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Competition: Rethinking former gasholders, UK

The RIBA has launched an international competition to reimagine the huge circular voids left by decommissioned gasholders across the United Kingdom (Deadline: 10 October)

The contest, run in partnership with the National Grid, invites architects to devise alternative uses for the subsurface voids left by demolished gasholders.

The organisers believe the other option of backfilling the holes will be labour and resource intensive, as well as detrimental to the environment.

Gasholder demolition in Edmonton

Gasholder demolition in Edmonton

Source: Image by Sludge G

Gasholder demolition in Edmonton

National Grid Property, which manages the National Grid’s surplus land, is running the competition as it has a number of gasholders that are set to be dismantled in the next few years.

According to the brief: ‘This competition is being launched to raise the profile of the future of gasholder bases and the subsequent regeneration this will generate.

‘It is important to note that National Grid are unlikely to be the developer for these sites, although they hope the winning designs will attract interest from potential developers and provide a guide for the future use of sites.’

The document continues: ‘There are many gasholder sites where there is potential to leave the holder base empty and install a base, a simple internal structure, and a roof.

‘This “product” has potential to be more valuable than the land with a backfilled holder and a conventional building. The success of this approach relies on there being a viable market for such products.’

The first phase of the competition will require digital submissions only, with five concept designs shortlisted for further development at the second phase. Each shortlisted scheme will receive a stipend of £3,000 +VAT.

The winner will be awarded a further £4,000 +VAT and there may be an additional payment of £1,000 +VAT for a highly commended scheme.

How to apply

Deadline

The deadline for applications is 2pm on 10 October

Contact details

RIBA Competitions
No 1 Aire Street
Leeds
LS1 4PR

Tel: 0113 203 1490
Email: riba.competitions@riba.org

Visit the competition website for more information

Gasholder Park case study: Q&A with Hari Phillips

The director at Bell Phillips Architects discusses lessons learned creating a new Gasholder Park in King’s Cross, London

How did your competition-winning Gasholder Park re-imagine a former industrial structure?

Hari Phillips

Hari Phillips

Hari Phillips

The King’s Cross gasholders have been landmarks since they were constructed in the 1950s, and are vivid touchstones of London’s Victorian industrial heritage. We wanted to celebrate this connection with the past, the raw industrial character and monumental scale. At the same time, we wanted to create an accessible space that everyone could enjoy, with a rare opportunity to engage with the gasholder frame through a diverse programme of events throughout the year.

Views across the adjacent Regent’s Canal and Camley Street Natural Park together with the circular fragment of sky encapsulated by the gasholder frame give the space a sense of serenity that we wanted to harness. We imagined the space as a secret garden, detached from the melee of urban life. To provide a threshold to the garden we conceived of a stainless-steel colonnade within the circumference of the gasholder. This provides a degree of shelter, but perhaps more importantly it mediates between the vast scale of the frame and the human dimension enclosing a central space that feels inviting and intimate.

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Source: Image by John Sturrock

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

The colonnade was designed to be a companion piece to the gasholder frame. Both are bolted metal structures, but cutting-edge design and fabrication methods ensure the colonnade is very much of its time, just as the gasholder is a product of the 19th century. A mirror-polished finish to the canopy minimises the visual impact of our structure from a distance – ensuring that the gasholder takes centre-stage – but from close up it produces a kaleidoscopic display resulting in surprising and delightful reflections of the surroundings as one circulates around the space.

At the centre of the space is a circular lawn, which is banked along the northern edge to encourage visitors to lie and enjoy the striking silhouette of the gasholder framed against the sky. The end result is an unusual, flexible space that can be used for events, displays and celebrations, or for relaxation and play.

Which architectural, material, visual and other methods did you harness in your design?

From the outset, the circular form of the gasholder presented a challenge. Not only from a design point of view (should we work with or against this powerful circular form?), but also in exploring and communicating ideas. The sheer scale of the structure was also difficult to visualise and convey.

As a result we very quickly progressed from working on the computer to physical models and ultimately the fabrication of a number of full-scale mock-ups to test materials and finishes. Naturally, we used computer visualisations, but we quickly realised that attempting to represent a mirrored, circular structure in this way was pointless as no-one could understand what they were looking at! The key breakthrough in the project’s evolution was making a 1:50 scale model of the colonnade, which helped to convince ourselves and the client of the design and the importance of the mirror finish to the concept.

The design of the colonnade was interrogated through the production of a number of full-scale mock-ups to test finishes and connections. Argent supported us fully in this process, even commissioning a 3m x 3m full-scale section of the colonnade. This process ultimately led to us abandoning our original proposal to weld the colonnade, saving us from a costly error.

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Source: Image by John Sturrock

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

What advice would you have to contest participants on rethinking the spaces left by former gasholders?

The gasholders have a rich and fascinating history. They were utilitarian in nature, underpinned by extraordinary technology and assembled with a keen understanding of their materiality yet ultimately became brooding, mysterious, kinetic sculptures on our skylines. All of these avenues provide fertile ground for exploration and inspiration.

But I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive. We were lucky in being one of the first practices to tackle this challenge: for us, a public park seemed like a great thing to do and we were lucky to have a terrific client who supported that vision. Yet it would be a mistake for every subsequent gasholder project to receive the same treatment: even in King’s Cross the other gasholders have been repurposed completely differently – by Wilkinson Eyre for a bold residential scheme. Every one is different, and whereas they were once commonplace they are sadly now quite rare. Each offers an opportunity to respond in a way that reflects each one’s unique character (and they are all unique) and to produce designs that respect their heritage value while taking the opportunity to introduce contemporary designs and uses.

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Source: Image by John Sturrock

Gasholder Park by Bell Phillips Architects

Q&A with Laura Watson

The gasholder demolition manager at National Grid Property discusses her ambitions for the competition

Laura Watson, gasholder demolition manager at National Grid Property

Laura Watson, gasholder demolition manager at National Grid Property

Laura Watson, gasholder demolition manager at National Grid Property

Why are your holding a contest to rethink the voids left by dismantled gasholders?

National Grid Property has a number of gasholder voids, and our usual practice is to fill them in, but we would like to explore if this is the most economically and environmentally sustainable solution. Every site we have is different in terms of location, configuration and potential constraints, and we want to get the contestants’ imagination flowing, which is why we’ve provided four different sites for them to choose from.

What is your vision for how these spaces could be transformed in the future?

We have looked into different uses for our gasholder voids, the potential options are endless, but we don’t want to lead the contestants’ imagination down a certain route. We would like to receive fresh, imaginative ideas from far and wide, hence we have opened up our competition to the international community. Our sites range in size from containing single to multiple void spaces. Each site would come with its own unique planning constraints but the right solution would be one that helps a developer resolve them. The typical site locations and current UK planning regime mean that changing the site end use is likely to be straightforward. We pride ourselves on being a responsible business – sustainability is a key part of this, and we would hope this is a key consideration for the contestants too.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

The competition is an open call for ideas and all entries will be evaluated anonymously. This is a real opportunity for small emerging new practices to compete against larger more established firms on an equal playing field.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

We will not be developing these sites ourselves; we would expect any potential developer to directly procure the services of the designer that has produced the solution that best fits a particular scheme. The current competition is our main focus in National Grid Property at the moment.

Are there any other gasholder conversion projects you have been impressed by?

To our knowledge, we are not aware of any specific gasholder void conversion projects. We are hoping this competition will generate some new and ingenious ideas which are hopefully deliverable in the real world.

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