As rent prices go up, former industrial sites are being turned into cutting-edge event venues across London. Stuart Wood investigates.
London is changing.
Some 200 years after it was the site of the first industrial revolution, the majority of the city’s factories and warehouses have either been torn down, or relocated into the suburbs.
With the population of capital cities around the world continuing to swell, and the price of rent in city centres increasing, space is at a premium. What, then, do we do with the banana factories, power stations and textile warehouses sitting derelict in our capital cities?
Access speaks to a selection of entrepreneurial businesses across London who are providing an answer to this question: turn them into ground-breaking venues for events.
Gigs on the wing
If you stand at any point of central or West London, the largest of these renovation projects is easy to spot. A cluster of cranes criss-cross each other like an upside-down spider’s web, busily working away on the South Bank of the River Thames.
This is the ambitious, multi-phase regeneration of the iconic Battersea Power Station. The building has a long and storied history, with its first tower constructed in 1935, and the fourth and final tower completed in 1955. It was famously depicted on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 classic Animals, where it symbolised the oppressive nature of industrial capitalism. At its peak, Battersea Power Station supplied a fifth of all London’s electricity. In 1983, it was decommissioned.
The station has been sitting derelict for over three decades, but in recent years it has become the site for one of London’s biggest and most ambitious construction projects. It is being regenerated into a 42-acre multi-use space, which will encompass residential flats, shopping districts, hotels and a 1,400 capacity venue for gigs and other events. One of the station’s chimneys is being refitted with a glass elevator, which will lead to a viewing platform on the roof able to house smaller events with 360-degree skyline views over the city.
“People want to understand their city, and the buildings that make up its history.”
Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC) is in charge of managing the project, which has not been without its challenges. Honor Fishburn, director of placemaking at BPSDC, says: “When our shareholders acquired the site back in 2012, the building was in a terrible condition. The bricks were crumbling, and the chimneys were so badly damaged they each needed to be painstakingly repaired. Each one was taken down and rebuilt from scratch using the exact same methods as the originals. They are a key feature of London’s iconic skyline.”
Maintaining the building’s heritage while modernising its interior is a constant balancing act, but BPSDC has a keen eye for detail. The same British brickmakers that made the original bricks for Battersea Power Station have also produced 1.7 million bricks for the redevelopment, which are being used to restore and rebuild parts of the building that are in disrepair.
BPSDC has a number of initiatives in place to connect the building to its industrial past. According to Fishburn, these will include: “A historic Battersea Power Station heritage trail app, and an Alumni programme capturing stories from individuals who used to work at the Power Station when it was operational. We will also host regular talks about the restoration works, for the community to come and learn about its historical significance and complexity.”
BPSDC has high hopes for the regeneration of Battersea Power Station, and the impact it will have not just on the surrounding area, but also on the people who live there. If they were looking for an existing example of how industrial regeneration can be the catalyst for regeneration of a community, they need look no further than Printworks London.
Situated in Canada Water, Printworks is the former site of the Daily Mail and General Trust’s printing presses. It was abandoned in 2010, when the newspaper moved its printing operations to the much cheaper region of Thurrock, in Essex. In 2017, however, the building reopened as an exciting venue for events.
The cavernous halls that once contained the printing presses now play host to the world’s most prestigious DJs, alongside a versatile programme of events. Printworks is not a nightclub, but it was voted as the ninth best club in the world in a recent DJ Mag poll – a fact that Vibration Group CEO Simon Tracey recounts with evident glee as he shows us around the venue.
Printworks has paved the way for planned redevelopment of the surrounding area by British Land and Southwark Council. “The growth of Printworks is about placemaking,” says Tracey. “If London will survive as a multicultural capital, it needs multicultural spaces. Not just offices and houses.”
Printworks’ success has also been the catalyst for Vibration Group, and its many subsidiary companies, to spread its modus operandi across London. The Group has opened two significant new London venues in the last handful of months – The Drumsheds and Magazine London.
“If London will survive as a multicultural capital, it needs multicultural spaces. Not just offices and houses.”
The Drumsheds is a 10,000-capacity space that played host to 2019’s Field Day festival, after it was forced to move out of Brockwell Park. It comprises four enormous warehouses, which served as a gasworks from the 1930s to the 1970s. The second of the Group’s new venues is the only one which has been purpose-built from the ground-up, but Magazine London still has an industrial ethos. The venue’s designers researched the area thoroughly, and styled it after a former gunpowder factory which was situated in the area.
When I ask Tracey whether the sleek black interiors of Magazine owe any debt to the industrial aesthetics of venues in Berlin, he replies in the negative. “Honestly, we don’t look elsewhere for inspiration – our venues tell their own stories. People want to understand their city and the buildings that make up its history, and they want new experiences, too.
“Renovating industrial spaces is a marriage of convenience and demand. It works for developers and consumers, giving versatility and room to adapt. These buildings are already beautiful – we are just the guardians of the space, and it is up to us to put the right stuff inside that space.”
Street spirit (trade out)
Industrial spaces are not just being converted into venues for the live music sector, either. London’s street food scene has also been given a recent boost by the introduction of Seven Dials Market, situated on the site of a former banana warehouse in the city centre.
It is the first permanent venue from KERB, an organisation which incubates street food businesses around London, and stages pop up markets in a range of locations. The aim is to cultivate these smaller traders into larger businesses, and Seven Dials Market is the result of consistent growth since the company was set up by Petra Barran in 2012.
When asked about the industrial choice of venue, Ian Dodds, KERB managing director, says: “It’s so rare to find a space of this size in central London, and we loved the glass roof and large open-planned design of the main atrium. It also seemed like a perfect fit for KERB due to its character and food history, acting as a brewery in the past as well as a banana and cucumber storage warehouse.”
KERB has carried that history through into the market’s branding, which uses a striking pop-art banana reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground cover. It is also present in the space itself, which features an Instagram-friendly banana bench for customers to take pictures on.
“We didn’t want Seven Dials Market to only be a place with great food,” says Dodds. “We wanted a space where people will feel at home, and enjoy the atmosphere. We’ve curated live music, food and entertainment to all feel cohesive with one another.”
A new chapter
The industrial renovation sweeping across London is, as Simon Tracey puts it, a marriage of convenience and demand. These are spaces with history and personality – with quirks and flaws that make them stand out from the crowd.
As the process of gentrification spreads further and further outwards from the centre of London, industrial venues offer a rebuttal. They provide exciting, trendy spaces were communities can gather, as opposed to another soulless, glassy skyscraper to maximise profit margins.
While they have their challenges for both developers and venue operators, their lasting appeal is undoubtable, and is writing a new chapter into the history of our capital city.