How is the history of ‘Harmsworth Quays’, Rotherhithe, London as a printing press represented through the experience of club-goers at its contemporary renewal as the ‘Printworks’ music venue?
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a city with as rich a historical and cultural heritage as London; yet too often we visit new places in this city without taking the time to bestow them of the full appreciation they deserve. Behind even the most contemporary of locales one can uncover layers of deep-rooted historical and political stories through the medium of palimpsest.
You may still be surprised, however, when I suggest that we apply this reasoning to London’s contemporary nightclubs and club culture; places considered primarily for relaxation and inebriation, and thus seemingly unworthy of academic inspection. I would like to suggest otherwise: urban ruins are often overlooked for a number of years until they become involved in new practices (Assmann 2010, in Göbel 2014: 141), and recent trends in which nightclubs occupy abandoned (and unconventional) spaces associated with other industries not only provide a ‘renewal’ of practice that enables the reveal of history, but also a contemporary medium through which this history can be viewed and accessed by the current generation of youth.
This research demonstrates the abundance of palimpsest revealed by the renewal of the Harmsworth Quays printing press, in Rotherhithe, London, as ‘Printworks’ (a contemporary multi- purpose venue space) in its capacity as a music venue. I argue that the history of the site is represented through three aspects of ‘Printworks’ that are experienced by club-goers, together constituting what I call a ‘palimpsest through performance’ that revives the memory of Harmsworth Quay’s days as a printing factory and the wider political history of newspaper printing in London around the time of the Wapping Dispute. This ‘palimpsest through performance’ occurs through one tangible entity— the physical aspects of the venue— and two that are intangible— the venue’s sonic characteristics and the collective ‘performance’ of clubbing carried out by the club-goers.
This research is structured as follows: firstly, I provide a brief history of the Rotherhithe area and development of the Wapping Dispute, as these led to the development of Harmsworth Quays (without which ‘Printworks’ would not exist) and are the topics documented through palimpsest at the venue. Secondly, I summarise ‘palimpsest’, and support Dillon’s (2006: 245) view that intangible entities have the ability to be to be ‘palimpsestic’: this is necessary to justify my analysis of intangible aspects of the experience, particularly the ‘performance’ of clubbing by club-goers. Thirdly, I present my research methodology, before using my previous sections— the site’s background, palimpsest and methodology— to carry out an analysis of ‘Printworks’ in its capacity as a music venue.
Though ‘Printworks’ exists only as a temporary renewal of the Harmsworth Quays site, I believe the research that follows demonstrates the value this trend of renewed club spaces holds in providing a contemporary and accessible setting through which history can be exhibited, experienced and understood, and thus justification to preserve and celebrate those aspects of the contemporary nightclub industry following this trend.
The area of Rotherhithe within which the ‘Printworks’ is located has historically been an industrial area. It is the first place where docks were constructed for the convenience of London (Walford 1878: 134) and the site of the Grand Surrey Dock (part of the Surrey Commercial Docks, fig. 1), once able to accommodate 300 vessels and 4,000 tonnes of goods (chiefly grain) in warehouses (ibid, 139).
Over time, industry in the Rotherhithe area has shifted. Closure of the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1968 deprived the shipping industry of trade and marked a period of economic downturn that would see half of the manufacturing jobs in Southwark lost between 1971 and 1986 (Andrews 2001: 22) and the area become an industrial wasteland (fig. 2).
In 1976, estimates by the ‘Docklands Team’ forecasted that some 76,000 mainly industrial jobs would be required by the 1980s in order to rejuvenate the area (Best 1976: 12). At the same time, Pikal et al. (1986: see bibliography) describe how the “slate was clean” for a development opportunity spotted first by The Daily Telegraph: space for mass newspaper printing.
The Daily Telegraph’s 1987 move to the Docklands followed the eastward move from Fleet Street made by Rupert Murdoch’s News International the year before (Tryhorn 2005: see bibliography). Famously dubbed as the ‘Wapping Dispute’, Murdoch’s relocation of printing activities occurred in response to the notoriously poor industrial relations and a vast array of abusive labour practices on Fleet Street (Littleton 1992: 7). Over the years, a progressive consolidation of power and accumulation of benefits amongst print- workers occurred, eventually reaching extraordinary proportions (ibid, 8) that led to heavy dispute upon proposals to relocate printing activity to allow for use of new technology, cheaper production costs and increased output. Dispute turned into near-debilitating demonstrations when News International reacted by replacing much of their workforce, but the move was complete, and in February 1987, with the help of the police, the strikes collapsed. Other publishers would be soon to follow suit.
