Could Granton Gasworks become Euro-style landmark?

Gasometer converted into flats in Vienna. Picture: Andreas Poeschek, Viennaphoto
Gasometer converted into flats in Vienna. Picture: Andreas Poeschek, Viennaphoto
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FROM the outside, the building’s rows of thick red brick window arches and buttresses suggest an industrial past while the inside looks almost space-age by comparison. A giant atrium is lit by a domed window that lets the sun dance off the steel and glass-clad interior.

Dozens of flats look out on to the bright central space, housing a cinema, a concert hall and a public garden.

The Granton gasholder. Picture: SWNS

The Granton gasholder. Picture: SWNS

It sounds like the very best designed living space imaginable. In fact, it’s an old gasworks storage tank, which just 20 years ago was slated for demolition after it had outlived its usefulness.

Unfortunately, the gasometer in Vienna couldn’t be more different from the one at the old Granton gasworks, whose rusting steel skeleton is clearly visible on the north Edinburgh skyline, and from the air on the approach to the airport. Despite lying derelict for almost 15 years, the landmark has won enough affection from residents and councillors to have survived two attempts to demolish it.

That hasn’t been enough to find a new use for it, but there is hope for the unloved 
landmark. Across Europe, old gasholders have been given new leases of life by being turned into housing, performance venues or exhibition centres, and becoming the cultural focal points for their communities.

The gasometer in the Austrian capital is one of four that were transformed following an open invitation from city officials for ideas. Four architects were commissioned to renovate one gasometer each. The result is a stylish modern community, containing a music hall, a cinema and student accommodation as well as luxury flats.

Other cities have followed suit. In Dublin, the gasometer was transformed into a 500-room hotel, and an old gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany, has become one of the country’s leading modern art galleries. The old gasworks in Athens, which include three gasometers, was turned into an industrial museum and cultural venue. The redevelopment revived the surrounding neighbourhood, nicknamed “Gazi”, which has become the top destination for bars and clubs in the Greek capital.

Granton residents are hoping that these examples could offer a blueprint for the neglected corner of their community, after the owner of the former gasworks, National Grid, put the site up for sale. The suggestions vary slightly, with every person you ask, from a music venue to rival Glasgow’s Hydro, an outdoor cinema, a rock climbing centre, to a solar power plant for the community. All have one thing in common: they want the gasholder saved.

Granton and District Community Council member David Millar doesn’t want the site changed at all. He believes the gasworks represent the last remnants of Granton’s industrial past, and should be preserved as a park.

“I just think it should be left alone,” says Mr Millar. “It should be maintained as a site of historical significance, including the land around it.”

The overgrown site has been colonised by deer and foxes, and he claims it could also be home to protected bats and owls. “It should be left as a wildlife sanctuary,” says Mr Millar.

There is a strong feeling in the community that ordinary Granton residents haven’t benefited from projects like the redevelopment of Granton harbour, Miller adds. Local people wouldn’t be happy to see a developer with deep pockets swoop in, level the site and erect blocks of flats.

Others recognise that with Edinburgh’s chronic housing shortage, some homes should be built on the gasworks, but they want the imposing structure to be turned into a new cultural centre for the city. Campaign group the Granton Improvement Society wants the site to be incorporated into wider development plans for the shore.

“Surely there’s a way to turn it into something else, whether it be an event space, an arena, or something along those lines,” says architect Ross McEwen, 54, chairman of the group. The building could be made useful again in other ways – his suggestion is to mount solar panels on to the southern face of the gasometer to power local homes and businesses, and sell energy back to the grid.

Turning the gasometer into a music venue is a common theme. “I’ve always said it would make a good place for Robert Plant,” says Marion Williams, director of conservation group the Cockburn Association, which has backed the fight to save the gasometer.

“We’re always being told we don’t compete with other places for concert arenas, and I think that would make a fantastic space.” Without the axed tram line to Granton, however, Ms Williams admits that such a plan might not be viable.

Artist Shaeron Averbuch, 49, who works in Granton, says that turning the site into a cultural hub doesn’t need to involve a huge amount of construction. The frame could be used to build an outdoor climbing wall, or some kind of amphitheatre, she suggests.

“I’ve always been an advocate of keeping the gasometer because it’s one of the few 
remaining heritage structures that reflects the industrial past of the area.

“It’s an iconic, place-making viewpoint, whether you’re on the ground or in the air.”

Whatever the Granton community decides it wants for the site, the battle to make it a reality will be long and costly. The whole site is heavily contaminated from years of industrial use, and would need to be cleaned before it could be safely opened up for public use.

The structure also poses a challenge. Part of which would likely need to be disassembled if the chamber below needed to be removed, and the steel is also badly corroded and likely in a worse state of repair than its counterparts across Europe. National Grid put the cost of clean-up, repair and upkeep at over £5.2 million – a large sum for any community group or charity to raise to bring the site into public hands.

Conservative councillor for the Forth ward, Allan Jackson, says: “If it was in fine, new condition then it could be done – but it’s not, it’s in a bad state of repair. I think it’s unlikely that there will be many takers.”

Cllr Jackson, who is an electrical engineer by trade, 
believes there is an element of “going through the motions” involved in the sale.

“If someone comes along with plenty of money who can do something with it, that’s wonderful. I’m trying to be pragmatic about it, and I’m unsure that anything can be done with it.”

HISTORY DATES BACK TO 1800S

the Granton gasworks, including the gasometer, were built in 1898. Gas was manufactured at the site until 1987, but the surviving gasometer was used for storage until 2001.

The gasworks were bombed during the Second World War, but the real threat has come recently, with councillors rejecting proposals for demolition twice since 2011. The old gasworks have now been put up for sale in the hope that a private developer can be found who will bring forward plans that incorporate the gasometer.

The site was listed by Historic Scotland 16 years ago, and owner National Grid has previously called on the council to purchase the site itself.