funding and the project had to be pulled.
And this wasn't some nimby Garden Bridge-style nonsense, either. Broome's plans for the building were, quite frankly, ridiculous. Having already transformed Alton Towers from a leafy country pile into a palace of popcorn and vomit, Broome acquired the power station in 1987 and set about drafting his concept for The Battersea, a massive entertainment complex housed in and around the building.
I spoke with his son, Will Broome, about his father's dream project, and how close he came to realising it.
"The glass elevators were only the beginning," says Will. "My favourite aspect of dad's plans was the Battersea Bullet, the high-speed, bright yellow, non-stop train which would take visitors from platform one at Victoria Station straight to the park. The idea was to have the windows masked with LCD screens, which would give the illusion that the train was travelling at light speed, while uniformed attendants served futuristic food and drink – and this was the 80s!"
It's testament to Broome's ambition that he took out a 99-year lease on platform one at Victoria station. Any other platform just wouldn't have been special enough.
The power station itself would have been transformed into a vast glass-roofed atrium inspired by the Great Exhibition, with six entertainment floors stacked around the edges, each one themed like a different continent of the world, with geographically appropriate exhibits, cinemas, restaurants – and even "appropriately" ethnic staff. Back-projections on the ceiling would digitally mimic the weather outside, indoor hot air balloon rides would float people to the upper floors, while the Space Probe ride would propel capsules packed with punters through a glass tube, out through the ceiling, before plummeting them down to the riverside.
"My dad managed to convince the team who designed the runaway mine train set in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to recreate it on the banks of the Thames," says Will. "There would have been at least three other rollercoasters around the building, looping in and out of the ground."
Below the station itself, the Oceanarium would have been the biggest aquarium in the world, and would have featured actual real-life mini-submarine rides. Europe's largest ice rink, vast waterfalls, zero-gravity simulators, 4D cinemas, river rapids and log flumes, plus a free-to-enter botanical garden would have completed the experience.
"My dad's office would have been in a little glass bubble right at the top of the building, overlooking it all," says Will. "It's a bit Bond-villain, I know."
Maybe so, but crucially, Will's father would have been the only resident on the site. Broome was pally with Thatcher and her government, but even they were adamant that the power station would, under no circumstances, ever be developed for residential purposes. The site was to be for the people of London, a centre of entertainment, fun and relaxation for Battersea and beyond.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the plans the current Tory government has green-lit for the site. While there are exclusive sparkling facilities for millionaire tenants, us plebs will have to make do with a few token green spaces along the waterfront, no doubt patrolled by a private police force who will stop us from drinking, smoking, discussing socialism, etc.
By contrast, Broome's plans for the surrounding area were modelled on Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens; beautifully maintained free parkland for visitors who might be less inclined to engage with log-flumes and underground rollercoasters. Twenty-five years after his plans fell apart, it still feels like London could really use somewhere like this. Somewhere fun. All we have is an empty cable car to nowhere, Winter Wonderland and memories of the fucking Millennium Dome.
It's little consolation that the public entertainment ventures currently in the pipeline for London seem to be aimed at the same group of moneyed, private-booth-loving individuals as the luxury apartments. Summerland is one such hellscape, a planned "indoor beach for London", where seasonal-affective-disorder sufferers can Instagram one another under a fake sun and dig the latest EDM cuts while "fit lifeguards" patrol the exclusive stage-side hot tubs. From the team behind Glastonbury's Shangri-La stage, Summerland will be a unique "immersive experience", and is definitely not just a glorified leisure centre. The developers are seeking public funding to realise their vision. A £500 donation gets you one pair of tickets and a free cocktail.
Unfortunately for Broome, all the crowdfunding campaigns in the world couldn't have saved his Battersea project.
"Fundamentally, the surveyors had underestimated how important the plant machinery was to the structural integrity of the building," explains Will. "Once my dad had taken everything out, he had to delay the build by a year and spend millions just to stop the place sinking into the river."
The building was also riddled with the worst kind of extra-poisonous asbestos. "Dad used to have to be hosed down in a quarantined facility every day after leaving the site," says Will. "When his bank, Security Pacific, went bust and the recession hit, he was left with no option but to abandon the project."
It was only by selling Alton Towers – and pretty much everything else he owned – that Broome escaped unscathed. "He was massively ambitious, but that's the risk you take," says Will.
Broome managed to sell Battersea Power Station to a Hong Kong investment group who intended to realise his theme park vision with him, but they – like so many who followed – were unable to get the project off the ground.
"He's still going, though, my dad," says Will. "He's about to open a new park and resort down in Cornwall with the same ride design team from the USA who would have built the rollercoasters for Battersea."
Property developer though he may be, at least Broome retains a commitment to fun, ambitious, public-facing projects. Head to the website for the imminent Battersea Power Station development proposals and the word fun doesn't exactly spring to mind. Take the train to Victoria now and you can just about still see the old building refracted through the glassy apartments emerging either side of it. Like a noble old elephant surrounded by bickering hyenas, Battersea Power Station has been worn down and battered into submission at last.
It just seems unfair that a building so culturally and aesthetically important to London is suffering the same thudding fate as so many pubs, warehouses and factories in the capital, and it adds to the growing feeling that the only viable pastimes in modern London are sleeping, working and shopping. Just think about how a roller coaster or two might have altered that.
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