Just as The Daily Telegraph had done, the Associated Press was able to ride with the tide (Bourne 2015: 229) and in 1989 Harmsworth Quays— the former printing press now occupied by ‘Printworks’— was built. Costing £27 million and located on the former site of Centre Pond (fig. 3), one of the timber ponds of Albion Dock and part of the Surrey Commercial Docks (Byrnes 2014: see bibliography), the press operated for 23 years before activities were relocated to Thurrock, Essex and the site sold to British Land in 2013. (ibid: see bibliography). For Rotherhithe, another era of industry had ended.
As part of Southwark Council’s Canada Water Master Plan to redevelop and boost Rotherhithe’s economy, in November 2016 ‘Printworks’ was established as a multi-venue space for conference, exhibition, event and film hire (Printworks website 2017: see bibliography) on the Harmsworth Quays site with a temporary lease whilst the council develops its plans.
Palimpsest and the ‘palimpsestic’
The basic metaphor of palimpsest is central to the study of urban architecture and history in describing the physical aspects that constitute a space (Göbel 2014: 141), however the concept has been developed beyond this to enable intangible entities capable of carrying historical associations, such as interaction and sensory stimuli, to be considered palimpsest. Below I explain this in greater detail and its relevance to my analysis of the history embedded in the ‘Printworks’ venue.
Until the publication of De Quincey’s The Palimpsest in 1845, ‘palimpsest’ was of only palaeographic concern (Dillon 2006: 243), referring to “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing” (OED 2017: see bibliography). De Quincey’s work set into motion a consistent process of metaphorisation of palimpsests (Dillon 2006: 243) that has led to the concept now being employed in a variety of fields to figuratively denote “something revised or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form” (OED 2017: see bibliography). The concept is heavily applicable to the architectural form of ‘Printworks’ as it describes the coexistence of material elements that originated in different historical periods on an urban site well (Mitin 2010: 1); however, revealing the full history represented by ‘Printworks’ requires more than just a study of the site’s material elements.
Though intangible elements of a space or activity may not communicate palimpsestic links to the past with the same immediacy as those which are tangible, they constitute a central part of the experience had by club-goers at ‘Printworks’ and thus are vital to this research. Dillon’s discussion of the adjective from palimpsest, ‘palimpsestic’, provides justification for the concept’s application to intangible elements of a space, as under the adjective anything “that is, or makes, a palimpsest” (2006: 245), irrespective of physicality, can be considered palimpsestic. This justification is necessary for our research to analyse the intangible elements of the ‘Printworks’ experience that represent the more subtle connection the site has with the politics of the Wapping Dispute.
I initially carried out a literature review of Harmsworth Quays, the Rotherhithe area and the politics surrounding the Wapping Dispute. Points at which the rich histories of these topics intersect are very clear and prove vital to obtaining the broad knowledge necessary to examine the ‘Printworks’ experience for historical associations. In addition to journals and articles, Harmsworth Quays and the Rotherhithe area are well documented on a blog by Andie Byrnes (http:// russiadock.blogspot.co.uk/), and a wealth of information on the Wapping Dispute is available through documentaries uploaded to YouTube. I exercised caution when collecting data on the Wapping Dispute as media and newspaper articles documenting the events may be subject to bias as a result of their connection to many of the printing companies that were involved; Littleton’s (1992) extensive account of the events in his book The Wapping Dispute provided a suitable counter-balance.
Following this summarisation of Harmsworth Quays it was necessary to conduct a further literature review on the dynamics of clubbing to enable me to identify which aspects of the contemporary ‘Printworks’ experience represent the site’s history best. Malbon’s (1998) Ecstatic geographies: clubbing, crowds & playful vitality serves as my primary point of consultation for this due to its extensive documentation of the clubbing experience from the perspective of club-goers, and I refer to it heavily throughout the analysis below to complement my own observations at the venue.
I chose to collect observational data of club-goers and record my personal experience at the ‘Printworks’ venue through two visits to the site during music events. Void of the exclusivity of the conferences and product launches that otherwise take place, music events not only provided me with the best possible access to the site but also the most fruitful type of venue-use for studying historical representations through palimpsest. Two visits were made to improve the reliability of my data (the environment and club-goers can vary dramatically depending on the programmed music performances) and, not least, due to my heavy enjoyment of experiencing the venue; though on the first visit I aimed for little participation so as to remain objective. I would love to have made further visits! Sadly at a cost of almost £40 per ticket— the usual price for events of this calibre, but nonetheless expensive— my finances did not permit me.
