Industrial fortress has withstood bombs, explosions and changing fortunes, now it will embrace the digital age as a startup tech hub
The Millennium Mills have endured. Like a block of granite, the Mills remain steadfast and immovable.
Since they were built in 1905, there have been many attempts to erase the work of Vernon and Sons, who named the Royal Docks complex after their award-winning flour.
In 1917, the devastating Silvertown munitions factory explosion took its toll. In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe had a crack, prompting a visit from that other embodiment of stubbornness, Winston Churchill.
Then the closure of the docks and the dereliction of the decades began a war of attrition. The Millennium Mills looked on, imperious against the decay.
In the meantime, the mighty monolith fired the imagination. Artists and film-makers have used the wasteland as a backdrop and the locals look at their neighbour as some kind of brooding folly amid the shiny bric-a-brac of regeneration.
Yet its latest incarnation requires a greater leap in imagination than any that has gone before.
The Mills – so vast in scale it requires distance for an accurate apprehension – will soon wear the uniform of the new millennium’s revolution.
The building that once made the dog food Winalot will be the home of digital startups and accelerators.
It will be the architectural centrepiece of the Silvertown Partnerships’ reworking of the Royal Docks, 10 storeys “housing some of the most entrepreneurial and exciting companies in the world”.
The move is not entirely unrelated to its past. More than 160 years ago Samuel Winkworth Silver, who gave his name to the area, created the first undersea cable at his India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Cable Company, laying the foundations for the world wide web.
The click of the mouse and the squeak of a whiteboard seem a world away when I pay a visit – hard hat, hi-viz, clunky boots.
Workers are finishing the last of the asbestos clearance. A cobweb of scaffolding hugs the facade and the detritus of the past, including helter-skelter grain troughs, are systematically being removed. Some will return as sculptures, reimagined by artists.
Imagination is a prerequisite. Aside from the three connected Mills and the the impractical but striking Silo D there will be homes, parks, shops, offices and almost a mile of new river frontage.
But all I see now is fractured spaces, nondescript hollows, leering trusses and incongruous health and safety paraphernalia.
Olaide Oboh, from Silvertown Partnerships, looks along a length of bleak concrete bays and columns, beautiful only in their repetition, and sees the future. “This will be a ‘collision’ space,” she says, where people emerging from sand boxes will have coffee and mingle.
Millennium Mills is an abrupt book-end to Britannia Village, surrounded by flat lands because nothing could be built alongside that could complement, challenge or mitigate its scale.
Olaide has been talking to the schools – Britannia Village and Oasis Academy are close neighbours. Some 5,000 jobs will be created here in the first phase with 20,000 overall.
To sustain such a grand enterprise, it needs a conveyor belt of bright, tech-savvy locals and so the work has begun now to tether the present curriculum to future plans.
“We also spent six to nine months consulting with the residents about what they wanted to see here,” says Olaide.
“What they wanted most were community shops and I understand that. When I first came here I wondered where I could buy a pint of milk. Also more access to the water and a new bridge across the dock.”
So, on the westerly fringe, imagine a parade of shops – dry cleaners, key cutters, coffee shops, milk sellers – while a bridge, at ground level, will put the mills within touching distance of Crossrail at Custom House.
“Crossrail will make all the difference. A lot of my friends give me this strange look and ask me where this place is but once Crossrail is up and running people won’t think twice about coming here.”
Crossrail comes in 2018, an important milestone in a regeneration project that will take 10 years and £3.5billion to build, resulting in 3,000 new homes, parks and sparkling brand pavilions.
And at its heart, the Millennium Mills. From dog’s dinner to digital destination.
Takes some imagination.