Earth to Earth

Invited by the National Grid to propose redevelopment solutions for redundant urban gasholder bases, 318 Studio imagine a poetically innovative memento-mori for the final curtain.

Intoxicating Well Engineered Icons

Built by the Victorians to store gas, gasometers have been a ubiquitous feature of our urban skyline for over 200 years. Resembling lacy-hooped underskirts stripped bare of their crinolines, these 19th century iron maidens are now surplus to requirements as these days gas is sent around the country through plastic pipes. Yet every time plans are announced to knock them down a great deal of local opposition is voiced. City dwellers have a long held sentimental attachment to their gasometers “They are not eyesores” argues Ian Shacklock, chair of The Friends of Regent’s Canal “they are well engineered icons” 1

Staring into the Void (competition brief)

“I can’t even sleep in this Void of non-entity titulate my desire to re-Create something worthy of being admired” 2

National Grid Properties, which manages the company’s surplus land, has a portfolio of former gasholders, which will be dismantled over the coming years. The engineered bases of below-ground holders represent large voids in the sub surface. Once dismantling has occurred, if left empty and unused these voids present potential health and safety hazards, the default practice is to backfill the holder and leave the site level for sale for potential developers. Backfilling however is an expensive and labour intensive operation along with the inherent transport and environmental costs. National Grid Properties therefore invited architectural proposals for alternative uses of the voids.

As Rachel Miller, one of the design team says ‘What we were asked to consider was literally a huge hole in the ground where the diameters varied in width from 40 – 70 metres across and 18 – 15 metres in depth’

Earth to Earth (the proposed scheme)

‘The architecture emerged itself, it came out of the condition of the site’ Alexis Germanos

‘I can’t remember how we initially came up with the idea of a funereal solution’ says Miller. With project hand-in scheduled for October 10th, maybe it was the proximity of the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’3 ushering in autumnal poppy day remembrances or even the weighty resonance of the word void itself which steered the team’s imaginations towards their elegiac proposal.

Alexis Germanos, lead architect on the project states that “We were mindful that this was essentially an ideas competition where coming up with an innovative idea was as important as a purely architectural response. We were thinking about what these sites had meant to people, how they were loved and how in the past they had been an essential infrastructure, therefore our natural inclination was to give the space back to the community, and we also wanted to re-interpret the idea of it having an essential functionality along with being aesthetically interesting. We bounced around a few ideas including a cinema at one stage but eventually settled on the idea of some kind of memorial space”

Economic feasibility was also a consideration and as the design team began their research they soon realised that what they were proposing was a much-needed urban resource.
Julia Rugg writing in The Architectural Review had noted that “ The sheer volume of dead requires improved death infrastructure without the physical space to mourn, The dead outnumber the living. Their massive volume is one of the most pervasive yet overlooked issues facing our increasingly urbanized world.” 4

A Space of Necessity and Memory

“The life of a man is a circle from childhood-to-childhood, and so it is in everything where the sacred power moves” 5

Another important discovery of the team’s research was that landscape architects had designed many of the 19th Century London cemeteries. They were places for people to go and enjoy green open spaces along with their obvious memorial aspect.
Further inspiration came from the Circle of Lebanon a gothic architectural highlight found in Highgate Cemetery. This structure comprising a sunken ring of tombs is built around the roots of an ageing Cedar of Lebanon tree from which the Circle gets its name.

Thus things began to fall into place, the circle of tombs echoing the circular gasholder bases along with the obvious metaphorical meaning. The cemetery idea was early on replaced with the idea of a columbarium, a place for the respectful and public storage of cinerary urns holding the ashes. The reason for this shift was twofold, one was that the team did not want to get involved with the technicalities of what to do with the actual dead bodies and secondly they had discovered that more than three times as many Britons choose to be cremated rather than buried.

Architectural Details

The idea evolved of a series of niches built into the structure, which would hold the loved ones ashes and may be adorned/ decorated to hold personal tributes.

Consciously choosing to maintain the strong circular shapes as a memory of their former incarnation, the columbaria bridge the ground and base levels through a series of ramped terraces that hold the niches (for urns). At ground level, each columbaria is expressed with a colonnade at its perimeter. An internal central garden, the focal point of its depth and an interesting underground space, beneath the ramps allow for further niches – a sort of catacomb space. The niche spaces available to be leased at different rates, together with a cafeteria and pavilion would address the underlying commercial needs of the proposal. 6

Preliminary drawing by Rachel Miller

Greening the Grief

“Thoughts that so often lie too deep for tears”7

Including extensive and ambitious planting of trees, shrubbery and wildflowers and
blending soft landscaping with architectural elements the design continues the historical tradition of the relationship between park and cemetery. The intention being to extend the public park and gardens of the surrounding territory into the depths of the publicly accessible terraced columbaria.

In this respect Earth to Earth is Wordsworthian in scope, echoing the Romantic poet’s views on the restorative and contemplative role of nature. These lushly landscaped arenas, “mid the din of towns and cities”8 are proposed as a place where nature and architecture combine to imbue an ethos of calm tranquility.

The Final Curtain

“Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality “
Emily Dickinson 1890

In her iconic poem Emily Dickinson, reveals not only ‘the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’ 9 but also illustrates the urban disconnect between the living and the dead as the poem goes on to explain how the carriage passes schools, houses, and fields till it even “passed the setting sun”. Death’s memory has been relegated to the outskirts of mind and city making it difficult for families to visit their deceased relatives. Earth to Earth attempts to re-address this prosaic vacancy on both a philosophical and practical level
As Germanos says “ our scheme was designed to provide places of social cohesion, these uplifting new infrastructures intend to provide accessible, dignified and uplifting spaces which offer a unique feeling of purpose and continuity”

Desirous to re-create something to be admired, 318 Studio’s proposal for redundant gasholder bases is a courageous statement of intent, not being afraid of staring into the abyss, they have produced an architecturally lite yet spiritually profound scheme which will, in time, surely become as much loved as the iron-maidens it was designed to replace.

The Earth to Earth design team included:

Alexis Germanos, Rachel Miller, Dimitra Drizou and Victor Li, Alex Michon November 2017

1. Gasometers:Icons of Energy Architecture Christopher Beanland The Independent, 11th November 2014
2, The Void by Charles Baudelaire,
3. To Autumn by Robert Browning 1820
4. “In deciding future strategies to accommodate the dead, communities are adapting ancient traditions” Julie Rugg, Architectural Review 4 November 2010
5. Native American saying by Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
6. Architectural details on Earth to Earth by Rachel Miller
7. Ode: Intimations of Immortality, William Wordsworth 1807
8. Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth 1798
9. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
the title of Damian Hurst’s shark in formaldehyde installation 1991