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Architectural Thoughts On: The Industrial Aesthetic

Ever sat on a scaffolding plank and sipped a cocktail from a jam jar at a table made from a reclaimed cable drum? Welcome to the new industrial aesthetic

From the latter part of the 20th Century – as Britain’s manufacturing industry has declined – most major cities have an ever-increasing wealth of disused industrial units. Sat empty, in various states of disrepair; rent on these places is generally cheap because of the lack of amenities and the work needed to make them presentable. But as so often happens, cheap rents and challenging environments attract the most creatively thrifty.

The trend began in earnest in the 1970s with squatters and artists living, working and holding events in empty industrial units. Stripped back interiors showed off the raw materials of the buildings; steel, concrete, timber columns and beams laid bare. Creating brutal yet beautiful utilitarian interiors. The old structures still useful for dividing spaces and hanging surfaces amongst other things.

It was through the 80s and 90s that industrial architecture became less associated with loft living and more synonymous with the rave. One of the most famous examples is the Haçienda. This was on old yacht builders shop and warehouse, which was decorated inside to leave the original structure very much visible. At this point the industry look was still a mark of counter culture. The mainstream appeal was not far around the corner.

Now in the 21stcentury the number of empty buildings in post industrial cities is greater than ever. Coupled with a squeeze on inner city space, this has led to more and more previously ‘undesirable’ brownfield areas become gentrified. These areas lend themselves to smaller businesses like street food, bars and creative start-ups. Take for example the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool; formerly a largely vacant area of the city, now a lively cultural hub – home to places such as 24 Kitchen Street, Camp and Furnace and Botanic Garden.

All of these venues have breathed new life into warehouses and factories, and let the original structures speak for themselves. Portal frames now hold up strings of fairy lights, old furnaces sit under dance floors. This move is not confined to Liverpool – or even the UK. Birmingham has Digbeth, with venues such like the Custard Factory and Digbeth Dining Club. Copenhagen had a complex on Paper Island (Papirøen) full of delicious food wagons and start-ups inside in old (surprise) paper factory. Urban Village Lisboa houses start-ups and cafés in a teetering pile of shipping containers and double decker buses.

This spread has led to the ‘industrial look’ now being perhaps the most ubiquitous style to find in bars and cafés. It has almost become a stamp signifying a trendy night out.  And this is what has probably lead to its current widespread copycatting. It is now becoming associated with the hipster. Think scaffolding, wooden boards, OSB, shipping containers, pallets, cable drums.

All of this leads me to wonder if this trend is on its last legs. I’m not sure such a trend can still be called alternative if we can buy tiles with the appearance of worn concrete, wallpaper with mock bricks on for a tenner a roll at B&Q and Edison light bulbs from the pound shop. What we are maybe missing now is just a little more honesty – buying brand new weathered upcycled products isn’t in the spirit that this all began with. Completely redecorating somewhere to look like it was just a bare industrial unit seems very disingenuous.

I am by no means mocking this trend. God knows there are plenty of people out there ready to throw scorn at the homogeneity of the hipster and I am very much in favour of reusing materials, especially when done creatively. Only last month I was talking about how we must see waste as a resource in order to have a more sustainable building process. But is it just the association with counter-culture that explains the widespread appeal? It might be considered surprising – especially in a venue with food preparation, to want the bare, untreated – almost dirty – materials like brick, concrete and steel on display.

I wonder if it is subconsciously an invitation to youth? An advert for a space that is welcoming, cheap and cheerful? An attempt to be non-exclusive and egalitarian? Even if ironically, the ubiquity of the style has come to mean the exact opposite. So I applaud the person who looks at junk and sees a new lease of life as decoration or furniture. My only wish would be if we could just have a little more variety and a few less up-cycled cable drums.

Words by Róisín HANLON
Image Credits by 
Digbeth Dining Club, Ceclie Lopez, Flawless Dreams