Repurpose our heritage Townscapes for posterity
A story of Gas Holders
Ten years ago, UK Energy companies decided to divest themselves of over 500 obsolete gasometers. Since then, the question has been what to do with them?
With viable building land in desperately short supply, developers are turning to these “brownfield sites” to supply our national need for more housing. We have taken a look at some exciting examples of developments that have been visionary whilst preserving the unique industrial townscape. Above is an image of a gasometer conversion to lofts and apartments in Dublin. The architects have managed to create a stunning landmark which is sympathetic to its surroundings and has improved a view that has stood since Victorian times.
Rather than losing all our heritage townscape, perhaps we should be seriously considering transforming these unique, historical buildings into revitalised community hubs and dwellings?
Why is it important to keep a visual record of our past?
Historical buildings tell stories, about who we are and how we got here. They hold our histories within their walls, and they are the backdrops to our lives. If we allowed unbridled levelling of the old for new, we would impoverish ourselves culturally. In this fast-paced present, our architecture is becoming more and more homogenised; the character, quirk and diversity are being sacrificed at a dizzying pace. It is very easy for one generation’s experiences to be lost to the next, and knowing who we are and our roots is extremely important for our wellbeing. The impact of the industrial revolution on our culture was profound. For better or worse, it shaped our sense of place and belonging. So we need to move forward with a discerning eye to what we might lose.
Christopher Costelloe of the Victorian society said: “It is the evocative movement people like. It reflects the beating of the human heart on a city scale.”
Not everyone will agree that gasometers, or holders as they are now known, are things of beauty: they were, after all, originally built to serve a municipal function. Collectively, gasometers have an extremely recognisable form and pattern, but when you look closer you can see they are not the same. They are in fact unique. The early examples have myriad patterns and they are used cunningly to reduce the quantity of materials required in construction, while maximising the strength and mobility of the structures. Simple elegant solutions to critical problems. This was the order of the Victorian heyday and, to attest to their effectiveness, many of those original gasholders were still in operation to the last part of the 20th century, spanning a lifetime of over 150 years.
The first prototype gas works was created by the pioneer William Murdoch in 1798 in partnership with Hames Watt Junior, in the city of Leeds. The year 1812 saw the formation of the Gas, Light and Coke Company in London and from then on, until around 1821, Great Britain saw an unparalleled shift in cultural life. It was the beginning of a new energy revolution. Starting in the cities and towns the number of gas works mushroomed, eventually spreading out to the smaller conurbations across the country. The first places to be transformed were the mills and factories. They were turned from dim candle-lit workplaces, with all the hazards of the naked flames, to brightly lit spaces which could function well after dark. Also, the foggy night streets that were once places of crime quickly became visible and safer to negotiate.
Over the next century, the brightest and most celebrated of their time designed ever more complex and dynamic holders – ones that rose and fell to match the volume of coal gas they stored, on a daily basis. They used telescopic chambers connected together by simple but precision engineered cuffs, and water seals to trap the gas inside. This allowed the smooth rising and falling movement of the ever-increasing tiers, with little maintenance required. A noble legacy from our predecessors, they were in fact technical marvels of their day, something that the present generation take completely for granted.
Ironically, what started out as an independent free enterprise was later to become government owned in 1949, through a nationalisation programme. The post war government realised the need of all its citizenry to have access to shelter, power and water. This situation lasted around 35 years until, in the early 1980s, during the tenure of the first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, a policy of re-privatising all national utilities began, and the pendulum swung back. However, the end of large-scale gas storage was already in sight, due to the discovery in the 60s of natural gas under the North Sea. Gasholder giants were now on a rapid path to obsolescence. And by the late 1990s the new gas companies were looking to divest themselves of their redundant costly sites.
For a more detailed history here are some links.
The process of selling off and redevelopment is well under way. The sites are severely contaminated by heavy metals and hydrocarbons, which present a real health hazard to the communities that house them if left to decay and requires extensive and exorbitant remediation work if the land is to be redeemed sufficiently for people to live on. Most have pretty much been in limbo bar a few pioneering projects including the millennium Dome, the King’s Cross apartments, Dublin lofts and a few levelled for supermarket constructions.
Going forward, soil remediation will become common-place and more urgent as our urban sprawl brings us up against our building boundaries. It is also appropriate to bring life back to land we have despoiled. This really begs the question of who is responsible for the land clean-up costs? There is a practical and a moral argument here, and it is good to bring such political hot potatoes to the light of scrutiny and debate. However, for as long as remediation is in its infancy and has not attained adequate experience and economy of scale, it will not be possible to provide truly appropriate “affordable housing” on these sites. Combine this with shareholder profits, and the best that we can expect is high-rise, high-density housing developments. This may be appropriate in some places, but not all.
Historically high-rise buildings, insufficiently funded, with poor maintenance and service records, have become prisons for many. Not to mention the deeply worrying issues we have had in recent times with fire safety. If these lands are to be developed, with their local communities in mind, there will need to be a meeting of minds and finances between government and the private sector or, perhaps, another push to increase non-profit projects that are for the people these communities currently encompass. Again, this would require government backing.
It is also important that we create spaces that are truly green and have good amenities on site. We need to pull back from car culture if we are to create living vibrant developments, fit for the purpose of sustainable futures. Not a present of empty offices. Now is the time for us to seriously re-think our development strategies in sympathy with the past. If we want to see good examples of this, we can look to Europe, which is also working through these issues. There have been some incredible solutions that preserve the vernacular and shape, while creating self-contained social hubs. All that is required now is to find the will to join up these disparate issues and make a future our children’s children will look back upon with pride.
Despite this, most lack the required features to protect them from being destroyed in the name of progress but have nevertheless been giants upon the townscape and the backdrop to the lives of generations of ordinary people, who lived beneath their shadow. Some will have loathed them,
considering them a blight on that landscape, while others will have extolled the virtues and prowess of their brilliant engineering. For most, however, they were just there; never questioned, never pondered, too solid and gargantuan to deny.
It is likely that the remaining 400 gasholder sites in the UK will have vanished in as little as 20 years. So it is timely to ask the people of the towns and cities whether they wish to preserve, transform or re-purpose any of these historical giants? If the answer is yes, then the real work begins: the how, the who and at what cost?
Some visually inspiring links:
Authors: Selma Montford and Fran Pickering