On Friday 6 December, 2019, the cooling towers at Ironbridge power station were demolished. It can have taken no longer than ten seconds for these monumental, iconic structures to be razed completely flat, realigning the landscape yet again via the human cycle of accretion and attrition: making, building, powering, dismantling, demolishing, voiding. Starting again.
The towers, and their immense chimney (scheduled to be demolished sometime in 2020, but still standing in March 2021) have occupied their spot like a quintet of full stops at the end of the Ironbridge Gorge for half a century. The end of their usefulness as a functioning part of the power station and now as an iconic structure, loosely marks the end of the area’s relationship with its industries, of which there have been many. So many, in fact, that the Ironbridge Gorge in its entirety was granted World Heritage status (incorporating the power station) in 1986. To list a few: Mining, of coal, limestone and clay, fabrication, of exceptional decorative tiles, utilitarian roof tiles, clay pipes, bricks, doll parts, foundries casting ambitious iron structures, beautiful wrought ironwork – urban ballustrades, bollards, and lamp posts illuminating streetscapes, imposing gates safekeeping the country’s finest palaces, parklands and estates. The rendering of dreams through industrial and creative endeavour.
The alliance of industrial output and the concurrent blossoming of the creative industries could hardly be more evident than in this accidentally fecund location. For me, the cooling towers were a symbol of what had become a tradition, in this unbelievably rich area of industrial heritage, of understanding industry’s relationship with aesthetics, and its responsibility to occupy the landscape in the most harmonious way possible. These motivating forces may well have arisen from the undeniably dystopian entropy of early industry in this area, which was anything but picturesque – vicious, all consuming, dirty and essentially a recipe for a very short, very hard existence.
Some of the later industrialists (especially those of Quaker descent, like Abraham Darby III, who inherited the Coalbrookdale Foundry from his father) attempted to provide a counterpoint to the exploitation of people and resources, reframing it as a duty to care for workers and protect their environment. Darby’s mission was to succeed in industry whilst consciously attempting not to inflict the previous misery and hardship; and arguably won the area’s ‘progressive’ reputation in its industrial genesis. He clearly possessed a strong visual acuity, too. Everything had to be beautiful and well designed.
I like to think that Ironbridge’s power station (built in the mid-twentieth century) should have had the same ambition, but the reality is that in utilising ‘dirty’ industry, it didn’t, and many people saw the power station as regressive. The fallout from workers falling ill during the construction process, and later, as a result of pollution from it, does nothing to soften the local image of the power station as a ‘blot on the landscape’ and even a looming, malevolent force, serving as a kind of monolithic reminder of industry’s brutal exploitation of people and the countryside. All of this fuels the narrative that industrial architecture is inherently ugly and lacking in value: a great misconception. However, the filth generated by a coal-fired power station would have been understandably unpopular and this, pitched against the bucolic gentility of places like the uncomfortably nearby Benthall Hall, would simply have been seen as a poor fit with the more ‘countrified’ Shropshire side of the gorge.
The gradual demolition of the industrial past is often seen as positive erasure of the ‘bad old days’. If it does not fit the prerequisite pastoral idyll, it is somehow not worthy of preservation or affection (unlike the first Iron Bridge, cast at nearby Coalbrookdale foundry.) Often the value and beauty of ex-industrial structures goes unrecognised as a result of the collective local experience of such structures as destructive or detrimental to public health. The Iron Bridge escapes this, partly as a result of the positive symbolism and pioneering spirit it seems to embody, and its function as a lasting monument to engineering progress.
As a result of our lack of veneration for ex-industrial buildings, we are in danger of dismissing an entire genre of critical heritage. As the need to create homes becomes ever more pressing, the inevitable tide of brownfield site ‘boxhome’ housing targets multiplies and overwhelms. In 150 year’s time we might think grand country houses and Capability Brown style parkland are the only landscapes worth saving – however the vast number of artists and creators inspired by the cooling towers at Ironbridge would suggest otherwise. A quick look at the work of Hiller and Bernd Becher is also useful in this context.
The naturally curvaceous, voluptuous warmth of cooling tower form is accidentally appealing by design, being primarily utilitarian. The remaining structure of Ironbridge power station (now also demolished, bar the chimney) was typically 1950’s and striking for the disharmony it created as a standalone structure. It was almost invisible in the shadow of the titanic cooling towers, but now they are gone, the emptiness is very present.
The cooling towers added so much to this piece of gorge on the Severn. So many varied and surprising views, the pleasing way their arrangement hugged the bottom of Benthall Edge in an embrace, and the soft warmth of their colour, echoed in the ubiquitous red clay bricks of the area and the red rocks and clay soil of nearby Bridgnorth. Not only this, but in the scaled-up repetition of the familiar shapes of the once numerous bottle kilns, firing all those bricks and Coalport china, the Jackfield tiles used all over the world. They did everything that all good architecture should do. They sat in the landscape perfectly. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, when I arrive at a place where their presence made an especially complete view.