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In the heart of London's King's Cross development lies an intriguing group of cylindrical towers.

Oliver Giles chats to the brains behind them, architect Chris Wilkinson, who is also working on Rio de Janeiro's Olympic Park.

“We talked a lot about pie,” British architect Chris Wilkinson muses, a smile flitting across his face. “We had a framework that we had to work within, so we had ways of dividing it up, so different apartments were different slices of pie.”

It wasn’t exactly how I imagined the Stirling Prize-winning architect would talk about his work – but pie, I guess, is one way of discussing the challenges of working with circular buildings. The “pie” that Wilkinson is describing is actually three Victorian gasholders – enormous, cylindrical, cast-iron frames – that surround new residential buildings that he has designed in London’s King’s Cross. This luxury development is appropriately called Gasholders, and is the latest in a long line of high-profile projects for Wilkinson’s studio, WilkinsonEyre, which is also currently working on the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro and the revamp of Battersea Power Station.

Although Gasholders is on a smaller scale than those two mammoth projects, it did come with its own unique challenges. The triplet of gasholders with which Wilkinson was working were built sometime between 1860 and 1880 and – despite falling out of use long ago – were still protected structures.

“We had to work very carefully with English Heritage,” Wilkinson explains. “But they’ve been very positive about it. From their point of view, what was important was finding a use for these buildings, so that they would continue on forever. If we didn’t have this, then what would you do with the gasholders? They’re just big frames.”

Another obvious problem was that the apartment buildings inside the gasholders would have to be circular, which always complicates floor plans. This was compounded by the fact that each of the gasholders had a different diameter. “There are essentially seven types of apartment,” Wilkinson says. “And depending on which gasholder it is in, it has a different base geometry. So in the end, there are 145 apartments and 65 unique plans.”

Wilkinson himself, though, wasn’t too intimidated by the unusual shape of the blocks. “People said, ‘How can you make apartments work in a circular building?’” he recounts. “But what you get is what I call expansive space – when you go in, it opens out towards the outside. This shape actually works very well because it’s always opening out on to the light.”

Inside each of the buildings is everything from studio apartments to duplex penthouses, all of which have access to a spa, business lounge and an entertainment suite with a 14-seat cinema. On top of designing the exterior, WilkinsonEyre also took charge of the communal interior space, taking inspiration from the gasholders’ past. “We have a very industrial building here,” Wilkinson admits. “But when we were looking at the circular plans, we also started thinking of a watchmaker aesthetic, which seemed to hit a chord with people. So inside we have a much more refined, detailed arrangement with materials that you might see on the inside of a watch – brass and bronze and stainless steel.”

Gasholders is part of the much larger King’s Cross development, which is primarily being managed by property developer Argent. In addition to Wilkinson, Argent has employed a string of other leading architects – including Thomas Heatherwick, David Chipperfield and Eric Parry – to work on projects across the site. So when King’s Cross is completed, scheduled for late 2017, it may well become a new favourite destination for architecture fans.


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