Thing of beauty: Athlone Power Station

Unless you are looking at Table Mountain, Cape Town’s skyline does not have much to recommend it. The so-called high-rise buildings in the central business district, all 14 of them, look more or less the same to me: brownish brutalist hulks with the occasional glint of glass.

It is not surprising then that so many Capetonians were distraught about the collapse of the Athlone Power Station’s two cooling towers in 2010. Just as a Johannesburg resident feels at home when a long drive suddenly brings the Hillbrow and Brixton towers into view, Capetonians had Table Mountain and the cooling towers. Now they just have the mountain.

Personally, I prefer Cape Town without the cooling towers. They were ugly, besides that they distracted from the truly exceptional sight that is the power station itself.

Squatting low and long right next to the N2, the power station is a wonder of vintage red face brick and ribbons of small-paned windows. Each time I drive past it I picture South Africa’s own Tate Modern, a glorious temple to modern and contemporary art rising phoenix-like from the blight of apartheid-era urban planning. Too bad it is going to become a craft market. At least this is the word on the street among the architects who tendered to the City of Cape Town to do something more interesting with it.

Having been put out of use once and for all in 2003, the power station is Cape Town’s last standing coal-burning power facility. Built in 1962, its history is littered with tales of low outputs, long stand-by periods and unsustainably high costs. Once the nuclear power plant was erected in Koeberg in 1972, the station became a backup facility.

Despite the building’s obsolescence, Cape Town residents grew attached to the presence of its cooling towers. They were unremarkable as towers go and did their job using water siphoned from a nearby sewage farm, but they made Cape Town feel like Cape Town. And then, one day in August 2010, four minutes ahead of schedule, the towers were imploded. They collapsed like two loose socks while suburban Cape Town halted its SUVs on De Waal Drive and made cellphone videos.

Like most other landmarks, the appeal of the cooling towers was in the brevity with which — and the distance from which — they were surveyed. It was, literally, a drive-by love affair. My infatuation with the power station has always been much the same, but one day while en route to the airport I took a detour, pulled over on the grass outside the site and tried to sneak in. I did not get very far. Skinny jeans make for poor fence-jumping. But even if I had managed to trump the chicken-wire fence, I am not sure what I would have done next. Run around the building looking for a way in? Have a stroll under the pylons? Both seem like ideas that would ripen into disappointment. Perhaps fashion saved me from a broken heart.

I still intend for the power ­station and I to remain long distance lovers, an arrangement that will be especially necessary once it is stuffed with rip-offs of Dogon masks.

I guess some things are just better from far away.


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