If form follows function, what happens when the use of a building is no longer required, when the intended purpose of a space becomes obsolete? Does form follow function out the door? But does it have: or can somehow we manage change? The Tate Modern, as we know it today, was once Bankside Power Station. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (who also designed the iconic red London telephone box), this former coal-fired power station closed after just 29 years of its original use. And 29 years is poignant, as it also represents the amount of time in 2012 that has elapsed since Scott’s other London landmark, the Battersea Power Station, closed in 1983. Unlike Bankside, Battersea has remained vacant for that entire period: the past and the future, heritage and development, being locked in an urban wrestling match much to London’s malign. Battersea could at the very least eased a local housing problem with river-side residences. The Tate Modern opened in 2000 to much acclaim and is today being further reconfigured with a new brick extension that is much taller than the original industrial building.
When a building loses it use, it becomes as the social theorist Baudrillard would describe, a signifier. A hollow space yet with all the signs of its former existence: a signal box. A loss of original use does not however have to signal a loss of value. As the Tate has shown, new uses can emerge. In the case of the Tate, reputedly the world’s largest gallery, a power station has ceded to the power of art.
For Shoreditch Station, the proposal to elevate the station to a higher ground is made meaningful when we realise that the ground beneath the station’s feet has already been swept away. The railway tracks and double-height vaulted walls were demolished to make way for the East London extension. The UCL Institute of Archeology has suggested that the station was never a building after all, as it is without foundations (the station structure sits on 6 steel beams spanning over non-existent platforms and tracks: the station’s purpose was derailed some time ago by TfL. So today the station sits above hollow ground, as a signifier of a time when it was once a station. A ghost building for ghost trains.
The story of Shoreditch Station is not only one of recession but also optimism. It needs to have a use that, like the neighbourhood it is situated in, is diurnal. Yet unlike the current scenario in Brick Lane, the station’s future use requires a diurnality that is not a fast-speed schizophrenia between daytime-shopping and nighttime-drinking, a slower space that embraces art and housing. Housing normalises a neighbourhood saturated with entertainment licences. And art , as evident in the streets and on the station, can provide new signs of tomorrow. Shoreditch Station already has an accidental new use as a focal point along street art tours. Whether the heritage vs art house strategy is manifest as old crowning the new, or it’s polar opposite, new bearing down on the old, it doesn’t really matter as long as there are both signs of the past and future omnipresent.