There is a genuine sense of loss over the demolition of Cockenzie’s ‘cathedral of coal’, writes Joyce McMillan
Tomorrow at noon, in a controlled explosion, the great, slender twin towers of Cockenzie power station will be demolished, to be followed a few moments later by the massive turbine hall that stands behind them, on the south shore of the Forth, just eight miles east of Edinburgh.
In a matter of seconds, the explosions will wipe from the map one of the most familiar landmarks on the east coast of Scotland, leaving behind a site of several hundred acres that includes the field where the Battle of Prestonpans was fought, during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.
The coal-fired power station, now owned by ScottishPower, was opened in 1967, and there is no doubt that it had come to the end of its useful life; a decade ago, it was identified as the least carbon-efficient power-station in the UK. There is confusion over what will become of the site, though, a multi-purpose community buy-out is still under discussion. And alongside that confusion, there is also something more; a genuine sense of loss, at the wiping from the landscape of what one commentator yesterday called “a cathedral of coal”, and a symbol of the last great post-war moment of investment in the fuel that drove Scotland’s industrial revolution, and shaped our economy for more than three centuries.
There are still not many people, I guess, who would actually describe Cockenzie as beautiful. Yet it has a profound and purposeful industrial grace about it, that makes the rolling East Lothian farmland around it seem powerful, caught up in history, something more than pretty. And now that it’s about to go, it’s hard not to feel a huge affection for a building that has become such an unmistakable local landmark; so much so that its inimitable shape used to feature in the prettily painted backdrops to the Musselburgh pantomime, alongside the fairy dells and magic castles of a more traditional panto landscape.
And Cockenzie is not alone, these days, in attracting a belated public affection and esteem that the modernist buildings of the postwar era notoriously failed to earn, when they first appeared on our skyline. Dubbed “brutalist” by friends and enemies alike, the great building schemes of the 1960s and 70s were often dismissed as cold, bleak, oversized, inhuman, and just plain ugly. Some of the buildings – like Glasgow’s notoriously damp tower blocks – were not fit for purpose; and when the architectural tide turned, in the 1980s, people assembled in huge crowds to cheer, as the first tower blocks were demolished.
Yet little by little, as the heyday of modernism faded into history, the mood also began to change, and some modernist and brutalist buildings began to come back into fashion. The famously brutal Trellick Tower residential block in London, completed in 1972, became an iconic setting for films and drama, and is now a Grade A listed building; in Scotland, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s astonishing St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross in Dunbartonshire, completed in 1966, has been handed over to artist Angus Farquhar and his NVA company for gradual restoration as a centre for art and architecture. And although no such rescue package has come to save Cockenzie, it’s not difficult to imagine how such a scheme might, in less straitened times, have come together. Europe is dotted with great abandoned power stations, from Tate Modern in London to Amsterdam and Gdansk, that are now memorable centres for art and creativity, history and memory; and not many of them have the advantage of a historic battlefield, right on their doorstep.
If it is too late for Cockenzie, though, it’s not too late to ponder what these shifts in attitude might mean; because for all their overweening scale and occasionally brutal style, there’s no question that many of the great modernist building developments of the postwar era were inspired by an optimism, an ambition, and a vision of a completely transformed future, that we can hardly imagine today. The execution of the projects was often faulty, and their public-sector focus on providing homes, services or workplaces for working-class families inevitably damaged their status and prestige. Yet at their best, they possessed a grandeur, a sense of unleashed imagination and of a collective will to build something new, that is sadly absent from the thousands of square miles of little, pokey, retro post-modern houses and flats that represent, along with the huge commercial towers of Canary Wharf and London Wall, the main architectural legacy of the age that followed – the age of Thatcherite individualism, of mortgage-paying democracy, and of widespread defeatism about the ability of society, acting collectively, to do anything but make things worse.
There were reasons, of course, for the “Thatcher revolution”, and for its reflection in the popular rebellion against the top-down modernism of the postwar era; reasons that the social-democratic left today should try to understand in full, as we set about trying to provide a 21st century alternative to rampant deregulated capitalism.
Yet the vision of a future that is better than the past, that is brighter and more sustainable, and that we can collectively achieve, remains a vital part of human life and politics, one that, if denied, invites huge levels of alienation, depression and loss. During Scotland’s referendum campaign last year, we caught a brief glimpse of the positive energy that can be unleashed, when people are able for a moment to lift their eyes from a short five-year electoral cycle, and to imagine a future that – even in these times of environmental crisis – might stretch forward over 20, 40, or 100 years.
So if those of us who were born into that postwar age of futuristic visions feel a pang of loss, as we see the Cockenzie chimneys crumple this weekend, it’s not because we can’t see where those visions failed, and were flawed. It’s because without any shared vision at all – and without buildings like Cockenzie that capture a confident vision of new times, in their shape, scale and fabric – the people do perish; not quickly or visibly, but in that vital part of themselves that gives hope, purpose and a sense of meaning, to each individual life.