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Time, space and shape: Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, Snowdonia

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Formative years in a developing Milton Keynes gave Simon Phipps an awareness of forms in space and time, summed up in his photograph of Trawsfynydd nuclear power station

Simon Phipps Reactor A,  Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station, 2023 Canon EOS 5DS R with Canon TS-E 24mm lens.
Simon Phipps Reactor A, Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station, 2023 Canon EOS 5DS R with Canon TS-E 24mm lens.

Simon Phipps is more forgiving of teenage years spent in Milton Keynes now than when he was living them himself – when the shopping centres and estates he’d rather have loitered around in were still going up. His architect parents moved there from London to work for the New Town’s Development Corporation (MKDC) until 1992.

But both its stark modernism, rising out of the Buckinghamshire fields, and his parents’ vocation, instilled an awareness of forms in time and space. After art college in Newport, Wales, he went on to graduate from the RCA in Sculpture, with works inspired by Britain’s modern infrastructure: power stations, bridges, sea walls, bunkers. Initially, he photographed them for inspiration, but it soon became an end in itself. In thrall to the black and white images of John Donat, Sam Lambert and Martin Charles, Phipps felt compelled to bring his own play of volumes together in light. Over the years, he’d capture brutalist buildings in northern England and London; but most recently, after reading of the alarming disappearance of mid-century buildings in Wales, he returned to record them before they were lost for good.

Taken offline in 1991, Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in Snowdonia National Park was designed by Sir Basil Spence and opened in 1968. Nestled in an undulating landscape designed by Sylvia Crowe against the drama of the foothills behind, the plant’s two, keep-like concrete reactor halls retain a brooding magnificence. Coming to photograph it, Phipps was shown around by an engineer from Magnox, responsible for decommissioning, who said that while it’ll be decades before the site is remediated, in just three years, the halls will have been reduced to half their height. He seemed rueful noted Phipps, as if he couldn’t imagine the landscape without it.