Sunday, December 23, 2012

Thematic Photographic - Industrial disease

Carmi at the blog "Written, Inc." posts a photographic challenge each week at Thematic Photographic. This week, the theme is "Industrial disease."

What is industrial disease? And what's your take on it? Share it at "Written, Inc."
Click to "embiggen"
 We were walking from our hotel on Cambridge Heath Road in Bethnal Green toward the Broadway Market in Hackney, and as we walked through the neighborhood that ranged from council apartments to older townhouses and industrial warehouses, we came upon the sight of two huge circular iron structures.

Our first sight of the structures
Just beside the Regents Canal, they loom over the filthy water, the industrial landscape, and the shabby old barges. What are they, I wondered. The ironwork is functional yet surprisingly decorative, a tracery of iron against the sky. They looked very 19th century, and very "steampunk."

From the Broadway Market
 After our market visit, we walked back alongside the Canal, and asked a dog-walker passing by whether he could tell us what these things were. "They're gas-holders," he said. In the old days, these structures held giant membranes that stored fuel gas.

Near the First Avenue Bridge, 1920s LA Public Library photo
I remembered seeing similar structures in historic photos of Los Angeles and wondering what they were. So I did some quick research.

The gasholders here in Bethnal Green were built by the Imperial Gas Company in around 1856. Also called "gasometers," the structures that remain today are an external frame for telescoping storage tanks for fuel gas. The tank's base is in a reservoir of water, which creates the seal to keep the gas from escaping. When more gas is pumped into the tank,  it expands; when demand from users depletes the gas, the tank collapses. This assures that the gas is always maintained at the correct pressure.

Far from being diseased, the ironwork is quite beautiful if you look closely. As with the ironwork arcades of Paris, the cast-iron buildings of New York's SoHo, and the great railroad stations of the 19th century, the makers of these structures did not omit beauty from their designs, despite the industrial and commercial purpose.

Seen at night, from the Hackney Road
Technological changes in the way gas was processed and distributed made these tanks obsolete. There are still several abandoned gasometers in Britain and Europe, although the ones in Los Angeles are long gone. In Bethnal Green, where an increasing infusion of artists have moved to the neighborhood, the delicate tracery and cylindrical shapes seem to transcend their industrial origin and lend an eerie sculptural beauty to the urban landscape.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I remember seeing lots of those along the Jersey turnpike. You need your windows rolled up when you go by the refineries...truly an industrial disease.

Jen on the Edge said...

There are some similar to these just outside of Birmingham too and the metalwork was just as beautiful and ornate as the ones you've shown here.