It should be noted that although I aimed for minimal participation on my first visit to the research site, the practice of observation cannot be assumed an entirely passive method of data collection as it involves the active organisation of data and the method is influenced by personal standards of what constitutes an ‘objective’ distance. Indeed, avoiding participation in the extremely immersive environment of a club proves difficult on a subconscious level: subject to various sensory stimuli and deprivations one naturally turns to physical movement as an expressive form of thinking, sensing, feeling and processing (Malbon 1998: 129). To this end observational data may be seen as subjective and thus biased, though Clifford (1986: 6) argues this does not undermine the method of data collection, suggesting observations to be a “source of representational tract” (ibid, 7) that allow for one to experience a deeper engagement with the research setting.
Participant observation of club-goers at the ‘Printworks’ venue further carried the risk of “dismissing alternative modes of visualising” (Craig 2003: 500) as, surrounded by strangers in an altered environment, persons may choose to present certain aspects of their individual and social identities in this particular spatial context (Sin 2003: 306). To mitigate the risk of this affecting the accuracy of my research this project retains a focus on more general interactions of club-goers within the space.
The ‘Printworks’ Experience
The experience of club-goers at the ‘Printworks’ venue reveals the history of Harmsworth Quays by way of a ‘palimpsest through performance’. Palimpsest is manifested through three central aspects of the multi-sensory experience which the venue offers: physically through both the venue’s appearance and objects, sonically through the playback of club music and through the collective performance of the club-goers that interact with the space. Below, with the help of existing literature and primary data collected upon my visits to the venue, I present an analysis of these three manifestations of palimpsest by referring to similarities and contrasts that exist between the ‘Printworks’ venue, the Harmsworth Quays site and the wider political background of the Wapping Dispute.
Stepping into the ‘Printworks’ venue truly is akin to experiencing an alternate world. The space is teeming on my arrival, an hour into the music programming on both visits. The venue operates from mid-day to 22:30 each Saturday, after which point its licence to play music and serve alcohol are not valid. Though clearly signposted, it is easy to get lost in the 5,000 capacity venue, much of which is nearly pitch-black or submerged in coloured lights that render the faces of club-goers unrecognisable. People gaze up at the steel girders as they dance, some mechanically rising and falling with lights affixed as if the factory is still in operation. In the corridors, bar areas and outside smoking area which connect to the two rooms of music, people relax, converse and comment on their experience as the day unfolds.
The first aspect of ‘palimpsest through performance’ manifested at ‘Printworks’ is the physical: the venue’s appearance and objects through which people navigate and interact with. The venue offers two rooms of music: the ‘Press Halls’, a 120 metre long, 17 metre high room at the heart of the printing press and still retaining original printing machinery, and ‘Charge Bay’, a smaller rectangular room surrounded by electricity generators and pipes to power this machinery. Woven into the venue’s fabric as a result of not having undergone refurbishment, such relics are visible in every room and corridor of ‘Printworks’, serving as a constant reminder of the site’s past (fig. 6, 7). Most of these relics are static, however the reciprocating movement of steel girders with lights affixed animate the factory’s appearance, increasing the immediacy with which links to the past operations of Harmsworth Quays are communicated to the club-goers.
The sonic characteristics of ‘Printworks’ form the second aspect of the experience through which our ‘palimpsest through performance’ is constructed and the site’s past use is represented. Both of the two music rooms that make up ‘Printworks’ play an “almost deafening, rhythmic industrial sound” (Clash Magazine 2017: see bibliography) reflective of the thunderous past noise of the printing machinery that once “roared and clattered out the latest sensations” (Pikal et al. 1986: see bibliography) both at Fleet Street and Harmsworth. Howard, promoter and founder of London Warehouse Events, the company in charge of ‘Printworks’ in its capacity as a music venue, affirms my observations in interview: he is aware of this “nostalgic” nod to the past, a palimpsest through sound which he hopes the venue can pay tribute to “in our own small way” (Clash Magazine 2017: see bibliography).
The performance of club-goers as a collective entity completes the ‘palimpsest through performance’ which occurs at ‘Printworks’, representing contrasts between ‘Printworks’ in its present form and the history of Harmsworth Quays. The venue constitutes “a temporary and alternate world” (fig. 8) in which “the every-day is disrupted, the mundane is forgotten and the ecstatic becomes possible” (Malbon 1998: 1), characteristics that starkly contrast with Harmsworth Quay’s past as a nucleus for the constant production of ‘reality’ and the ‘everyday’ through reproduction of newspapers and journalistic writing. Club-goers demonstrate an overwhelming sense of awe whilst experiencing the space, turning to dancing as their conceptual language (ibid, 129)— indeed, verbal communication is made futile by the pounding techno music— and several engaging in experiential consuming, visibly under the influence of psychoactive substances and thus further losing touch with reality through ecstatic sensation (ibid, 177).
