Around the world, many former industrial buildings have been transformed into high-end housing or art galleries. But now a new wave of projects honours the manufacturing heritage of these built structures, repurposing them for the makers of today
Words by Francesca Perry
Twentieth-century urbanisation and deindustralisation left behind scores of empty buildings in cities that had once been used for manufacturing and heavy industry. The next step in the story is familiar to most: regeneration takes hold, the pressure for housing (and profit) rises, and if the former industrial structures don’t get knocked down, then they are inevitably turned into stylised high-end housing (or at least in more interesting cases, art galleries).
Housed in a former shipbuilding factory, Marvel Architects-designed New Lab is a hub for design and fabrication companies. Photo: David Sundberg & Claire Droppert
The transformation of culture is often expressed in the built environment and vice versa: as manufacturing and making is replaced by computer working, so high-rise glass offices replace old industrial buildings. But in recent years, perhaps as a reaction against the overwhelming digitisation of our lives, making and crafts have made a comeback — and with them, the desire for makerspaces, workshops and fabrication labs. Will this new cultural shift then have the power to reverse some of those trends in the built environment?
Rotterdam’s Innovation Dock also transforms a shipbuilding warehouse, for use as a co-working makerspace
The last five years have seen an array of projects suggesting so. In Rotterdam, an enormous shipbuilding warehouse has been transformed into the Innovation Dock, home to RDM Makerspace and dozens of small creative studios, maker projects, fabricators and light manufacturing enterprises. In London, Turner Prize-winning practice Assemble converted a former manufacturing premises in Walthamstow into Blackhorse Workshop — a public, shared workshop for local makers and craftspeople. In New York, a collaborative design and fabrication centre — New Lab, designed by Marvel Architects — breathed new life into a former shipbuilding factory as part of the evolving Brooklyn Navy Yard workplace hub.
Blackhorse Workshop, an initiative from Assemble in east London’s Walthamstow, continues the local area’s history of manufacturing
Bit by bit, we are seeing the rise of former industrial spaces — shipyards, forges, factories — returning to industrial use in a second life, fit for the 21st century, and helping to reignite the public’s interest in making. Here are five diverse projects — recent or in progress — from around the world that demonstrate the trend.
The Forge, London
Emrys Architects designed two wooden blocks of studios to sit within the space, as none of the structure could be touched by the intervention. Photo: Emrys Architects / Alan Williams
Once a metal workshop at the southern edge of the Isle of Dogs, The Forge is now home to Craft Central, the UK charity supporting craftsmanship and craftspeople, having welcomed an inventive design intervention from London-based practice Emrys Architects which completed in October last year.
The original Forge building was erected in 1860 as part of a complex that housed vital metal workshops for the busy shipbuilding industry in the local area. After the majority of that shipbuilding activity moved to the River Clyde, the building became used as a steelworks for the construction of railway bridges. But this too drew to a close by the 1950s, and since then the building — which was listed in 2003 — has lain empty. The other buildings that formed part of the complex were torn down and replaced by housing blocks in the mid Noughties, having not been listed, as the area witnessed an influx of residential development linked to the everexpanding Canary Wharf hub close by.
The Grade II-listed former metalworks is located in Millwall, at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. Photo: Emrys Architects / Alan Williams
The Forge itself narrowly avoided being turned in to yet another Tesco Metro — Tesco’s planning proposal was refused at the last minute — but it did undergo restorative work in 2005 including a new roof and windows. A decade later, still empty save for the occasional party and movie shoot, the building was sold to Threadneedle Properties, and soon enough Craft Council discovered it as the ideal new setting for the organisation’s HQ. But it was a tricky undertaking: not only the exterior structure, but the interior beams, cranes and columns were all listed and could not be touched by new works — demanding an unusual ‘don’t-touch-the-sides’ insertion.
Although this sounds like a stifling restriction, what Emrys Architects has created — with design development from iSpace Interiors — is surprisingly successful. ‘We came up with the concept of a structure within a structure,’ explains project architect Catriona Jones. ‘We like to think of the design as two ships in a dry dock.’ Strangely, this reference makes a lot of sense; with a central line of metal columns running down the building, the space is naturally split into two sections, which — due to the inability to touch the columns — resulted in two structures, both with the same design.
Craft Central opens the space up to the public for workshops, fairs and cultural activities. Photo: Emrys Architects / Alan Williams
Constructed out of birch plywood with steel supports and glulam beams, each block contains just over 30 variously sized studios (there are 67 studios in total) across two floors. The size of these blocks leaves enough space to comfortably walk around them, enabling users to engage with and appreciate the older structure as much as the new ones. At the front space of the building, the wooden studio blocks descend down to the floor level using a bleacher seating design, which simultaneously creates a natural hub for events as well as an aesthetic recalling the stern of a cruise ship.
Craft Central’s studios are rented out to a variety of different makers as well as local businesses — glass engravers, bow makers, spectacle makers, among others — but the building serves as a hub for the community, too, hosting workshops, exhibitions and fairs that engage the public in crafts and making. ‘A part of our charitable objective is to interest the public in craft,’ explains the organisation’s chair of trustees Sue Webb. With the rapidly growing residential population of the local area, that engagement looks set to blossom.
