As not-so-warm sentiment continues to grow over London’s Garden Bridge (Lloyd recently covered the latest drama over at TreeHugger complete with an exhaustive list of all prohibited activities), a decidedly less contentious public green space has quietly opened within a sprawling industrial redevelopment zone — or "opportunity area" as city leaders call it — just north of King’s Cross station in inner city London.
An adaptive reuse project through and through, the park breathes new life into a 19th century utility storage structure used for decades to help heat drafty flats and keep London's iconic street lamps ablaze. And from what I can tell, park-goers can feel free to do things like pontificate and play musical instruments without getting the boot.
Situated alongside Regent’s Canal not too far from a plant-cleaned urban swimming hole and a German restaurant housed in England's first-ever gymnasium, London's newly unveiled Gasholder Park is straightforward, elegant, monumental, a bit peculiar: a wide circular swath of lawn ringed by a shiny mirrored pavilion with a perforated roof. Both lawn and pavilion are encircled by the hulking cast-iron skeleton of a 19th century gas holder.
Defunct gasometers are still standing across Europe. Among the most iconic is this gas holder built in 1853 near the famed Oval cricket ground in South London. (Photo: Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
So what's a gas holder, you ask?
Also referred to as gasometers even though very much not gas meters, these cylindrical — and usually telescoping — structures used to store town gas (coal gas) are relatively rare in North America* nowadays but still a common sight across Europe where, in some municipalities, utilities continue to use the squat silo-like buildings for natural gas storage. Although declining in numbers as National Grid and other utilities demolish the structures and sell off the land to reclamation-minded developers, defunct gas holders are still particularly plentiful in cities across the United Kingdom. It's here where a preservation movement is underway to spare these obsolete Victorian leftovers made redundant by advances in gas storage and distribution from the wrecking ball.
Gasholder Park will eventually be flanked by three apartment buildings, all encased by the cast-iron frames of other old London gasometers. (Photo: John Sturrock/King's Cross Central Limited Partnership)
In an addition to a fantastic BBC primer on these endangered “sentinels of the Industrial Age,” worth reading is "A Love Letter to Gas Holders," a lovely tribute published by a King’s Cross area cultural website titled, go figure, Gasholder. It reads:
When you spot an abandoned ironwork cylinder towering on the horizon, what do you feel? Two hundred years after they first rose across the country, gas holders, once a practical necessity in illuminating the 19th century nights, have become a striking visual link with our past. Yet otherwise, they are no longer of practical use.
In the last decade, hundreds of them have been torn down, their redundancy in the modern world seemingly absolute. To some people, they are little more than decrepit industrial eyesores, a squatting annoyance on a slice of prime real estate.
Yet for many more of us, they are proud urban landmarks, real-world map pins that guided our passage around town before – and after – the skyscrapers came, and our pockets contained the stupefying compass of a GPS phone.
Should at least a few of them be saved? Celebrated for their former energy history, as well as their navigational and curiously beautiful aesthetic properties?
Outside of London, numerous European gasometers have indeed been saved and put to spectacular new use in recent years.
Vienna's historic brick-faced gasometers are just as iconic as ever having been reborn in 2011 as a residential and retail complex. (Photo: Pascal Terjan/flickr)
In the German cities of Dresden and Leipzig, artist Yadegar Asisi has transformed the interior shell of two defunct gasometers into stunning panoramas. Another German gas holder, Gasometer Oberhausen, lives on as an exhibition space that's twice served as a blank canvas for Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Copenhagen's Øster Gasværk Teater, built in 1883 as the Danish capital's second gasometer, is now a lauded performing arts venue. But perhaps the most famous of Europe’s upcycled gas holders are the Vienna Gasometers, a quartet of historic structures converted into a dazzling mixed-used complex complete with a skybridge-connected shopping mall topped by office space and apartments.
Designed by Bell Phillips Architects with landscaping by Dan Pearson Studio (also involved with Garden Bridge), London's Gasholder Park — a “beautiful juxtaposition of old and new” — is a simpler yet no less dramatic gasometer-centric adaptive reuse project than its continental counterparts.
"Gasholder Park combines the industrial heritage of King's Cross with contemporary architecture to create a unique place," says Hari Phillips of Bell Phillips in a media release issued by King's Cross Central Limited Partnership. He goes on to call the project "both a daunting responsibility and an unmissable opportunity."
Soaring over 80 feet into the sky and measuring 130 feet in diameter, the park-defining structure itself is Gasholder No. 8, which was erected in the 1850s as part of Pancras Gasworks, the largest gasworks in the world at the time. The iconic column-guided container, which went on to appear in an Oasis video some 140 years after it was built, could hold up to 1.1 million cubic feet of gas when in use.
Decommissioned in 2000 to make way for new development, the structure’s circular guide frame (16 hollows cast-iron columns in two tiers) was carefully dismantled piece by piece in 2011 and transported to Yorkshire for a two-year repair and restoration process overseen by Shepley Engineers. The structure was then shipped back to King’s Cross (about a half mile north of its original spot where Pancras Square is now) and reassembled adjacent to Regent's Canal where it looms over a lush green lawn encircled by a sleek, disc-shaped canopy made from stainless steel. Sheltered benches offer a place for respite while landscaping on the periphery of the frame "offers colour, texture, sensory stimulation and seasonal variation."
Anthony Peter, project director at site developer Argent, refers to Gasholder Park as an “unusual and vast space, with a character best appreciated by standing in the middle of the lawn, looking up at the gasholder frames.”
Noting that the park is open “all day, every day, to everyone” (do I detect a bit of shade being thrown in the direction of Garden Bridge?) for recreating and relaxing, Peter goes on to call the transformation of Gasholder No. 8 “one of the most complex and challenging projects to deliver at King’s Cross to date, and very satisfying to see completed.”
The park represents just a small chunk of the 40 percent of redeveloped land dedicated to open space generated during the King's Cross overhaul.
In the coming years, Gasholder No. 8 will be reunited with Gasholders Nos. 10, 11 and 12 which have also been carefully disassembled, their cast-iron guide frames (123 columns in total!) shipped off to Yorkshire for repair and refurbishment. The so-called former “Siamese Triplet” of Pancras Gasworks will eventually encase a conjoined trio of annular apartments buildings flanking the canalside park. Residents living in the Wilkinson Eyre-designed complex's 140-plus units will enjoy rooftop gardens, an open courtyard, proximity to a bevy of bars and restaurants and easy access to the gassiest park in all of London.
* In the U.S., old-school gasometers gas are commonly associated with the city of St. Louis although the most (in)famous American gas storage tank was located in Pittsburgh, site of a deadly gasometer explosion in 1927 that killed over two dozen people. At the time, the Pittsburgh gas holder was the largest in the entire world. Also worth noting: the term "gasometer" was coined by William Murdoch, the Scottish-born inventor of gas lighting. The BBC notes that many of Murdoch’s contemporaries dismissed the term as being misleading but it was too late … gasometer had stuck.