Arts feature

The beauty of gasholders

Dan Hitchens on the beauty of gasholders

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

On 25 October 1960, a Boeing pilot aiming for Heathrow accidentally landed at an RAF base, only realising his error when the runway turned out to be alarmingly short. Disaster was averted, but the near-miss caused some embarrassment, and the minister of aviation had to answer questions in the House. What had confused the pilot, it emerged, was the advice from air traffic control to start his descent ‘in line with the gasholder’. He had picked the wrong one. Ever since, the gasholders near Heathrow and RAF Northolt have had painted on them, in 50ft-high letters, ‘LH’ and ‘NO’.

There is a surprising amount of strange lore about these industrial relics, which once kept the nation’s homes and factories lighted and warm. In some towns gasholders were renowned for their health benefits: children with whooping cough would be taken for a walk around them. In the 1980s, Birmingham’s Windsor Street gasholders were painted in Aston Villa’s club colours of claret and blue; to this day, despite the best efforts of local historians, nobody knows who did it. One of the Oval’s gasholders is Grade II listed, partly thanks to its status among cricket fans who regard it as an icon, a silent presence that has overseen every match since the days of W.G. Grace.

Artists, too, have found something magnificent in these structures, built mostly in the 19th century to store gas from the burning of coal. Charles Ginner’s Post–Impressionist ‘Salisbury Cathedral’ (1936) moved the city’s gasholder so that it almost merges with the cathedral, a dignified cylinder standing at the west end like a short fat bell-tower. Algernon Newton, master of urban melancholy, declared that a gasholder ‘can make as beautiful a picture as a palace on the Grand Canal, Venice’.

Their undoing was the discovery of North Sea gas in the mid-1960s: now you could store the stuff in the same pipes used to transport it. Once, the frames had held a metal ‘bell’, moved up and down by gravity as it grew fuller or emptier. (The Oval crowds were once entertained by a fox who clambered onto the empty bell and slowly realised he was being raised 300ft into the air.) Now, the deserted metal stood alone, at once imposing and unassuming. The protagonist of Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age thrills at his nearby gasholder: ‘It rose up against the sky like a part of the sky itself; iron air, a cloud, a mirage, a paradox… Up soared the heart like a bird in the chest, up through its light and airy metal shell, to the changing, so much before unnoticed sky.’ By contrast, in Edwin Morgan’s ‘Gasometer’ (the alternative, rather confusing name for them), the ironwork defies its changing background:

You don’t care about the wildness of the sky,
my old gasometer! The kitchen window
frames your gaunt frame, the black cross-struts
stand firm, stand out, unyielding to the passion
of reds and purples in the dying day…

I had never thought twice about gasholders until a few months ago when, cruising down the Regent’s Canal by narrowboat, I found myself looking at Bethnal Green’s wrought-iron behemoths. Or was I looking through them? Like the Eiffel Tower, they combined delicacy with vastness. Perhaps you wouldn’t want one towering over your back garden, but I took to them as one doesn’t usually to decaying industrial architecture. ‘In London,’ my architect friend Theodore Shack points out, ‘you can’t just look out and see the skyline, the way you can in a city of hills like Rome or Edinburgh. That’s what gasholders do: they are more like topography, they offer a horizon.’

Or they did. Now they are coming down, victims of the scramble for developable urban space. In Greater London, the photographer Francesco Russo notes, there used to be 42; now it’s less than half that. When he went to photograph the ‘LH’ one a couple of years ago, he was just too late: the demolition had been completed earlier that day. But 20 of them are captured in all their austere splendour in Russo’s collection, ‘Ruin or Rust’. ‘Some of them, especially the older ones, have some very fine metalwork,’ he remarks. ‘It’s something we don’t do nowadays. Industrial buildings are pragmatic: you need to get it done, quick, cheap and functional, and that’s it.’

The best-known gasholder photography is the collection begun in the 1960s by Bernd and Hilla Becher – stark black-and-white portraits taken from identical angles, mesmerising if you like that sort of thing. Russo’s portraits are warmer, quirkier; they demonstrate how snugly a gasholder can fit into the background of a scene dominated by a Nando’s, a block of flats, a cemetery.

Despite some spirited local campaigns, most gasholders are being demolished – a missed opportunity, Russo believes. ‘You could create open-air theatres, or swimming pools, or community greenhouses… The trouble is that investors tend to look at profits, so most of the examples we’ve seen in London are for luxury real estate.’ But it’s better than nothing, he says; in fact, he finishes his collection with a photograph of one such development, a little further along the Regent’s Canal in King’s Cross. ‘I wanted to have that picture as a sign of hope.’ Three of these structures are now the exoskeleton of apartment buildings, but the fourth, unusually, has been repurposed as a public space. It’s called Gasholder Park.

Hari Phillips, co-founder of the park’s architects Bell Phillips, is a gasholder enthusiast. ‘Although they started out as very utilitarian engineering structures, they have become landmarks.’ A self-deprecating smile. ‘They might be a bit Marmite and some people might disagree, but I think they’re very beautiful.’ The King’s Cross gasholder, which Bell Phillips dismantled and reconstructed, is a particularly impressive example. ‘It’s the delicacy of the elements – they’re driving the engineering to its maximum potential, and through that making every element as precise and as fine as it can be. You’ve got the enormous scale of the structure, but that’s made out of very, very elegant components, pared back to the very minimum amount of material.’ Like Russo, he admires the care with which the Victorians designed their functional buildings. ‘We seem to have maybe lost that love of decorating industrial architecture.’

The park keeps as much as possible of the old metalwork, though it has been strengthened to meet modern safety standards. Bell Phillips also added a mirrored colonnade of stainless steel, cut using the latest laser-jet techniques and invisibly bolted together, sleek as an iPhone. ‘The gasholder is about how you put metal together in the 19th century,’ Phillips explains, ‘and our structure was about how you put metal together in the 21st century.’ The new speaks respectfully to the old.

A visitor to Gasholder Park enters a kind of walled garden, a quieter space in the middle of the city’s bustle. Lie back on the park’s embankment, Phillips advises, and you can ‘look at the gasholder above you, and really experience the form and the shape and the geometry and the scale of it.’ He hopes others will be given similar treatment. ‘I think people are starting to look at them in a different way, and to actually say no, these have become landmarks and features of our skyline, and we do want to preserve them, we identify with them.’

I hope he’s right. So much of London’s skyline is dominated by housing, or, as with the jumble of shapes over the City, by buildings which shout their eccentricity and uniqueness to the skies. A gasholder isn’t like that: it stands open to the imagination, waiting to be transformed by the artist’s eye or the architect’s creativity. There is a winning humility about it – the charm of a gentle giant.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments