London was an industrial city until remarkably recently. It seems extraordinary now, but Bankside Power Station was built in 1947, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, to burn oil right on the banks of the Thames, opposite St Paul’s. What’s more, Gilbert Scott’s other great power station, Battersea, built in 1929, is less than a mile upstream.
In the early 1970s, more than 1.1 million people in the capital — almost a third of the workforce — had manufacturing jobs. Now only 117,000 do — one in 40 workers.
Still, the old industrial architecture survives in pleasingly generous quantities. Rotting and ignored for decades, it has lingered into an age when, at last, we appreciate the beauty of these things; and appreciate how easily these handsome, solidly built, cavernous buildings can be converted.
Bankside Power Station is now Tate Modern, its oil tanks cleaned out to make a new exhibition space this summer. And, after 29 years of dereliction, Battersea Power Station, it’s just been announced, is to undergo an £8 billion transformation into a hotel, offices, flats and entertainment quarter.
The latest survivor to be unveiled is the 67-acre Great Northern Goods Yard, north of King’s Cross station, the biggest single-ownership site developed in central London for more than 150 years — since the yard was first built, in fact.
I grew up near King’s Cross in the bad old days — on the early-morning school run along Goods Way, I remember seeing a vast blonde prostitute in a red swimming costume and red high heels cheerily playing patience. These days, she’d have a much greater range of leisure activities to kill the time between clients. Opposite her patch, on the site of the old petrol station, where the prostitutes used to buy their condoms, she would now find the Filling Station, a frighteningly fashionable beer and pizza bar, popular with Hackney types.
Just over the other side of the Regent’s Canal — once a popular passeggiata spot for muggers and devil dogs, now much prettified — are the converted industrial buildings.
Cooped up in our tiny Victorian terraced houses, it’s easy to forget what a magnified scale the Victorians used for industry. The Goods Yard was a mammoth repository for coal, grain, potatoes and meat, brought in by train from across the country: 25,000 sheep a week arrived here.
The heart of the site was designed in 1852 by Lewis Cubitt — the man who built King’s Cross station and the Great Northern Hotel. His Granary, an enormous stock brick box with a stone cornice, has become a campus for University of the Arts London; you can see the hypertrendy students of Central St Martin’s College of Art at work in their studios. They now park their bicycles in the underground stables where 800 horses were once kept.
Throughout, the architecture is simple and robust but never bland, and always set off with engaging detail. The East Handyside Canopy — gently curving to align with the neighbouring passenger terminus building — was built in 1888 for the most prosaic of jobs: to cover the unloading area for potato traffic. And still, the pointed, slatted roof is supported by delicate cast-iron Doric columns, manufactured by the Handyside Company of Derby.
There is a perverse beauty that comes out of all this dirty, rough-and-ready industry. And you can’t get much dirtier than the Coal Drops — or a more wonderfully unromantic name — built in the 1850s and 60s by Samuel Plimsoll, the coalmine owner who invented the Plimsoll line on the side of ships to show safe loading levels. The Coal Drops were originally four high-level railway tracks, from which coal was poured into hoppers and then into coal merchants’ carts at ground level. Even these rugged, basic buildings, with the most unromantic tasks, have a simple beauty, with their three ranges of shallow-curved windows and engaged iron Doric columns — they will become a series of shops.
The best of the King’s Cross industrial architecture will start to return next year: the four classical gasometers that punctured the horizon of north London for over a century, alongside the bristling, Gothic spires of St Pancras. (King’s Cross is largely classical to St Pancras’s Gothic.)
When gasometers were introduced to the capital in 1812, with the founding of the London Gas Light and Coke Company, they were considered horrible eyesores. By the time they started dismantling them at King’s Cross, locals were broken-hearted to see them go. The last 1,600 gas lamps in London are much prized, too: the ones outside Buckingham Palace, with royal crowns on top, are now listed.
The gasometers were erected in the 1850s and 60s, and enlarged in the 1880s when the demand for coal-fired gas, or ‘town gas’, was on the rise. I never realised it for the five years of my school run, but three of the gasometers were elegantly interconnected, sharing three tiers of classical columns where they met. This ‘Siamese triplet’ will be resurrected, with flats inserted into their perimeter; a fourth gasometer will encompass a park and a flexible event space.
It’s not all uplifting industrial beauty at the new King’s Cross. There are some pretty grim residential tower blocks on the site’s northern edge. Their dreary, unadorned functionality looks particularly uninspirational compared with nearby Stanley Buildings, built in 1865 by Sir Sydney Waterlow’s Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. Among the oldest surviving working-class flats in London, they have pretty cast-iron balconies, and avant-garde flat roofs for clothes-drying and children’s play areas. Next door is the 1865 German Gymnasium, home to the first National Olympian Games of 1866. The first purpose-built gymnasium in Britain, it has a lot to answer for — this is where the first-ever exercise classes for women were held.
If only modern architects could learn a little more from their Victorian aesthete forebears but, still, enough grumbling. The whole site — along with St Pancras — could easily have been swept away if the Victoriana-haters had had their way. At least we’ve finally realised how good the Victorians were at creating attractive, functional architecture on a huge scale. The clock has turned back and, for that, much thanks.
How England Made the English by Harry Mount is published by Viking.