Finally, through their interactions the performance of club-goers also creates a sense of community, power and resistance that parallel the unity of trade unions during the Wapping Dispute. Dancing and ‘losing touch’ amongst 5,000 other people creates a crowd-based oceanic experience (Malbon 1998: 219) that induces enough euphoria and elation to form a momentary ‘community’: I observed strangers conversing and dancing together in an indiscriminate manner, disrupting the cultural, gender, age and ethnic boundaries (Spencer 1985, in Malbon 1998: 215) that so define and limit us in the ‘real world’. This disruption, alongside the feeling of trespass onto the ‘Printworks’ venue due to its unorthodox setting similar to illegal ‘raves’ that occur frequently around London (a similarity I heard many people remark on during my visits), infer a sense of power and rebellion amongst the club-goers (Malbon 1998: 202). This collective sense of resistance mirrors that of trade unions during the Wapping Dispute, where collective unity and resistance were imperative in attempts to oppose News International’s move and legislature. However, as with the fate of the unionists, the ‘community’ created at ‘Printworks’ must come to an end— specifically, at 22:30 when the venue’s programming is halted until the next weekend. Exhausted club-goers stagger out of the venue back into the public, joining queues for public transport and taxi ranks under the watchful eye of security guards, a sobering shift back to reality. Once the performance is over, the rebellion of ‘Printwork-ers’ in the present is as futile as that of the unionists-past; a reminder of the temporary nature of the venue as a momentary chapter in Harmsworth Quays and Rotherhithe’s history of decline and shifting industries.
Analysis of ‘Printworks’ in its capacity as a music venue reveals the existence of ‘palimpsest through performance’, manifested through the venue’s physical attributes, sonic qualities and the collective ‘performance’ of club-goers. These three aspects of the experience had by club-goers to the venue serve to represent the history of Harmsworth Quays and the greater area of Rotherhithe, alongside the political background of the Wapping Dispute that, without, the venue would not exist. Some of historic aspects— the physical attributes and sonic qualities in particular—are communicated with immediacy to club-goers at the venue, thus rendering ‘Printworks’ an accessible exhibition of history in a contemporary environment in line with Assmann’s (2010) theory of renewal revealing past urban relics. Other links, however, are more subtle— how the collective performance of club-goers represents the politics of the Wapping Dispute requires insight into the dynamics of clubbing and background knowledge of the printing industry to be understood.
It is important to connect this research to the wider picture of palimpsest, regeneration and London. Though the unique and temporary nature of ‘Printworks’ as a music venue may suggest that this research holds little practical value for application elsewhere, I believe it serves as a useful case study for two reasons. First, ‘Printworks’ demonstrates how palimpsest is everywhere, and interactions between the past and present can manifest not only through tangible objects but also intangible ‘experiences’. Scratching the surface of any location in London reveals that palimpsest is found all around us, and I hope this project encourages greater use of palimpsest as a tool to understand our contemporary surroundings in this historic city. Second, ‘Printworks’ demonstrates the value that club venues hold as a contemporary setting through which history can be exhibited, experienced and understood by a generation that visit these venues as almost a weekly ritual. Consideration for this aspect of club environments is important not only to document and preserve the declining nightclub industry in London, but also to encourage venue designers fortunate enough to work with historic sites to incorporate and preserve elements of the past in their planning. The accessibility of these layers of the past is not a given; it must be designed (Göbel 2014: 141), and London should celebrate ‘Printworks’ for its preservation and representation of history through design in the same way that similar clubs, such as Berghain in Berlin, Germany (located in a former power plant) have been recognised as ‘high culture’ (Oltermann 2016: see bibliography).
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- Map of the Surrey Commercial Docks, Exploring Southwark. http:// www.exploringsouthwark.co.uk/communities/0/004/012/855/140//images/ 4622525982_273x332.jpg [accessed 26/04/17]
- The Harmsworth Quays printing press building, Hawkins\Brown. https:// www.hawkinsbrown.com/projects/harmsworth-quays [accessed 26/04/17]
- The Harmsworth Quays printing press building, se16.com. http://www.se16.com/wp-content/ uploads/2012/06/hwq.jpg [accessed 26/04/17]
- The ‘Press Halls’ room illuminated, Printworks. http://printworkslondon.co.uk/hire/ [accessed 26/04/17]
- Machinery in the ‘Press Halls’, taken by myself at the venue.
- Light-shows at ‘Printworks’, Printworks Twitter account. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ C7MyKoeX0AEJeZP.jpg, https://pbs.twimg.com/media/ [accessed 26/04/17]
Participant observation and personal experience during visits to the ‘Printworks’ site
N.B. The two rooms of music are denoted PH for the ‘Press Halls’ and CB for ‘Charge Bay’.
Click to enlarge…
‘Printworks’ truly has to be experienced to be understood, however here I attach two further additional images that help to illustrate the site’s layout and appearance.