My two highlights from Open House London 2013, a loosely written account.
Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station. One of London’s most iconic landmarks, and a landmark for the city’s industry. Also my favourite building in London. Riding the bus down Grosvenor Road and catching a glimpse across the river, or watching it disappear on the horizon as the train pulls out of Victoria Station: few other edifices have had such an impact on me over and over again.
So when the chance came up, in the occasion of Open House London 2013, to discover what lies behind the monumental walls of Battersea Power Station, I couldn’t turn it down. Regardless of rumours of five-hour-long queues. Thing is, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in this city it’s that when an opportunity presents itself, you take it.
So, although heading out at nine in the morning didn’t give me much of a guarantee in regards to getting in, I thought I might see for myself what the situation was like. (I would recommend to always go see for yourself). The building was scheduled to “open” to visitors at eleven, hence both yesterday and today people had probably been queuing from dawn. I crossed Chelsea Bridge at ten and followed the other eager visitors through Battersea Park to the end of the queue – stretching out to as far as Albert Bridge. I won’t lie, it looked like what you’d expect a five-hour queue to look like (take that GTA V). It struck me to see so many people this determined to catch one last glimpse* of inside Battersea Power Station – objectively, it’s hard to deny the building’s charm. After all, they couldn’t all be Pink Floyd fans. But after five minutes of waiting by the river, taking in the morning air and listening to children asking their mothers “who made the Thames?”, the queue started to move – and at a decent pace too. Within half an hour of waiting we found ourselves underneath Chelsea Bridge once more, and when we came out on the other side we knew we’d secured ourselves a place inside. It’s almost always worth a shot.
At eleven o’ clock I stood beneath the empowering façade of Battersea Power Station, its chimneys rising up into the pale grey sky, incredibly majestic. The whole entrance so vast I could barely take it all in. How is it that such an industrial building can be so beautiful? Something about the way the pillars at the chimneys’ bases create cascading forms, regardless of their harsh geometry, and construct an uncanny elegance throughout the building’s architecture. It would be almost impossible to describe its beauty to someone who has never seen it. Up close it is both breath-taking and somewhat terrifying. Finally, I stepped through the tunnel and found myself in Battersea Power Station’s immense boiler house. Think Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Times four. The room overwhelmingly huge. Only a skeleton of what once was, and now overgrown with vegetation, yet still incredibly magnificent. Surprisingly, adorning a wall to the far right there are three Art Deco paintings – large, colourful images of men and women enjoy cocktails in what is undoubtedly a fancy bar. I can’t seem to find any information online regarding these three works of art, and I wonder whether they would have been there since the power station was built in the 1930s.
It’s true, it wasn’t exactly an intimate viewing, as families and tourists swarmed around me, taking photographs on their iPhones and iPads and whatnot. But there were moments in which the beeping and bleeping of mobile phones and digital SLRs would die down, for a few seconds the clatter would be suspended and only the chirping of birds could be heard echoing through the derelict hall. It was in moments like this that I could envision the silence and solemnity in which the old powerhouse has stood for the past thirty years, by the side of the Thames, impassive and indifferent to time passing by. The scent of dust and damp. All still but the occasional movement of pigeons swooping across the vast room and the grass slowly growing amongst the debris.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandri Temple
Second on my list for Open House London was BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandri – the Hindu temple in Neasden. I left Battersea Power Station and made my way up to a dodgy part of North West London, just off the North Circular – and the arduous tube journey (part closures etc.) paid off. I wandered through this marvel of Indian architecture (constructed over a period of five years and opened in 1995), extremely intricate details carved into the wood and marble. The guide informed me and other visitors that the limestone was transported from Bulgaria to India, where it was hand-carved over a period of two and a half years, as was the Carrara marble, imported to India straight from Italy, then shipped to Liverpool and finally to London. The simple fact that such a building could exist in London suburbia is astonishing, let alone the diverse nature of the construction itself. There’s also a timelessness about the whole place. I lose myself in the architecture’s details, the meticulously carved figures of gods and demigods, the traditional imagery. Even when surrounded by families with loud children, there’s an immense spirituality in the air. Open House London was a chance to see the complex in a different context – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple is open to the public all year round.
It goes unsaid that Open House London is an opportunity to make the most of. Details: http://www.londonopenhouse.org/
*Battersea Power Station is set to undergo an £8bn redevelopment, soon, I’m guessing.