The site of londons new river head in clerkenwell is suffused with the gentle thrum of machines underground. occasionally a chunky pipe will appear, sticking out of the ground like a herniated intestine. the noise comes from the pumps pressurising londons water ring main, which sends 1,300 million litres of water around the capital every day in concrete pipes about 30m below ground.

The ring main is only a quarter of a century old but this neighbourhood has been feeding the city with water for over four centuries. there are clues in the names of streets and surroundings: clerkenwell, sadler's wells, amwell street, spa green. this was where fresh water arrived in london via the new river, an artificial channel that meandered steadily but gently downhill over 40 miles from hertfordshire. since it was completed in 1613 it has been instrumental in londons water supply: for testing labs, water offices, pumping stations, reservoirs and everything in between.

The water is still being pumped but changes in technology and use have left a series of hauntingly atmospheric and decaying buildings, each the legacy of a different redundant technology. these spaces are about to be added to londons list of industrial archaeology turned cultural powerhouse.

They might not be on the scale of tate moderns former power station and oil tanks but they span the development of industry from windmills to the first steam engines and modern pumping technology deep underground. now, they are empty brick shells, magnificent, forlorn and filthy, the paint peeling, the brick stained with the black residue of centuries of fuel from coal to oil.

You could imagine illegal raves or massive installation art.you could just about see a catwalk show from a streetwear brand. but it is difficult to imagine delicately lit murals of dainty illustrations on the curving, stained walls studded like post-industrial punks with centuries of iron and steel stubs once supporting engines, pulleys and pumps.and yet inside these walls will be londons new 8m centre for illustration.

It will be based around the collection of sir quentin blake, illustrator of the stories of roald dahl, david walliams and michael rosen, of agaton sax and the world of long-limbed, broad-grinning beings scrawled over countless poems, stories and young imaginations.it will also go way beyond blake. olivia ahmad, artistic director of the house of illustration, and its acting director until the new appointee, lindsey glen, takes up her post at the end of november, is packing up its current kings cross home in anticipation of the move to the new river head. she walked around the site with me and the architect of the new museum, tim ronalds, beaming, thrilled to think of walls covered in drawings.

Its great to be around here, she told me. theres such a heritage of illustration.cruikshank lived just over there, she adds, pointing towards the nearby street named after george cruikshank, caricaturist and illustrator of charles dickens novels, and it was the centre of printing in london.

These industrial buildings are a curious match for the delicate art of illustration, i suggest.

I think they have an almost domestic scale, she replies. you need a kind of intimacy to look at illustration and because theres this group of buildings we hope to make a kind of campus with spaces for different uses: education, display, temporary exhibitions.

It leaves plenty for the architect to do.and as ronalds walks with us around the site with a powerful torch, telling me about the spaghetti junction of pipes underfoot and about the machines and engines that once inhabited these spaces, he looks like he is looking forward to it. if you wanted to trust an architect with the careful task of converting these historic spaces without squeezing out the architectural ghosts of centuries of use, you would probably trust ronalds more than anyone.

The architect won the project in competition and has been responsible for some of the most magically atmospheric and haunting architectural resurrections of londons endangered historic spaces.from the dreamlike decay of wiltons music hall and the blowsy red velvet and gilt drama of the hackney empire to the municipal heft of the ironmonger row baths, ronalds has been responsible for sensitive and thoughtful revivifications of londons historic buildings without compromising any of their scars of use.

At the new river head they will need to insert floors into the strange old pumping station, a building begun in the early 17th century which has gone through dozens if not hundreds of incremental rebuilds. at one point it housed one of the earliest steam engines; a little later, ronalds tells me, it housed a 1785 boulton & watt beam engine. this was a place where the entire industrial revolution happened in real time. now, with only the background hum of electrics and pumping water, it can be difficult to imagine the noise, steam and smell of the old gear. but perhaps thats a good thing for a museum.

The old tower with its curved walls will have an extra floor inserted. two floors will be devoted to the quentin blake archive and another to temporary exhibition spaces.a range of former coal stores will be turned into an education space and offices. perhaps most intriguing of all is a circular brick structure which once housed a horse-gin, a mill powered by unfortunate animals who spent their days walking round in circles confined to this brick cylinder.now it presents a striking space, its conical roof lit by a central lantern.we were thinking it might house installations, perhaps even a replica of a horse-gin, ahmad says. a space to experiment in.

Each one of these structures is incredibly charismatic, pocked with traces of change as huge engines were brought in and supported on i-beams which were later cut down, their sawn-off butts now punctuating every wall. perhaps, if you were designing a museum space, you might not want to start with these wounded walls, curving surfaces and a surfeit of the natural light that is no good for the display of delicate drawings. but ronalds seems confident. well need to put displays walls up while leaving the rest alone, he says, and to put filters onto the windows, which can be done really well now.

The thrill, when the centre opens in 2022, will be to see these buildings brought back to a very different kind of life one in which culture has replaced industry as the driver of the city.three hundred years ago this was one of the most popular sites from which artists and illustrators depicted the vista of the city, with the dome of st pauls looming up over the rooftops and spires.it has always been a good vantage point for drawing the city now it can become a place that reflects how we might see it.