Monday, December 18, 2017

Hoxton, London

Out of dust…

Drifting around the area north of Old Street the other day I was impressed by how spruced up the area was: quite different from the interesting but run-down district I remembered from when I occasionally crossed it in – when could it have been – ah, yes, the 1980s. Of course, I knew how it had changed, how the old Hoxtonites and young artists of the 1980s had in part given way to an influx of entertainment venues and hi-tech industries, and how some buildings had been converted to upmarket flats. In the process quite a bit of the architecture has been spruced up, but the arts have not gone away: witness this building, the home of the National Centre of Circus Arts.

That’s not all it is. This appealing bit of reed brick and terracotta started life in 1896 as the Shoreditch Electric Light Station and Refuse Destructor. Its job was to burn rubbish to produce steam that was used to drive turbines and generate electricity. The terracotta panels above the entrance tell this story – the name under the shallow arch reminds us that the building was erected by the Vestry of St Leonard, Shoreditch, the forerunner of the local council; above that is the date, 1896, in large ornate numerals; higher still is the motto: ‘E Pulvere, Lux et Vis’: from dust, light and life.
This was early in the history of electric lighting, but not the very beginning. London’s Electric Avenue, Brixton, was the first street in the country to be lit electrically, in 1880. Deptford Power Station, the heart of the UK’s first AC power system, opened in 1891. But the Shoreditch building was the first to combine the functions of refuse disposal and power generation in this way made the Shoreditch Vestry a pioneer; in the next 8 years another 15 (out of 28) Metropolitan local authorities were supplying electricity – mainly for street lighting intitially. Shoreditch also led the way in other fields, opening a workers’ institute across the square from this building and putting up much social housing.

The generating station was due to be phased out in 1940, but was retained as a back-up during the Blitz and immediately post-war. The building became a circus centre in the 1990s and its combination of large internal spaces (the former combustion chamber and generating chamber) together with smaller rooms that can be used as studios, makes it a successful venue, both for circus training and for special events. Light and life continue to illuminate the streets of revamped and scrubbed-up Shoreditch.


bazza said...

Not only an attractive building but a very interesting piece of social history. As always, any brickwork engages my attention!
Seasons Greetings to you and yours Philip.
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Eileen Wright said...

I'm late to the party again! ;) I can't leave this uncommented, though. Just my kind of building; beautiful old, mellow red brick and some very interesting industrial history. Fabulous! :)