Have you ever noticed the odd little towers on the London skyline – those tall and blocky modernist structures without walls containing nothing but a staircase? If you see one from a distance, maybe in passing from the Overground, you might wonder what they could be used for on earth. Are they stairways to heaven or something out of Doctor Who?
In a city where space is at such a premium, these towers may look like a remnant from a different time, back when vacant lots were left to fill with plants and empty storefronts became impromptu street art galleries. But these odd little towers are vital pieces of urban architecture. If you see one up close, you’ll notice they’re always next to a fire station: it’s a fire drill training tower.
Matt Thomas has had a closer view of the life of a drill tower than most, as his living room window opened right onto Kingsland Fire Station in East London for ten years. “We called it the fire tower, and I imagined firefighters would set fire to it as part of their training. I halfway expected I’d have this amazing night time spectacle,” says Matt, laughing.
The drills are much less dramatic than Matt’s imagination: the London Fire Brigade confirms these towers are used for things like “pitching ladders, hose training, safety training for working at height, rope work, training to carry heavy equipment up stairs”. Less dazzling for sure, but the Kingsland fire tower still became a source of fascination for Matt, who photographed the tower in every possible condition.
“The tower was like a static version of the film Rear Window. It’s just me pointing a lens out, and while it’s the same structure, it looked really different depending on the weather. It always caught the light nicely,” says Matt. Then there was the fact that the area was rapidly changing: “At first, the tower was the only thing between me and the London skyline. But over time all these other buildings popped up behind it, and soon it was all that was left of any kind of view.”
Matt noticed other drill towers around town, too: “They have a weird, redundant charm to them,” he says. “Especially in an area that was quickly being gentrified, the tower outside my window was sort of defiant. It was like it was saying, ‘I am a block of concrete of no commercial value.’ It must have been such a tease for developers.”
The Kingsland drill tower is gone, torn down in 2017 after the fire station closed. “I was trying to sell the flat at that point, so it kind of felt like it was okay to leave. The tower was gone, so no point sticking around!” Matt witnessed the demolition from his flat but didn’t include that in his photo collection: “I think I would have felt really sad to do so. It was such a nice little building.”
In addition to Kingsland, nine other London fire stations closed in 2014. The redevelopment of all those plots has made it feel like drill towers are a vanishing feature of the city’s skyline, but the London Fire Brigade says this is not the case. “They aren’t disappearing, [but] are regularly used by crews on station for exercises,” Senior Communications Officer Sophia Macias informed me in an email, adding that historically, they’ve also been used to dry firehoses and occasionally as observation towers: “There’s one in the yard of every fire station.”
The building that replaced Kingsland Fire Station and its drill tower is now a primary school for 350 pupils and 68 flats. “There was a real ambition to build a good school,” says Simon Henley, principal at Henley Halebrown, the architecture firm behind the new building. “In order to fund the purchase of the land for the school, the site has apartments as well.” The new brick building has a certain stocky quality too, and with the recessed balconies and open sections at the top, maybe it bears a passing resemblance to the old tower? Henley says this was not their intention: “The building very much expresses its construction. In a roundabout way, I suppose it recalls the frame of the old tower in the fire station.”
Although more importantly, the site has maintained its function as a piece of social infrastructure: “We had a fire station there, serving a community and protecting it,” says Henley. “We replaced one community building with another – a school – with similar ambition.”
But the drill tower was too small to be of much use for anything else, and Henley says it wouldn’t have been a good use of the space to keep it – the lot is now the school playground. Henley is a good sport when asked how he’d repurpose a drill tower: “It might be possible to graft a building onto one – it has the staircase, so you could build an extraordinary house,” says Henley. “Or, in the right landscape, you could allow people to go up and look at the view, like a belvedere.”
It would have been cool to keep the drill tower as an urban folly – health and safety permitting – like how the redevelopment of King’s Cross converted one of the old gasholders into a park. But as long as this modernist public infrastructure is considered limited in architectural value, drill towers will mostly be for firefighters and urban landscape geeks. And there are lots of drill towers left around London, poking their heads up through the concrete skyline as they defiantly take up space as the city changes around us.