Heatherwick Studio has been commissioned to design a biomass-fuelled power station to provide heat and power for new homes near Middlesbrough, in the north of England, an area of acute deprivation that was once a prosperous industrial heartland.
Every major city seems to be responding to economic stagnation by rushing to build cultural facilities like galleries or museums. Instead, we asked ourselves if this project could offer the region a different kind of catalyst for economic development. We also thought about the contrast between the pride with which the earliest power stations had been constructed and the architecture of contemporary power generating facilities, which are normally utilitarian box-like structures housing pieces of equipment.
With its flat open landscape and famous landmarks, such as the Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough is sometimes described as the Land of Giants. Instead of placing an object on top of the landscape, we wanted to think about a structure that had a more intimate connection with the ground.
Existing biomass-fuelled power stations normally take the form of a collection of separate sheds housing the different pieces of equipment and an 85-metre high chimney stack, placed on top of the ground. Working with engineers, we brought these pieces of equipment together into a single structure, clustered around the stack, which both improved the power station’s functional efficiency and simplified its composition. The existing facilities also seemed remarkably noisy, creating a perception of the power station as polluting, even when it wasn’t. Because it would feel much cleaner if it was almost silent, we proposed that the large quantity of soil that was sitting on the site could be piled up against the structure to dampen the sound.
To get away from the idea that a power station must be cordoned off with barbed wire and danger signs, we suggested that these slopes of soil might be seeded with plants and grasses, turning this landscape into a Power Park, where people might walk, sunbathe, have picnics or go tobogganing. And, instead of attaching a visitor centre, we imagined the whole building as a living museum or school of power, making this a local resource, a touristic attraction and even a public venue in which to hold a wedding or Bar Mitzvah. This makes this a piece of engineering that not only celebrates and connects with the area’s industrial heritage, but also creates jobs and facilities for the locality.