Shock and Awe – Battersea Power Station

How small and insignificant I felt, grovelling at the foot of this seventh wonder of the world.

Huge, massive, unreal, apocalyptic even. Vast power hammers sending vibrations through the ground like earth tremors, cranes reaching to the sky, swinging manically in all directions.  Men in hard hats scrabbling like ants over a forest ant hill.

The original architecture, the central power house is even more frightening, if anything, than the Malaysian funded luxury sprouting up all around it.

Built at the height of the Soviet Union, the Art Deco monstrosity reminded me of nothing less than a Stakhanovite campaign. This behemoth ate coal and spun mysterious electro magnetic forces in it interior. It belched poison into the atmosphere through its 4 upturned table legs.

Human workers shoveling coal and mending turbines were cogs in a vast wheel of production, which would have fitted all too well into one of Comrade Joseph’s 5 Year Plans.

Is it capitalism or communism? Is there a difference? Both are monolithic, uncaring structures where the few dominate the many. There may be humans at the top, but at the bottom it feels nothing but a vast machine, churning and burning, eating and consuming.  Inhuman, dystopian.

The vastness and indifference of the universe is one thing. There, no guiding hand other than cold mathematics spins the fate of galaxies. There, the nuclear force of stars belches energy untroubled by intellect or human emotion.

A vast collective enterprise like Battersea Power Station feels very different.  And yet in some ways eerily similar. It was “caused”. Unlike the universe. It was designed and built by human will, human intelligence.

And yet the result feels not dissimilar.  There is something distinctly inhuman about an industrial enterprise on this scale. The individual becomes irrelevant, mere fodder or fuel to the greater purpose. Alexey Stakhanov indeed.

And what of the new Battersea Power station? Now that workers build luxury and wealth for mysterious Malaysian overlords, does this eater of workers, this leviathan of the deep have a different feel to it?

I would argue not. An enterprise so vast is difficult to comprehend. The investors or residents who buy the egg box flats are perhaps the new workers. Instead of shoveling coal and crawling around inside turbines, they slave in offices to pay their mortgages so that the mysterious owners can reap energy from the project. Not electro-magnetic force these days – just money. Equally powerful in our human world.

So yes, shock and awe. There is no doubt a steely, industrial beauty here. But it is still, and will remain, an ants nest with an overlord. A queen bee, a politariat. The purchasers of the new urban luxury may not be the slaves of old, but slaves they are nonetheless.  They feed their mortgages, their banks rather than the coal boilers.

A great seething mass of frenetic activity. A vast consumption, a huge turnover of growth and GDP and resources.

Are we better off for it? Or are we still Stakhanovites feeding some giant collective delusion?

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