The Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire is one of the most beautiful places in England. Tourists visit it as the ‘Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’ and as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I suspect many of them are surprised to find these historic industrial attractions embedded within such a lushly Arcadian landscape, in which the River Severn carves through steep wooded hills on which dark reddish-brown brick buildings precariously perch. There isn’t a hint of the satanic here; indeed, it is barely urban. Although the focus of visitors is exclusively on 18th- or 19th-century sights, the landscape they experience is in large part a result of a forgotten late 20th-century history.
Ironbridge is one of a number of former settlements swallowed up within the sprawling new town of Telford, which was designated in the 1960s to take overspill population from the West Midlands conurbation. The area’s long history of industrial exploitation and subsequent decline had left a blighted hodgepodge of disused mine shafts, derelict pools, and abandoned colliery spoil mounds. The new town would transform this unsightly and dangerous mess into what the development corporation called a ‘Forest City’. The landscape plan for Telford harnessed the vigorous forms left by dereliction, merging them with massive projects of earth moulding, tree planting, and new grassland. Using its own nursery, the development corporation planted more than 5 million trees, resulting in approximately 80 sq m of woodland for every resident of the new city. Telford healed but did not erase the industrial past, as places such as Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale were restored and celebrated as an integral part of the new town project.
Telford is spread out, car-dependent, and has so little urban grain that it makes earlier new towns such as Harlow or Stevenage feel like Rome. Landscape, rather than architecture, would be the discipline that would give Telford a unifying identity, with the city architect Don Fenter writing proudly of his low-density housing, ‘What you’ll see in Telford isn’t great architecture, it isn’t the stuff that people fall down on their knees to but it’s good, warm liveable stuff that works.’ Visiting Ironbridge for the first time, I clocked that I was in a new town only when I saw a signpost to Silkin Way (Lewis Silkin was the Labour politician most associated with the early New Towns). Telford gave thousands of people a decent place to live, and was an astonishingly ambitious and ecologically sophisticated response to deindustrialising landscapes, but these achievements are forgotten because they are largely invisible. You can’t see the new town for the trees.
There is, or was until very recently, an exception to the relative invisibility of the profound changes to this Shropshire landscape in the late 20th-century. This was Ironbridge B power station, which went on line in 1969, with its four 375-foot-high cooling towers grouped into a gentle sequence running alongside the contours of the wooded hillside that rises up from the River Severn. It was far larger than any other man-made structure in the region. Whether or not you see an abstractly humanoid presence in cooling towers, and I do, there is something elementally graceful about the way that they make heavy concrete visually light through a tender hyperboloid curve.
It required great ingenuity on the part of the project’s landscape architect Kenneth Booth to integrate these gigantic forms into the surrounding countryside, so that they almost appeared to grow naturally out of the hill. His approach was heavily influenced by the advice set out in Sylvia Crowe’s stirring book The Landscape of Power (1958). Cooling towers were one of a number of revolutionary new shapes necessitated by mass electrification, the scale of which ‘is cosmic rather than terrestrial, and the idea which its appearance should express, is the harnessing of universal forces to the service of the earth […] These shapes are unlike any previous man-made structure, their scale and lines of construction link them with the mind and the forces of the universe and not at all with the human body.’
Crowe advised that as it was impossible to conceal them, it was best to divorce them from any surrounding humanising detail, so they could become enveloped by the surrounding countryside – thereby becoming ‘as impersonal as hills’. At Ironbridge B the smaller-scale ancillary buildings were therefore screened by trees and new hills created out of excess spoil.
The coup de théâtre at Ironbridge B was the subdued ochre colouring of the cooling towers’ concrete. The initial plan was to colour the towers a khaki green, so that they would be camouflaged among the surrounding verdant hillside. Booth reputedly had the eureka moment while looking at the site from atop the nearby Wrekin hill, when he noticed the rust colour of a recently ploughed field. The palette makes me think of John Ruskin’s argument in his lecture ‘The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy’ of 1858, that so much of the beauty of English landscape and buildings was due to the presence in their composition of iron ochre. The colour hints also at the fiery glow of industry, as depicted in paintings of the Gorge in its late 18th-century heyday.
Ironbridge B was demolished in December last year. When detonated, cooling towers make a final little dance, looking for a moment like fluttering fabric as they collapse into themselves, emitting a mighty wave of dust. Changes in the way electricity is produced mean that many power stations are currently on the way out. Enjoy while you can the moment on the East Coast Mainline in which a single horizon encompasses Ferrybridge, Eggborough and Drax power stations, a collision of man and nature as thrilling in its way as Durham Cathedral on its hill, seen further north from the same train. Didcot A power station is another recent loss. The positioning of the cooling towers was apparently suggested to Didcot’s architect Frederick Gibberd by the sculptor Henry Moore. Historic England’s advice to date has been that cooling towers are both too numerous (the Monuments Protection Fund identified more than 500 in 1995) and not distinctive enough to deserve protection.
What in the 1960s could be construed as a symbol of spreading prosperity and home comfort now represents the profligacy of that era. Perhaps we should simply celebrate the passing of these megalithic monuments to a polluting and energy-guzzling past. Even in the 1970s the landscape architect Brenda Colvin thought there might be something ecologically suspect about finding beauty in a cooling tower but, she argued, ‘those of us who have come to appreciate the remarkable beauty of these new forms and their dramatic sculptural quality remember that art has been inspired by battle scenes, by air raids, and by Rome in flames. All these, like the sculpture of new technology, may appeal to the eye if not to the mind.’ The disappearance of the power station at Ironbridge is particularly poignant. This is a place that through an active programme of conservation succeeded in transforming a derelict landscape of industry into a landscape of tourism and heritage. It is a failure of imagination that a similar transformation couldn’t be achieved for this equally resonant landscape of power.
From the March 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.