A few weeks ago, the design mag Dezeen reported on a lecture by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels at the Royal Academy in London. During the lecture, Ingels nonchalantly described a plan to turn an ageing power station’s smokestacks into tesla coils — if only London would let him.
Battersea Power Station is a landmark in the city, and it’s been controversial since it first rose in the 1920s. In newly-electrified London, a fragmented network of small stations led the British government to step in and set up a plan to build larger, public power stations. Battersea was the vanguard of that decision, and it was widely hated — seen as a blight on London and an unwelcome harbinger of modernity, burping pollution from the coal it burned to create electricity from its two huge smokestacks, which later doubled to four in an expansion.
The plant went silent in the 1980s as more efficient plants took hold, and for a few decades, it was under threat of demolition. But in 2012, a plan to redevelop it into a complex for both housing and retail took hold. The project is currently underway, and Bjarke Ingels was commissioned to design the public park in front of the renovated building.
According to Dezeen’s Marcus Fairs, who attended Ingles’ lecture, the architect also has plans for the historic white smokestacks. Though the proposal was previously mentioned in March by The Guardian, Fairs reports more details: Like how the energy for the coils will come from piezoelectric generators embedded in the square. These generators will capture the ambient energy expended by the footsteps of the 50,000 or so visitors to the development every day, and use it to power the four huge tesla coils in the smokestacks.
It’s a fanciful idea, full of delightful symbolism. A few choice quotes from Ingles’ lecture, as reported by Dezeen:
“We’re working with experts in Tesla coils, looking into how to incorporate it into the chimneys so essentially we might celebrate the transformation from carbon footprint to human footprint… We could release [the energy] using Tesla coils, not at the scale of Tesla coils that we know but at the scale of the chimneys… I have to say that we haven’t fully persuaded the client to do it but we have a rock-solid feasibility study.”
In other words, the architect has done his homework, but he hasn’t persuaded his clients that shooting giant, high-voltage, low-current lightning through the middle of London is a good idea.
Just to situate us historically here, Tesla invented his eponymous coil in 1891, roughly 38 years before work started on the Battersea station. The “war of currents” had already been won by Edison and his direct current. In a sense, capping off the renovation with a Tesla-borne invention is a beautifully symmetrical bit of historical trolling.
Tesla himself designed and built a very large coil 186-foot-tall tower in Shoreham, New York, in 1902.The tower was razed a little more then ten years later, though, before it had even been used. More recently, a group called Lightning on Demand has been trying to build a pair of 37m high coils in California to study lightning, but the project seems to be on hold.
How Would It Work?
The ambitious plan to add coils to the Battersea station, as it stands in Dezeen’s report, is exceedingly thin on details. When I reached out to the firm for more information, they were unable to comment. It could easily end up as nothing more than a way to drum up attention for the project. But let’s speculate how it might work, for the love of science fair experiments writ large.
The first half of the proposal — to collect the power generated by humans walking across the ground — isn’t far-fetched. Piezoelectric generators, which would harness the mechanical energy of vibrations through the ground surface, are even being studied by the United States Federal government, which hopes to use them to capture energy below highways. Here’s one such system in prototype form:
The giant Tesla coil aspect of the plan is a little (or a lot) stickier. Each of the chimneys stands more than 330 feet tall, and is more than 20 feet wide at the mouth. The coil parts — from the high voltage transformer to the capacitor — would need to be embedded inside the chimneys or mounted on the outside edges. Depending on the size of the parts, extra structural supports might be required.
Then there are the safety questions: Would a 300-foot-tall arc of electricity disrupt air travel above it? Would the sound of the discharged energy would become a problem for the people living in the development? It does sound like this would be a once-a-night display, on the order of Paris’ midnight Eiffel Tower light show, which would make the noise issue slightly less problematic.
In short, there are far, far more questions than there were answers in July’s lecture. But you have to hand it to Ingels, who certainly knows how to get the public excited about architecture with sweeping gestures. How incredible would it be to see this symbol of the early modern world — and modern architecture — lit up by an invention that helped herald it more than 100 years ago? Despite the caveats, let’s go ahead and root for it anyways.
Picture: Peter Wallace