• Kim Barrett

How the Beauty of a Coal Power Station Led to its Downfall

In 2019, after years of activism, damage and political debate, the cooling towers of Didcot A power station, in rural Oxfordshire, were finally demolished. Reflecting on the tumultuous architectural history of the power station, Kim Barrett describes witnessing the towers’ final moments. They consider the design of the controversial site, its artistic legacy, and the lessons that architects of green energy infrastructure can learn from its demolition.


It used to be easy to know when you were passing the small town of Didcot in Oxfordshire; whether you were changing trains at the rail interchange on its outskirts, or racing past it on the dual-carriageway heading anywhere but here. Home to Didcot ‘A’, a coal-burning station, the huge cooling-towers stood proud above the endless green fields. They became an iconic symbol of the town, but here they no longer stand.


The first three cooling towers were demolished on July 27, 2014, followed by the rest on August 18, 2019. The demolition details were kept vague to avoid crowds, but a Facebook event for the second demolition had interest from 4,560 people – I was one of them. Comments across social media shared information from people who had been scoping out the area and suggested locations with the best view. I chose a small hill to the south-west of Didcot, about three miles away.


The demolition itself had a mixed reception: some celebrated the destruction of a pollution giant, others lamented the loss of a landmark. Kit Wright, the author of the poem Ode to Didcot Power Station, said: ‘I find it rather beautiful, I think that landscape would now lack something were it missing.’ The emotional response invoked by the towers was addressed by several artists before their demolition, including Martyn Bull’s How beautiful can a power station sound?, Roger Wagner’s Menorah and John Elinger’s The Cooling Towers of Didcot.


‘I find it rather beautiful, I think that landscape would now lack something were it missing.’

The admiration of the towers’ form was not accidental. Built between 1965-70, the creation of Didcot A involved architects and engineers helping to fit the huge structure into its landscape. The towers themselves have scientific beauty – the form of Didcot’s 375ft cooling towers is such that the walls only need to be two feet thick at the base, narrowing at the top. For perspective, if an egg were resized to the height of the towers, its shell would be thicker than the walls.


The Royal Fine Art Commission offered recommendations, one of which was to reduce the height of the cooling towers to 325ft. However, after the 1965 collapse of the Ferrybridge cooling towers in high winds, where the towers were closer together than usual and wider than any previously built, it was decided that using an established design would be safer than pioneering shorter towers.


Although the shape of the towers came from a standard template, great care was taken in the way they were laid out in the landscape. The towers were arranged in two groups of three, half a mile apart, with a much taller chimney in the centre acting as a visual fulcrum. While moving around the area, it appeared as though the number and size of the towers changed, with towers merging together or completely blocking one another.


The towers were arranged in two groups of three, half a mile apart, with a much taller chimney in the centre acting as a visual fulcrum

Didcot A was the last of the large coal power stations to be built in the UK so it could learn from earlier failures and successes. Some cooling towers at other power stations were painted in different colours to bring them forward or emphasise them in the group. One cooling tower at Rugeley ‘B’, built at the end of the 1960s, was painted pink to emphasise the ‘inherent femininity’ of the towers’ form. The lead architect on the Didcot project, Frederick Gibberd, thought this use of colour was ‘too arty’ so the towers at Didcot A were all light grey.


Their neutral design was crucial to the towers being approved in such a scenic area, but no use of colour nor intelligent architecture could make up for their inherent efficiency flaw. Cooling towers at coal power stations waste up to 60% of the energy produced, letting it escape as heat, and making coal the dirtiest fossil fuel.


No use of colour nor intelligent architecture could make up for their inherent efficiency flaw

Marina Warner, a writer who made a documentary about the Didcot power station in 1991, said that there’s ‘something inspiring about this kind of grandeur, seeded as it is with its own doom.’ She saw beauty in the way that the cooling towers symbolised an era that must come to an end.


Coal power became a huge target for environmental activists and Didcot A was the site of many protests. On November 2, 2006, thirty Greenpeace volunteers invaded the power station, shutting down the coal conveyor belts and other machinery, and climbing the chimney. They claimed that the power station was one of the dirtiest in Britain and that it emitted six million tonnes of CO2 per year, more than the 29 lowest polluting countries combined.


As of 2013, 72% of global CO2 emissions came from energy production, but CO2 isn’t the only type of pollution that bellows out of power stations. In 2001, the EU issued a directive to limit the emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and dust from power stations. This meant that, unrelated to CO2, older power stations had to fit equipment to limit these emissions or begin the process of closing down. Nine power plants in the UK opted to close as a result of this legislation, and Didcot A was the largest of these.


Unrelated to CO2, older power stations had to fit equipment to limit these emissions or begin the process of closing down

After 42 years and 250 billion kWh (or 85 billion kg of CO2) of energy generated, on March 23, 2013, Didcot A was turned off.


The beautiful but inefficient cooling towers were not the only part of the power station that needed demolishing. The demolition of one of the main buildings was mired in tragedy when it collapsed during preparation work on February 23, 2016. Four people died in the collapse and several others were injured. The instability of the building made search and rescue work difficult and dangerous, and it was eventually abandoned. It wasn’t until after the rest of the building was demolished in a controlled explosion five months later that it was deemed safe enough to retrieve the bodies of three of the men killed from the rubble of the building.


Three years later, at 6:00 am on August 18, 2019, I took my position with a group of friends on a carefully selected hill overlooking Didcot. There were at least a dozen picnic blankets set up around me and, according to social media, there were hundreds of more observers at other vantage points surrounding the town. The demolition was scheduled to happen sometime in the next two hours.


We watched the sunrise over the towers for the last time and discussed attempts to save them, which included a proposal to turn them into a water-park. The buildings were also considered for a listed status by Historic England, which preserves buildings of particular cultural importance. This would have protected them from demolition but they were refused for not being sufficiently unique.


Shortly after 7:00 am, the three massive towers that seemed so permanent in the landscape fell and melted away into dust. A few seconds later the sound of their demise reached the hilltop where I was standing, a massive crash that must have woken anyone left sleeping in the town. The dust cleared and the skyline stood empty. Only a 650ft-high chimney remained, once one of the tallest structures in the UK. It was demolished on February 9, 2020.


The demolition of this power station is only the start for the UK going green. Although the UK didn’t use any coal power for most of this summer, its energy production is still reliant on gas, and there’s still a natural gas power plant operating in Didcot, known as Didcot ‘B’. The next significant shift in power generation needs to replace gas with green energy, and aesthetics will play a vital role in whether communities will accept these new pollution-free power stations.


Aesthetics will play a vital role in whether communities will accept these new pollution-free power stations

Despite Gibberd’s efforts, not everyone saw the beauty in Didcot A and, prior to being decommissioned, it was voted an ‘eyesore’ by Country Life readers in 2003. Environmental politics likely influenced these negative views as it’s difficult to separate aesthetic appreciation from our beliefs. This is also true for those who voted for windfarms, which topped the 2003 poll and remain controversial. In contrast, the artists and local people acknowledging Didcot’s beauty before its demolition also recognised the massive polluting power that it previously possessed.


Green technologies will need to spread all across the country in the coming years. They will likely have an inherent beauty to those who see them as saving our planet. However, to succeed through the courts and receive planning permission, they will also need to appear attractive to those who haven’t yet accepted the scale of wide-spread change that will be required to combat catastrophic climate change.


The architects of our green future should follow the same careful steps that led even environmentalists to call coal beautiful. New structures must fit into local landscapes, not only serving their environmental purposes, but gaining acceptance from those who must live with them.

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