Didcot Power Station, art installation

Didcot Power Station was commissioned shortly before I was born and dominated the landscape of my childhood. I am fairly sure that its looming bulk sparked my interest in energy, and possibly shaped my environmental interests and career. And now, one of my interests is environmental art, including the subset that is the art related to energy production and supply.

One of the tasks set in General Studies during my lower sixth year was to write about the architecture of four buildings. I chose Didcot as one of the four. I wrote about its aesthetics – the shape of the cooling towers, the site layout – although now I know that I missed a few angles. Since then I have been sensitive to articles about it, unsurprisingly not always positive, and have seen one or two art pieces using Didcot as a model. But only now that it is in the process of being demolished, have I investigated a little more thoroughly.

Didcot Power Station* was built in the late 1960s to meet the rapidly growing demand for electricity. Most of the other stations built at the time were located close to coalfields or on major rivers. Didcot was unusual, built in a rural area that was highly regarded for its natural beauty in order to be close to sources of demand and reduce transmission losses. This meant that more attention was paid to its aesthetics than were to, for example, the slightly later Drax.

Historic England’s assessment of Didcot as a candidate for listing is my prime source of information about the design.

At the time, the CEGB built stations to a standard template, but had to preserve local amenity and submit its proposals to the Royal Fine Art Commission for approval. As architect it appointed Frederick Gibberd, whose previous work included Harlow New Town and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. His brief was to maintain the views across the Vale of the White Horse, and covered the layout, cladding materials, the colour scheme, hard landscaping and planting.

My mother has written a few maths text books.
My mother has written a few maths text books.

Gibberd modelled the site from four viewpoints, considering differing numbers, sizes and groupings of cooling towers. Henry Moore had a small role in the design when it came to the Royal Fine Art Commission, moving the towers around to create a good composition. The final solution used six cooling towers of standard height and hyperbolic swoop.** The towers were divided in two groups of three, as widely spaced as possible at either end of a NW-SE axis across the site, with the rest of the plant equidistant between them.

Gibberd considered colouring the plant and towers in cream, biscuit, white and dark green, but chose to use a “muted palette of colours to create an even grey tone over the whole composition”. He worked with landscape architect Brenda Colvin on the site planting. The lower buildings and coal yard were screened, but Colvin felt the towers “were a significant feature of the landscape – giant eye-catchers”, and so the planting did not attempt to screen them but provided a setting and a balance to open up the views.

Roger Wagner, “Menorah”, 1993

The first artistic reponse to Didcot that I was aware of was “Menorah” by Roger Wagner, in which he uses a view of the six towers and chimney as a back-drop to the crucifixion drama. He writes: “When I first saw Didcot power station through the window of a train from Oxford to Paddington, the smoke belching from the central chimney reminded me more of a crematorium than a symbol of God’s presence. And yet having said that, the astonishing sky behind the towers looked like the arch of some great cathedral, while something in the scale of the cooling towers themselves, with the light moving across them and the steam slowly, elegiacally, drifting away, created the impression that they were somehow the backdrop of a great religious drama.”

But Wagner was not the first to respond. According to Historic England, “An evocative cultural appreciation by Marina Warner and entitled Didcot Power Station, 1970 (BBC Elstree, 1990) formed one of a series of short documentary films relating to building history produced by the BBC.” I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know how to obtain a copy.

Even earlier, in 1966 during construction of the power station, Sir John Betjeman lamented the defacing of rural England in Inexpensive Progress: “Encase your legs in nylons, / Bestride your hills with pylons / O age without a soul; … And if there is some scenery, / Some unpretentious greenery, / Surviving anywhere, / It does not need protecting / For soon we’ll be erecting / A Power Station there.” He doesn’t name Didcot, but Betjeman located other poetry in the area, most famously “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!”

On a (possibly) more positive note, Sir Tim Rice wrote the lyric Ode to Didcot Power Station for the musical Three More Men in a Boat (1982). I couldn’t find it online, but I confess I didn’t look very hard. Here instead are a few lines from Kit Wright’s 2005 Ode to Didcot Power Station: ” DIDCOT! To one more / Soft eidolon thou steams’t ope mem’ry’s door… / For in thy hanging shrouds I view return / Far other blue-grey clouds;”

Seeing Didcot’s towers once more from the train also prompted memories for a former master of Keble College Oxford who, writing under the pseudonym John Elinger, won a poetry prize in 2009 for The Cooling Towers at Didcot. But later in the poem he writes: “Technology’s half / Life seems so short. The towers must go, / They say.” And indeed, in 2014 and 2015, the towers are being demolished.

…which is why, when a glimpse of the towers is no longer a vehicle for memory, documentary photographic evidence is so important. The Social Landscape of Didcot, a Facebook page of Paul Bodsworth’s photographs “capturing moments… and interesting aspects of life in Didcot… using composition that challenges mainstream photography and viewers alike”. He started photographing Didcot at the end of March 2012, one year before its decommissioning and “the Power station stops creating its plumes of steam and falls quiet.” I don’t know whether photography is art, but this image of the first demolition in July 2014 in particular tells a story.

Didcot Power Station demolition - The Social Landscape of Didcot
The Social Landscape of Didcot captures the moment of demolition

During the three months prior to its decommissioning, Rachel Barbaresi & Susanna Round were appointed as resident artists at Didcot, funded by RWE npower and South Oxfordshire District Council. In their blog Where clouds are made, they describe their visits to the station, conversations with workers past and present, their impressions internal and external, investigations into Gibberd’s design, and the relationship of the power station with the town of Didcot. All of this is included in their ‘work’: “Through the project we want to explore how the power plant and cooling towers have come to play an imaginative role in the sense of place for Didcot residents and beyond.” But their residency culminated with an exhibition at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot during May-June 2013.

Barbaresi & Round’s 1:1 scale model of a cooling tower section

Barbaresi & Round’s blog mentions James Attlee’s role as Writer on the Train for First Great Western, and his post about passing and photographing Didcot on his daily commute to London. Unfortunately, Attlee’s original post is now unavailable, probably because it is now in book form.

The blog also briefly describes their work with the film maker Martyn Bull. Bull’s sound and video recordings of the power station became a sound installation in the Cornerstone exhibition. Thankfully, Bull’s work How beautiful can a power station sound? is still available.

Finally, Barbaresi & Round quote from Marina Warner’s reflection on Didcot as her 1991 contribution to the BBC series Building Sights, which again seems not to be available. The towers “symbolise heedless, overflowing consumption with an ironic economy of form” and, echoing Shelley’s Ozymandius, like monuments “they contain the promise of ruin”.

Historic England refused the listing because, although Gibberd’s design has “strong resonance”, Didcot conformed too much to standards and policies. And so… at 5.01am on 27 July 2014, the three southern cooling towers were demolished. [Original source: http://list.historicengland.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1414666]

Through the news reporting, I became aware of the work of Patrick Cannon, abstract paintings which preserve Didcot in its setting of natural beauty. But I would say that the final piece of art associated with Didcot, for the time being at least, is the performance art of the demolition itself. This BBC video starts with the collapse in reverse, and the three towers spring to life before crumpling into dust. Solid blocks deform as ripples of fabric. The closest tower blows a smoke ring as they collapse in situ, in the place Where clouds [of dust] are made.

* The original power station was coal-fired, and is now known as Didcot A since the gas-fired Didcot B was built in the 1990s. I’m using Didcot throughout to refer to Didcot A.

** I vaguely recall reading that Didcot’s hyperbolae were modified, so the towers are more pleasing in shape than say Drax’s, but can’t find anything to back this up.

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