Kearny Point, New Jersey
WXY architecture + urban design and Studios Architecture
Once a shipbuilding facility, the WXY-designed Building 78 is now a co-working hub for creative enterprises. Photo: Barkow Photo
Kearny Point, a large-scale redevelopment of a historic shipyard in Kearny, New Jersey, sits across the river from Jersey City and less than five miles from Manhattan. Once home to the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Kearny Point was one of the world’s most prolific shipyards during the two world wars, employing roughly 30,000 daily workers. In the 1960s, the real estate and recycling company Hugo Neu acquired the 53ha site and for decades used it as a location for warehouses and recycling activity.
But in 2012, the devastating Hurricane Sandy struck the region, and the whole site was flooded. Hugo Neu was advised to demolish all the remaining shipyard buildings, but instead a new vision took hold and it is now undergoing a transformation into a thriving hub of workplaces for the 21st century. In total, the Kearny Point project is set to reactivate 186,000 sq m of industrial space.
WXY architecture + urban design was commissioned to work on the masterplan for the site alongside Studios Architecture, as well as to deliver one of the first buildings, Building 78, as a co-working hub for creative enterprises. The four-storey, 19,510 sq m Building 78, once a federal shipbuilding facility, opened at the end of 2016 and has been filling up since then. With polished concrete floors, heavy floor-load capacity, and 4m-high ceilings, the building offers flexible office spaces home to various creative businesses, from craft-food producers and dressmakers to printers and filmmakers.
The rest of Kearny Point’s former shipyards will be transformed, retaining the industrial structures while providing more creative workspace. Image Credit: WXY Architecture + Design and Studios Architecture
WXY has been carefully working with the historical infrastructure of the site. ‘The most resonant and I think interesting design ideas are linked to the historical uses and scale opportunities of the shipyard-era building structures and walls, in addition to the hulking precast buildings that are the context for the area,’ explains Claire Weisz, principalin- charge of WXY. ‘The masterplan design really uses what is there, including the old rail lines.’ In Building 78, the old freight elevators were made into double-height studio units.
Following Building 78, Kearny Point’s second phase will involve over 10ha of new public green space and the redevelopment of Building 100, Building 54 and the Power Plant into creative workspaces by Studios Architecture.
Hugo Neu, unlike some developers, focuses on investing in enterprises that support economic, social and environmental justice and sustainability. ‘If the approach to Kearny Point results in a new outlook for the area, it will connect to the history of the Federal Shipyard as being a beacon of opportunity, in particular for women and black Americans who had access here to high-skilled jobs for the war effort,’ comments Weisz. ‘Today if the project spawns new growth for small business and startups who appreciate both the design and being in a reclaimed industrial site, the process of linking a design vision to a masterplan will have accomplished what we set out to do.’
Station F, Paris
Wilmotte & Associés
Located near Gare d’Austerlitz in south-east Paris, Station F catalyses local regeneration. Photo: Paul Raftery
If there is an architectural structure emblematic of the nineteeth-century European Industrial Revolution it is surely the large, majestic train shed. Landmarks of how advances in industrial production were shaping architecture, transport and cityscapes, train sheds were immortalised in paintings such as Monet’s Gare St-Lazare series (1877). Now, from London’s King’s Cross to Paris’ Station F, they are the triggers for wide-ranging regeneration schemes.
Station F, the new name given to the repurposed Halle Freyssinet train depot in south-east Paris, is a €100m project which has taken the former transhipment hub designed in 1927 by the engineer Eugène Freyssinet and turned it into the ‘world’s biggest startup campus’, accommodating over 1000 techbased startup businesses. Transformed by French architecture firm Wilmotte & Associés, with restoration work from 2BDM Architectes, Station F opened in June 2017.
The structure of the original train shed has been kept and restored. Photo: Paul Raftery
Conceived as an incubator space with a university campus feel, Station F is designed in three sections, each occupying a chunk of the 34,034 sq m, pre-stressed concrete structure. The first comprises a 370-person auditorium, meeting rooms, event spaces, a co-working coffee shop and a full makerspace called the Tech Lab, where 3D printers, laser cutters and workshops are accessible. The second section of the building is the main workspace for the startups, with approximately 3,000 desks; the third section, meanwhile, is due to launch in May as a large-scale, 24-hour restaurant open to the public.
Shipping containers have been reused as work spaces. Photo: Paul Raftery
By necessity — the building was listed as a Historical Monument in 2012 — the project honours much of the original architecture, with all the concrete structural elements retained, restored and exposed. There are nods to its industrial heritage in the fit-out too: shipping containers are repurposed as modern meeting room spaces.
The project is the brainchild of French telecommunications mogul Xavier Niel, who chose the site in 2012 as the location for his idea to create a hub for the many dispersed startups across Paris and the wider region. But the ambitions don’t stop at workspace: linking in to and improving the local public realm has been a key part of the project, with an esplanade on the north side of the building and tiered garden to the south, with two new side roads lined with shops. And much like a university campus, accommodation will form part of the complex. This aspect is due to open in three blocks in nearby Ivry-sur-Seine later this year. The approach is one of ‘coliving’, to match that of co-working, with the creation of 100 six-bedroom apartments, where young entrepreneurs live together and share amenities.
