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Standing 375ft. tall and with a maximum, basal diameter of 290ft., the massive, reinforced concrete, natural-draft cooling tower has come to represent one of the characteristic and most readily recognizable features of a series of coal-fired power stations constructed in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, and indeed, around the world. The towers, arranged in groups of up to eight per station, form an integral part of the power plants’ circulating-water system, cooling water from the condensers associated with the 500MW turbo-generator units. Visible from far afield, the distinctive structures with their sweeping, hyperbolic profiles have evolved to become focal points within their (often rural) landscape settings.  

Credit: Ric Tyler

In simple terms, a cooling tower comprises a largely empty “shell,” raised at its base upon a circuit of raking concrete columns, forming an open air intake above a circular collection pond. Warm water from the unit condensers is passed through a ‘cooling pack’ at the base of the tower, being cooled by air rising through the tower from the intake at the base, and falling to the collection pond below, before being returned to the condensers to begin the process again. At full load, each tower is capable of processing c.6.5 million gallons of water per hour, with two percent of water being lost to evaporation, visible as plumes of water vapor emanating from the head of the towers.  

Aesthetics are, by their nature, subjective, and this is particularly so in the case of structures as uncompromisingly industrial as thermal power stations, which were inevitably controversial and divisive. For some, the power plants, and in particular their cooling towers, came to represent a familiar landmark and focal reference point in the landscape, a physical manifestation of a significant moment in the development of the nation’s industrial heritage. For others, the form and monumental, inherently “inhuman” scale of the station buildings was perceived negatively, forever interpreted as intrusive eyesores. 

The buildings reflect more than their primary functionality, however. The power stations were also significant employers within their localities for a period extending over a generation, playing an important part in their host communities’ historical and socioeconomic development in the mid-late twentieth century.   

In response to anthropogenic climate change, UK Government policy has moved away from fossil-fuel based electricity generation. As a result, the coal-fired plants that have formed the backbone of the United Kingdom’s power generation for over half a century, have become redundant and been gradually closed down, with demolition their ultimate fate. With their loss, the associated cooling towers, which have for 60 years formed such “iconic” features within the British landscape, are being consigned to history.  


Ric Tyler

Ric Tyler, MCIfA is a freelance historic buildings archaeologist based in Shropshire, England. Over the past several years he has documented six of ten coal-fired power station sites released for construction in the United Kingdom during the 1960s.

Cite as

Tyler, Ric. 2023. “Cooling Towers .” Anthropology News website, November 21, 2023.