The photographer immortalising London’s endangered gasholders
As gasholders gradually vanish from the urban landscape, one photographer has devoted an entire series to chronicling the stark beauty and cultural significance of London’s remaining gasworks
The photographer Francesco Russo has turned his eye to one of the more curious survivors of London’s eclectic cityscape; the gasholder. ‘Industrial architecture has interested me ever since I was studying architecture in Venice,’ says the Italian photographer. Russo began his ‘Ruin or Rust’ project two years ago, after witnessing a funeral in Kensal Green Cemetery against the backdrop of the gasholders by the Regents Canal overlooking the vast graveyard. ‘The feeling was far from cold and grim, but rather reassuring, almost as if the huge structure was overlooking and protecting such an intimate event.’
Russo, who is a member of Mass, a collective of young London-based architectural photographers, notes that 20 of these monumental structures still exist in the capital. ‘Some of them are so big that they can be seen from many miles away,’ he marvels, ‘I can only imagine what their impact was on the urban landscape before the skyscraper era.’ Many date back to the Victorian era and were designed to house coal gas, but the arrival of North Sea gas in the 1960s and changing demand meant that they were all redundant by the turn of the century.
Russo’s images place these structures in context, juxtaposing them against industrial estates, empty plots and low-rise housing. ‘They’ve become part of the backdrop of everyday life,’ he says, ‘it’s sad to see that many of them have already been dismantled for developments that often don’t have any sort of character or architectural value.’ His pictures include the now-demolished gasholder in Sydenham and examples in Greenwich and Orpington that will soon be lost. ‘I remember going to Southall in January last year to photograph the one that was probably the tallest among them all and a landmark for the area. I was hugely disappointed when I got there on the last day of its demolition,’ he says. Nevertheless, Russo approves of the prominent Kings Cross redevelopment that includes new apartments set within the framework of its three iconic gasholders to designs by Wilkinson Eyre and Jonathan Tuckey.
‘Some of them are so big that they can be seen from many miles away. I can only imagine what their impact was on the urban landscape before the skyscraper era’
‘Industrial heritage definitely offers creative and alternative opportunities,’ Russo admits, noting there are similar plans for gasholders in Haggerston, the Old Kent Road and Kennington. ‘I’m aware that London’s housing problem is a major concern, but it would also be interesting to see proposals for different uses. I can picture some of the structures transformed into open-air theatres, playgrounds, creative hubs, markets, pools, facilities that serve the surrounding communities.’ For now, his pictures serve as a chronicle of a fading technology. §