It isn’t, to be frank, the most promising site for an upmarket apartment block. Imprisoned within a cage of cast-iron gasholders, set into the post-industrial landscape of the railway lands behind King's Cross. Yet when developer Argent held an ideas competition for what to do with these defunct but charismatic structures, architects Wilkinson Eyre emerged victorious with exactly that proposal.
That was in 2002. Now, 16 years later, the gasholders are back and filled with flats. They’re not in the same place any more (the new high-speed rail link was built through their original site) and the bits have been restored and reassembled (in London’s biggest 3D jigsaw puzzle) beside the Regent’s Canal and repainted in a light grey which, on the day I visited, just about matched the colour of the low-hanging sky.
These iron memorials to London’s pioneering infrastructure had become intensely familiar, not just from the landscape but from popular culture — everything from Ealing comedies and music videos to half-remembered walks through the night to find obscure warehouse parties. Now, where there were once gasometers rising and falling there are cylinders of perforated metal shutters forming the background to those reassembled iron verticals.
The Gasholders complex consists of three interlocking cylinders with, at their intersection, an open garden punctuated by a complex web of residual industrial structure. A delicate circular footbridge runs around its perimeter at high level like a minimalist industrial gangway and the chunky mechanisms and embossed bases of the columns make a forest of steampunk Victoriana.
The complex is entered via a lobby centred around a circular stair, but the real thrill is the sequence of atriums. With a hint of US architect John Portman’s staggering and soaring atriums, these circular spaces pull the full drama out of the building’s cylindrical form. Stripped back in their architectural language and rather enigmatic in their blankness, these spaces give way to apartments (ranging from three-bedroom flats to studios) that reveal a very different character.
While Wilkinson Eyre was responsible for the structure and the architecture, the interiors were down to Jonathan Tuckey Design. If Wilkinson Eyre seemed a logical choice, with its roots in the British high-tech and theatrical engineering tradition, Jonathan Tuckey made his name with interventions into existing structures, carefully revealing layers of character and stripping back accretions to create raw but rich and haptic experiences.
Although the gasholders are certainly historic structures (officially listed as being of special interest), this is effectively a caged newbuild. Yet the architects and the designers between them have crafted 145 very elegant and functional apartments from that most unpromising of plans, the wedge. As the rooms flare out towards the windows and the views out to the city, there is a sense of liberation in the space, rather than of constraint, as if the interior was opening up to the view.
Each dwelling opens on to a balcony and the cast-iron members, stacked like Roman columns, always impinge on the view. Everywhere in the development there is an awareness of the cage containing them and every view and glimpse seems to be framed by the Victorian structure, so there is never any sense that you could be anywhere but exactly where you are.
There has been no attempt to play on some kind of manufactured industrial aesthetic inside the apartments. Instead, they feature a mix of high-quality materials, from concrete and brass to rich timber and poured resin floors with myriad bespoke details.
Chris Wilkinson recalls the idea of the mechanism of a watch, explaining that, on plan, the interlocking circles resemble the movement with its cogs and gears. To emphasise this idea of precision, slender strips of polished brass appear in the concrete floors, picking out and subdividing circles — a combination of heavy and precise engineering.
At the very top of the cylinders, little tufts of greenery make themselves visible. The roof gardens were designed by Dan Pearson and perhaps they contain a hint of the former state of the site when these once-derelict industrial giants were overgrown with weeds and grass.
The gasholders are themselves only a couple of cogs in a much larger machine — the remarkable railway lands that are being slowly built up. Some of the old industrial buildings are being dwarfed by the scale of commercial and residential development, even if they do serve their purpose by retaining something of the Victorian grain and texture of the site. But the dramatic scale and eccentrically classical Victorian expression of these structures is still, very clearly, capable of holding its own.
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Photographs: Peter Landers; Wilkinson Eyre; James Brittain