Once again, another piece of London's heritage architecture is under threat of demolition — with jobs put at risk, as developers seek to build ever more luxury apartments.
Holborn Studios, on Eagle Wharf Road, Hoxton, is a collection of warehouses, complete with a 26 metre high, square-sided chimney. This was originally home to the Regent’s Canal Ironworks, which opened in 1841. The canal was vital for bringing raw materials in and shipping finished products out. Some of the foundry’s output included railings for Buckingham Palace and the British Museum, and ironwork facades for the Floral Hall at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
By the late 1960s the Regent’s Canal, as a conduit of commerce, had gone into decline, along with many of the waterside buildings. Some structures were reborn as residential apartments and workspaces. But, over 30 years ago, the warehouses on Eagle Wharf Road were converted into large photographic studios. These have become very successful with the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, Kate Moss and even Lady Thatcher, all being snapped here. Helmut Newton famously described Holborn Studios as “the Abbey Road of Photography”. Today, over 300 people are employed within this warren of Victorian warehouses.
But trouble is now on the horizon.
In 2013, the landlords considered the studios were ripe for redevelopment into luxury apartments and offices. The entire site was earmarked for demolition, despite being within the Regent’s Canal Conservation Area. However, the leaseholders of Holborn Studios fought back and along with assistance from the Friends of Regent's Canal, the Hackney Society and Liam Gallagher, they persuaded Hackney Council to include the buildings on its local heritage list. Plans for redevelopment were dropped and the Studios thought that they were safe from the demolition bulldozer.
Sadly, the site was sold to new owners, GHL (Eagle Wharf Road) Ltd, (a part of Galliard Homes) and they now have another development plan filed with Hackney Planning Department. Being locally listed does not give the same protection as a statutory listing (i.e. Grade II). The leaseholders of Holborn Studios have been promised a 15-year lease within the new proposed structure, though the designs for new studios are not sympathetic to photographers' needs; internal structural columns will not allow for large studio shoots. And though the new plans will preserve the chimney, they would have it surrounded by a seven-storey edifice.
Billy McCartney, managing director of the Holborn Studios, has found the distraction of two planning applications quite a strain and has prevented him from tackling new projects. He told Londonist: “I recently agreed to take on four apprentices from Hackney College, something I have been trying to get in place for a year but have not had the time. Now these apprenticeships are already under threat with the planned demolition.”
The planning application is now with Hackney Planning Department for ‘consideration’. Should this development succeed, it will further erode the industrial fabric of the Regent's Canal and turn stretches of it into a mere watery backdrop for modern apartments. Chair of Friends of Regent’s Canal, Ian Shacklock said: “This is a vicious assault on a thriving local community. This is not a brownfield site. The buildings are being put to imaginative and productive use. The proposed replacements are sterile and bland”.
A spokesman for GHL Eagle Wharf Ltd has previously said: “The vision for the site is to increase the provision of employment space and contribute to the need for new housing in the borough as well as make the Regent’s Canal more accessible to local people. Our proposals intended to celebrate the chimney as a landmark structure set in a new public landscape."
By David Fathers, author of The Regent’s Canal