Tres Xemeneies: The Future of a Barcelona Icon

Tres Xemeneies Sant Adriá, a Barcelona Icon

The thermal power station has been stripped; the machinery has gone, the offices have been destroyed, the pontoons reaching out into the sea have been dismantled. All that remains are the turbine hall and the skeleton of the three iconic towers, which produce no energy. But the Central Térmica de Sant Adría, also known as 'Les Tres Xemeneies', or more euphorically, 'la Sagrada Familia de los obreros', remains an icon of the Barcelona skyline.

The 200 metre tall chimney towers of this thermal plant have provided an imposing and controversial sillouette on the Barcelona shore since the early 1970s. Rising into the sky over the flat wastelands of the Bésos delta, the plant is simultaneously awesome and disturbing - a monument to engineering and a tombstone to environmental indifference.

Conclusively shut down in 2011, for years, the future of the thermal plant had billowed about on contradictory currents. While the council had ambitious plans for the regeneration of its 28 hectares of land, a community group called Plataforma Per La Conservació de les Tres Xemeneies wished to claim it for 'activitats culturals'. The site's energy company owner ENDESA simply wanted to demolish it.

Sant Adriá's Three Chimneys would start out in life as a hated symbol of corporate disdain for local community. When the construction of the emblematic plant was begun by Catalan energy company FESCA in 1971, the project was passionately opposed on environmental and aesthetic grounds by both the Ajuntament and the community associations of Badalona and Sant Adriá.

Despite the fact that the local authorities had not yet granted planning permission, the powerful energy company pressed on with its obras. Two years after construction began, a worker dispute brought further controversy to the towers. The construction workers employed in the building of the plant had organized a series of strikes and protests demanding better working conditions and improved pay. In April 1973, it led to a violent clash with an unsympathetic police force, resulting in the death of an employee of the COPISA construction firm, who was shot by a police bullet.

The plant continued to court negative attention throughout the 80s and 90s. Repeated spewings of llùvia negra (black rain) and pollution of the sea-shore led to hefty sanctions from the local government, criticism in the media and angry protests in the local community.

By the turn of the milennium, under increasing pressure from the government and environmental organizations, FECSA (now called FECSA-ENDESA) decided to gradually shut down the plant and replace it with a more efficient Combined Cycle Plant - the Besòs V power station, which today stands on the other side of the river.

Once the decision had been taken to shut it down, an argument began to develop between FECSA-ENDESA (now called simply ENDESA), the Ajuntament and the local community over the future of the plant. Local community members held a referendum and voted for the plant's preservation, favouring its transformation into a social centre. The Ajuntament spoke of preserving the plant, described as 'a singular element in Barcelona's coastal landscape', as an industrial heritage site. One plan was outlined to build a new barrio on the site, with hundreds of new homes, hotels and local services.

ENDESA however, preferred an altogether different solution; the wrecking ball. Citing a cost of €400,000 a year just to keep the plant standing, the energy company lost little time in ignoring the Ajuntament, and set about demolishing it. The pantalánes (jetties) reaching out into the sea were taken apart, the turbine hall and chimneys were stripped. Decades of industrial heritage were being lost to the bulldozer.

But in 2015 the Ajuntament de Sant Adriá reacted. By declaring the site Bien Cultural de Local Interes, it forced ENDESA to leave the turbine room and the concrete skeleton of the three towers intact. ENDESA continued to flex its corporate muscles, threatening to take the matter to court. The dispute carried on, with those hoping to regenerate the site resigned to the idea of the power station being lost forever.

However, in April of this year, a rather astonishing and marvellous thing happened. In an extraordinary u-turn, ENDESA came out with a public statement declaring that it would be giving the old plant - yes, giving it - to the Ajuntament de Sant Adriá. A multinational energy company? Giving over land to a local council?

The amount of money ENDESA could have generated had it sold the land - reportedly around €100 million - made it a singularly shocking and unexpected move. In recent years, the energy-supplying giant had been under negative scrutiny in the media, whether it be in enormous hikes in the cost of its services or for alleged illegal pay-offs to politicans. But suddenly here it was, a coroporate behemoth, ceding an incalculably valuable slice of land over to the community. Surely there must be some catch?

But there was no catch. The company even announced it would not dictate to the council any stipulations about the old power station's future use. The council was as surprised as the local community. Only two months before the announcement, the local mayor Joan Callau (PSC) had said he couldn't see a resolution happening any time soon, and that the plant might continue in disuse for years. The chief hope had been that an investor would buy the land from the energy company.

Increasingly optimistic speculations now continue to circulate about a future use for husk of the old station. One of the ideas, according to La Vanguardia, is to make it the flagship of a 'gran centro cultural.' A Spanish Tate Modern, perhaps?

Let's hope it's not a Battersea Power Station, for decades the graveyard of grand ideas.

For the moment the giant towers of the disused old thermal plant continue to loom like ghostly spires over a traumatized industrial wasteland. But at least, the sky has begun to clear a little overhead for the Sagrada Familia of the Workmen.

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