The power of industrial heritage

 By Jim McClelland

Jim McClelland looks at some of the structures and buildings previously associated with energy generation that have latterly become iconic images of industrial heritage around the world…

(Cover photo by

Times change and as the business of power generation transforms itself for a new tomorrow, so too do some of its memorable structures and buildings. Their modern-day reincarnations, range far and wide, from grand galleries, to scenes of family fun and flying pigs, literally.

Take for example, the headline-making announcement that technology design pioneer Apple is to relocate its London HQ to the former Battersea Power Station. Listed by Historic England as one of the nation’s properties not to be extended, demolished or altered without special permission, this giant landmark is classed as being ‘particularly important and of more than special interest.’

Its iconic status goes far beyond any architectural merits, with its image famous in popular culture. It featured on the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals, complete with inflatable pig floating between its tall chimneys.

On the north shore of Lake Union in Seattle, Gas Works Park recycled, rather than erased, its industrial past. Photo credit: Matt Hagan

In spite of, or maybe even because of, this celebrated standing, the building had lain derelict for decades. It has been the subject of several failed development proposals, prior to the successful £9 billion bid currently and carefully delivering its refurbishment and rehabilitation as a power base for the digital age.

Also in London, but on the site of the former Bankside Power Station, the world-renowned Tate Modern art gallery this summer unveiled its new extension, a 10-story pyramid, known as the Switch House. It has been built above the old subterranean oil tanks (previously converted into performance spaces for the 2012 Olympics) and designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind the original conversion, begun in 1994.

Now one of the top UK tourist destinations, Tate Modern hopes to welcome as many as 5 million visitors a year, with perhaps its most photographed feature being the unique Turbine Hall. At 35 meters high and 152 meters long, this cavernous exhibition space could house 1,200 double-decker buses stacked seven high and is the most obvious testament to a past life in energy generation.

Another example of industrial heritage repurposed is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), recently opened officially in Lisbon, Portugal. On a prime campus site occupied by the EDP Foundation, a dramatic new gallery sits alongside the existing building–formerly Tejo Power Station, built in 1908. Its permanent exhibition, the Power Station Circuit, presents original machinery, perfectly conserved to tell the story of the old thermoelectric plant, as well as of the evolution of electricity up to renewable energy.

SEE MORE: The “always on” power station by Simonetta Sandri


Over in Germany, an imaginative, seemingly radical, new use has been found for a former nuclear power plant, though one which crucially never actually began production. Located just north of Düsseldorf, Wunderland Kalkar is now a family theme park. The Energy Factory there features a cooling tower with an amusement ride on the inside, plus an external climbing wall, as well as a hotel, restaurants and business units.

Across the Atlantic, Gas Works Park, in Seattle, USA, is another tale of transformation, albeit of a different kind again. This popular public green space features a former energy plant almost as sculptural art installations within the landscape. Here, heritage provides more of a symbolic reminder of an industrial past, rather than physical real estate of value in today’s market.

As these relics of a bygone age undergo dynamic redevelopment for commercially and culturally significant new uses, there comes a nagging question. In a future of decentralized and distributed energy, dominated by wind and solar farms, plus wave power, what will be the legacy landmarks of the next power generation?

about the author
Jim McClelland
Editor + journalist for supplements to The Times + Sunday Times, also quoted in Guardian, Sunday Telegraph. I blog for such as GE + Gap. Active on social media. Specialisms include Sustainability.