July 15 2011: Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station by Harry Martin (1968)

Yesterday’s discussion of a 1964 issue of Soviet Union magazine noted that the celebration of engineering and infrastructure projects in glossy, consumer friendly formats wasn’t a uniquely Soviet tendency at the time (though seems fairly rare outside specialist journals today). So as an example of a Western variation on the theme, by way of contrast or comparison, perhaps, here’s a reproduction in full of a fascinating item from December 1968’s Nottingham Topic, in which the writer Harry Martin talks about the construction, ambitious technological scope and awe-inspiring scale of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station.

In recent years, issues relating to carbon emission and energy use have been rightly scrutinised, and Ratcliffe-on-Soar itself was at the centre of the pre-emptive mass arrest of around 100 activists at Iona School in Sneinton, Nottingham, in April 2009. By the time the case began to collapse and convictions already made were appealed during 2010 and 2011 – mainly due to lack of evidence, given the pre-emptive nature of the arrests, and the use of undercover police officers in agent provocateur roles in the years leading up to them – Ratcliffe-on-Soar itself was less, as Martin’s article has it, Europe’s Star Power Station, and more One Of Europe’s Most Notorious Power Stations: an emblem of unsustainable energy production.

Yet while I’d tend to side with the climate activists on the political and sustainability issues, it’s hard not to disembark at East Midlands Parkway, or drive along the road where the imposing cooling towers and chimneys occupy the Nottinghamshire landscape like post-war industry’s answers to the  architectural splendour of the Great Pyramids, and not be moved by the aesthetics and scale of Ratcliffe-on-Soar. It’s an achievement that can, in some respects, be considered as a formal and visual construction separate from its immediate function in extracting power from coal and the political controversy its function rightly generates.

Perhaps it is a bit inconsistent to oppose the construction of any more coal-fired power stations while admiring Ratcliffe-on-Soar for what it is: a visual presence in the landscape whose form imposes a functionally-dictated but abstract beauty against the fields and skies that frame it, like the jugs and bottles of a gigantic Morandi still life or the component parts of a Leger abstraction manifested in the real world. But it’s probably no more inconsistent to find Ratcliffe-on-Soar beautiful, inspiring and problematic than it is to appreciate the Great Pyramid while simultaneously opposing the absolute power it celebrates and recoiling at the idea of latter day slave armies being marshalled to build follies in the desert.

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