Saturday, 13 May 2006

Learning to love industry

Art history seems often to have an inbuilt bias against the functional. Architects are slightly less prone - but still, designing a theatre or a government building remains higher profile than designing a factory. And after all, few of us go on holiday to look at factories or warehouses.
Yet one of the things that continually amazes me is the wealth of immensely striking industrial buildings that many cities contain. In London, of course, some of the old warehouses on the Thames have now been reclaimed as apartments or office space. Their high and narrow facades give the Thames frontage near Southwark its character - quite different from the posher areas down by the Savoy on the other side of the river.

In Paris, you have to go a bit out of the way to find my favourite - the old flour mills on the Canal de l'Ourcq, at La Villette. This is a funny area - there are some great museums including the Cite de la Musique, which last time I was there had an exhibition on Pink Floyd as well as a fine collection of Renaissance and Baroque musical instruments - and then there are cheap hotels and little ethnic restaurants and rather austere apartment blocks. But if you wander along the canal - still used by commercial barges - you'll find the impressive mill buildings, a fine nineteenth-century piece of architecture and quite unmistakably a mill, with high silo towers.

Another fine mill is the Molino Stucky on the Giudecca in Venice. I used to think I was the only person in the world to love this gothic extravaganza - but now it seems the Stucky has become fashionable, as it's being converted into the Venice Hilton. This rediscovery of industrial forms is happening everywhere – maltings, for instance, are now frequently being converted into houses or offices. Perhaps it’s the stark geometry of the industrial buildings that makes them so popular – there’s something a bit post-modern about their spareness and reliance on geometrical form rather than decoration for their character.

But perhaps one of the most fascinating industrial forms is the gasometer. Anyone who watches cricket will recognise the gasometer at the Oval, and I have a huge amount of affection for the one on the edge of Mousehold Heath in Norwich. But the most fantastic ones going are those in <a href=””>Vienna</a> – huge Gothic arcaded tanks, with bands of brick and stone looking like mad Italian castles. You can even take a tour inside them as their website shows.

Circular forms, of course, have always exerted their fascination, from the Pantheon in Rome to the central building in <a href=””>Piero della Francesca’s ‘ideal city’</a>. I wonder if the designer of the Vienna gasometers had seen this painting?