It’s a late, cloudless afternoon. The western sun is clear. The Pendolino train speeds round Norton curve, near Runcorn, in Cheshire. You glance up. In the distance, across the Mersey flatlands, you can see the Runcorn Bridge and then one of the truly great sights of the North West: the eight, cooling towers of Fiddlers Ferry power station, silhouetted and steaming. Bold, sculptural and sublime. You know you are in the North, you know you are home.
Some structures are so big and bold we just don’t see them. They are there until one day they are gone. So it is with power station cooling towers. Architectural historians ignore them: not one is listed in England. Their engineers and designers are mainly unknown. Technically innovative towers, such as the two Tinsley towers near Rotherham, were demolished recently. Landmark towers are swept away. Climate change activists demonise them although they emit mainly cleaned-up H2O, not CO2. Yet they are superb structures of wonder-full engineering. How do the hyperbolic-curve concrete walls stand up? How were they built? Did puny men really clamber above them on scaffolding to pour concrete? Who invented them? How do they work? If they were in the deserts of Arabia they would be tourist attractions, so magnificent is their elemental architecture. Yet they seem to be despised and removed as soon as their power stations are closed. Why?
The first hyperbolic-curve shaped natural draught cooling tower was developed by Dutch engineer F K T van Iterson, a director of Dutch State Mines, and G Kuypers, a civil engineer. Before their pioneer work, cooling towers were built of timber and they lasted about 15 years. Reinforced concrete provided an elegant and lasting solution to generation heat disbursement. The first natural draught hyperbolic-curve cooling towers in Britain were built by engineers L G Mouchel & Partners at Lister Drive power station, Liverpool, in 1924. They were so successful that Mouchel went on to build more than 350 towers, 157 in the UK. Wolverhampton and Harris Hall, Birmingham (1925) and Coventry (1927) stations used early Mouchel-built towers.
The Lister Drive towers were 39.6m high and with 30.5m base diameters –small by modern standards. The hyperbolic shape allows the reinforcing bars to be straight though sloping. The base sides at Lister Drive were 368mm thick but the top sides were 165mm: the higher the tower, the thinner the wall. Towers can be very strong but, in high winds, towers can collapse. This happened at Fiddlers Ferry in 1984; the tower was rebuilt.
Fiddlers Ferry- opened in 1971- originally burnt Lancashire coal. It now uses imported and Yorkshire coal, and some biofuels. It has eight 114m towers. Cooling towers have been used as symbolic structures in popular culture: Fiddlers Ferry featured in the title sequence of BBC3’s Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps.
But many local towers have gone. Agecroft power station, built for Salford Corporation in 1925, had four towers. It was in Pendlebury, linked to Agecroft colliery, on the site of HMP Forest Bank. The coal mine closed in 1991 and the power station went two years later. The towers were demolished on May 8, 1994. The four colossal towers dominate a marvellous 1983 photograph by John Davies: it shows tiny figures playing football beneath the Agecroft towers. Photographers, like Davies, have recognised the powerful images and somehow disturbing authority of the great towers. Bernd and Hiller Becher’s photographs of cooling towers are striking and strangely absorbing.
John Piper’s black and white photograph of Build was power station cooling towers, near Ironbridge, was daringly included in Michael Moulder’s 1973 Shropshire: A Shell guide, among pictures of cottages and country churches.
In Manchester Stuart Street power station’s five towers dominated Bradford and Clayton. They were linked to Bradford colliery which closed in 1968. Stuart Street closed in 1975 and the towers went in February 1978. The site is where the Velodrome is now.
Stockport had a splendidly imposing tower at Portwood. It went in the early 1980s but I can recall its bulk at the end of Merseyway: complementing the brick rail viaduct as symbols of Power and Industry; industrial yin and yang. It was shocking when it went; could something so enormous simply collapse in a rumble of dust and shattered concrete?
But maybe attitudes are changing? Sue Clifford and Angela King included cooling towers in Common Ground’s 2006 England in particular: “landmarks bold enough for giants” they called them.
In their Edgelands: journeys into England’s true wilderness Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, (Cape, 2011) the flaneuring poet and writer, enthuse: “Cooling towers distort our sense of scale in the English landscape. They also introduce a new spectrum of available visible effects to this thing called the countryside. Seen on a cold dawn, they seem to shimmer over the frozen landscape, mirage-like; while the last late light of June catching their upper reaches 300 feet up can find in their grey concrete a warm range of pinks and purples like a mesa sunset.”
They have looked up inside towers: “Silent from a distance, as you approach a cooling tower on foot, you’re aware of rising white noise, a watery roar. Looking up a tower’s skirt is a revelation. The view inside is of hundreds of piers standing in a heavy downpour, so powerful you can barely see the daylight across the opposite side. It looks like some vast drenched film set; the industrial, warm, interior rain that falls in Stalker or Blade Runner.” Isn’t that thrilling? Isn’t it time we respected our big, bold, steaming towers, where “clouds are made”?
© Aidan Turner-Bishop
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 1 'BOLD'.