The Silver Building, London
The stripped-back, minimal fit-out for studios enables a range of creative uses. Photo: Lewis Khan
Hidden between a flyover and an inaccessible part of east London’s riverside, next to a still-active Tate & Lyle factory, lies a hulking brutalist structure, once home to British Oil and Cake Mills before it was used as a factory for Tetley and Carlsberg.
For the past 20 or so years, it has been left derelict, save for some film and TV shoots — and the odd rave. This area, close to Royal Victoria Dock, is known as Silvertown, and despite the fact it has its own DLR stop, looks straight across the Thames to the bustling activity of the Greenwich Peninsula, and has London’s cable car soaring directly overhead, it remains a strange, hidden away and largely industrial riverside stretch.
As is unsurprisingly inevitable in London, however, all this is set to change, when in 8–10 years, a new road tunnel is built connecting this spot to North Greenwich, and a swathe of residential development follows suit.
Belfast firm Munce & Kennedy designed the original brutalist factory building. Photo: Lewis Khan
But it is what happens in the meantime which is perhaps most interesting. The site of the former factory, now owned by Keystone Property Group, was given over to entrepreneur Nick Hartwright to do with as he saw fit (for eight years, at least). Hartwright — who currently operates 18,580 sq m of workspace and hotel space across London — believed the area would benefit from affordable workspace, and with the support of the GLA Regeneration Fund and the design expertise of SODA Studio, has been turning it into The Silver Building, a hub for creative industries and local SMEs — from set builders and artists to fashion designers. ‘It’s vital that more affordable workspace is made available to creative enterprises, artists and startups,’ explains Hartwright. ‘There’s a shortage of suitable space in London for these types of businesses. Part of the GLA’s long-term strategy is to turn the Royal Docks into a new business centre focused on the creative industries.’
SODA came on board two years ago, and the practice’s approach — in response to the brief — has been incredibly light touch, working with the existing 4,645 sq m brutalist structure (designed in 1964 by Belfast architectural firm Munce & Kennedy), which has included restoring original elements such as the terrazzo staircase. SODA’s first step was to make the building safe to use (by removing asbestos and stripping out dilapidated features), before remodelling former cellularised offices into a range of studios with a minimal aesthetic, as well as adding communal features such as a reception-cafe and shared gallery space.
‘We started with the question: “What’s the minimum we can do?”’ explains studio director Russell Potter, whose practice worked alongside Hartwright’s in-house designer Justin Burt on the fit-out. ‘The brief was simple,’ adds Hartwright. ‘Keep it pared back and utilitarian, and retain the character of the building.’
SODA’s key intervention, the communal reception space, includes a freshly poured concrete bar to reflect the building’s industrial materiality. Photo: Lewis Khan
The basic fit-out keeps the studios affordable for tenants. The communal reception-cafe space, intended to enable collaboration between creative tenants, boasts a newly poured concrete desk/bar, embedded neon strip lighting, salvaged furniture, a huge wall panel for art, and flourishes of colourful paint.
In the next phase of the building’s transformation, a series of experimental, modular workspaces will be created on the roof. Yet the fact remains that in 8–10 years, the building will likely be torn down. ‘At some point in the next 10 years it will make way for a new final scheme to include around 18,600 sq m of commercial space,’ says Hartwright, who is working closely with the GLA, Newham Council and the developer to provide the long-term workspace and cultural spaces for the final scheme. ‘The tenants we bring on board now will flourish and grow, and transition into that final scheme,’ he adds. ‘A significant portion of them will have purpose-built spaces within it.’
Potter, meanwhile, reflects that it would be nice to keep the building as is in the new development. When the time comes, hopefully the developers will see the value of not only retaining some of London’s industrial brutalist built heritage, but of embracing a ready-made creative workspace hub, instead of knocking it down and starting again.
Museum of Making, Derby
Bauman Lyons Architects
Scheduled to open in 2020, the completed project will keep the original silk mill at its heart. Image: Derby Silk Mill
The Museum of Making project will redevelop the Derby Silk Mill — a dedicated museum of industry and history housed in part of what is widely regarded as the first fully mechanised factory in the world — into a new museum complex that re-introduces manufacturing to the site.
Set to open in 2020, the Museum of Making aims to celebrate the local industrial and making heritage, as well as work in collaboration with communities and organisations to enable future creators, makers and innovators to develop new skills, thus positively addressing the skills gap in the region. The museum will create new maker spaces and facilities for public use.
Leeds-based practice Bauman Lyons Architects was commissioned to create the design plans for the building, and has been working collaboratively with the wider project team, as well as exhibition designers Leach Studio.
The project has involved a major participatory programme to date with the local community, which will continue throughout the development, involving more than 500 people in the making of the museum. A ‘Mobile Museum of Making’ bus will go on the road in autumn of this year, engaging a wider array of communities in the project throughout Derby and Derbyshire.