As falling demand and rising property prices decimate inner city gas stations, disused forecourts play host to a dazzling array of pop-ups.

Electric mobility is coming, and already it’s changing the face of our cities. Take London. All over town, gas stations are shutting down, lying fallow for a while until works start on a new apartment block. At other times, the newly-vacant lots are taken over by pop-ups – after all, they’re the perfect urban playgrounds for innovative minds.

The Here After project in West London’s White City district is the latest one of them. A collaboration between renowned artists Craig & Karl, sign maker White City Signs, online street art hub Global Street Art and local residents, the exuberant, colorful patterns are a nod to the BBC’s TV test card, in homage to the Corporation’s now-defunct Television Centre down the road.

The demise of the gas station

In addition to serving as one of London’s urban art must-sees this summer, the colorful surface marks a trend: The demise of the gas station. What this will mean for the city of the future, knows Alex Newson, Senior Curator at Design Museum London.

“I’m not sure we’ll miss the archetype of gas stations”, says Newson, “but the short-term pop-up uses we see are exciting, as it’s normally almost impossible for people to use prime real estate in this way. Disused gas stations create a space where you can do something more creative, something that otherwise couldn’t exist in that location.”

At Here After, urban publication White Noise invites the community to join the fun. “Want to use this space?” asks a bright, pink sign on the forecourt. “Great! We’re keen for the site to be used as much as possible – from pop-up market stalls to photo shoots or any other ideas you might have.”

Pop up art project Here After
The gas station is back: as colorful pop-up.
Photo: Craig & Karl

True, the bulldozers will move in eventually, as the entire area is earmarked for a ten billion dollar regeneration, creating shops, restaurants, educational facilities, homes and office spaces. But until that day, Londoners still have three years to use Here After as a stage for their creativity.

Gas stations could become drone hubs

So, is there any way in which gas stations might endure in a recognizable form? After all, cattle troughs – the gas stations of their day – still dot the streets of London, sometimes repurposed as flowerbeds, even if they’re barely noticed by the city’s perennially rushed passers-by.

Newson thinks there is a chance: “When our designer-in-residence Chris Green looked at how drone technology might interface with structures in the city, he found that disused petrol stations could be used as delivery hubs for autonomous delivery systems, as they’re embedded in relatively regular distances.”

Re-fueling culture and nightlife

An abandoned Texaco station in 100 Clerkenwell Road, North London, even caught the attention of Turner-prize winning architects Assemble. The collective morphed the place into a fascinating urban project by turning it into a pop-up cinema with the fitting name “Cineroleum”. Its highlight was the opulent curtain which separated the pop-up theater from the street and, lifting at the end of each performance, soon became iconic.

Cineroleum: former gas station which is now a cinema by night
Cineroleum: movies at the former gas station.
Photo: Assemble Studio

A more profane but definitely not less fun example was Pump Shoreditch, that even billed itself as London’s “biggest and best street food market”, boasting 11 food huts and a bar. Housed on the site of another former Texaco gas station, the pop-up became a wildly popular late-night hangout in London’s trendiest districts until it was finally closed to make way for a “mixed-use development” (aka luxury apartments). It lasted from 2014 to 2017.

Hard to believe now, but in a time before the East End became one of London’s major clubbing destinations, King’s Cross attracted ravers from all over town. The local BP gas station on Goods Way was a popular pit stop for punters in need of chewing gum and water. When both ravers and motorists started to disappear from the scene, the award-winning, stylish Filling Station appeared in its place. Apart from a pizza joint and event space, the Filling Station was home to Shrimpy’s restaurant, its soft shell crab burgers taking the city by storm.

event location The Filling Station at a riverbank
The Filling Station is now a snazzy event space.
Photo: Flickr / George Rex (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Art Deco from the beginnings of car culture

Some gas stations are so iconic in their own right that they are protected as historic buildings. The Bloomsbury Service station was established in 1926, when the automobile was still very much a luxury item. For years, it served as a fueling point for London’s black cabbies. Today, its Art Deco architecture survives in the shape of a burger restaurant.

burger place Petrol
Grab a burger at this former pit stop.
Photo: Nick Kane / Garnett & Partners

Perhaps the greatest treasure survives outside London. Manor Road Garage in Southern England was built in 1934 and, incredibly, lay neglected for 40 years, having closed in 1973. Since then, the building – denoted of “national importance” by English Heritage – has been lovingly restored and repurposed as upscale apartments – including four illuminated period Shell pumps in the forecourt.

Art Deco gas stations seem to be a thing over in the States, too. The Gilmore Gasoline Filling Station, opened in 1935, sat smack bang in the middle of Hollywood – small wonder that it featured in a variety of flicks, from L.A. Story to 48 Hours. Despite being listed as a Los Angeles cultural monument, the site fell into disrepair until it was rescued and gloriously restored by a large coffee chain. True to the original spirit, it’s a drive-thru – we’re in L.A., after all.

Finally, here’s a building that was repurposed into a gas station. The Bell & Horn pub in London’s Highgate served ale to its thirsty clientele from as early in 1721 – however, last orders came in 1925. Since then, the pub has become what most be one London’s most characterful filling stations. Fitting for an establishment in this affluent part of town, the attached convenience store sells fancy jams and fine biscuits.

Despite the increasingly creative use of abandoned gas stations, Alex Newson still doesn’t see artists or restaurateurs taking over power. “In each case, there’ll be different reasons at play, and whether there’s a pop-up or not may depend on the developer”, says the Design Museum curator. Meaning: As in every metropolis, real estate will always have the last word.

The future of gas stations is still uncertain – in the medium run as well as in the long run. All we know is that – in their present form – their numbers are decreasing. But in the meantime, they’ll continue to enrich urban life in their own, unique ways.