Storm water pumping station, 1986-1988 by John Outram Associates for the London Docklands Development Corporation and Thames Water. All plant, the full-height railings to the south and east of the building, and the north boundary wall of the site, are not of special architectural or historic interest.
Reasons for Designation
The Isle of Dogs Pumping Station, 1986-1988 by John Outram, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* A highly creative re-working of a familiar formal language, executed with masterful handling of colour, pattern, scale and detail; layers of symbolism create a stratigraphy of meaning and visual richness;
* Detailed with rigour and consistency, there is a high quality of craftsmanship and construction throughout the site;
* A complete architectural ensemble which includes a transformer station, surrounding wall, paving and bollards;
* The first example of John Outram’s mature style and his best known building, it is one of only seven surviving works in Britain by this important architect of considerable renown;
* Degree of survival: the building and site stands little altered since its completion.
* Returning to the C19 tradition of impressive municipal pumping stations, it is a key piece of public infrastructure in what was the most important piece of town planning and industrial reclamation of late C20 Britain, London Docklands.
In 1981 the Docklands Development Corporation (DDC) was founded to oversee the regeneration of 8.5 square miles of east London. The master-plan required two (later three) new pumping stations to cope with rainwater run-off from the new streets being built. These were the only public buildings in the development, Margaret Thatcher having decreed that everything above ground should be built by the private sector, with the public sector being responsible for below-ground utilities and infrastructure. Edward Hollamby, chief architect and planner to the DDC saw the opportunity to subvert this in the case of the pumping stations, and commissioned their design from leading private architects, rather than his in-house team. Richard Rogers’ Tidal Basin pumping station, Tidal Basin Road, Canning Town was built 1987-1988, and Nicholas Grimshaw’s later Store Road pumping station, North Woolwich was completed in 1997, but it was John Outram’s 1986-1988 ‘Temple of Storms’, as he christened it, at the Isle of Dogs that captured the popular imagination. Outram’s work was not widely known in the early 1980s, but his earlier warehousing in Kensington (now demolished) had caught Hollamby's eye when serving as a judge for the Financial Times Award for Industrial Architecture.
Outram was given a budget of £100,000, and his brief was that the building should survive unmanned and last at least one hundred years. Hollamby had no involvement in the design, other than to forbid Outram’s use of his favourite ‘blitzcrete’ (concrete with large coloured aggregate mainly of brick) for the lintels. The large fan in the centre of the pediment was made by the Belfast firm, Sirocco Fans. While over-sized for the functional needs of the building, Outram wanted it to be an operational feature, rejecting the engineers' suggestion that a much smaller fan could be placed behind it, blowing air through the gaps between fixed blades. The interior layout and plant was devised by the engineering practice Sir William Halcrow and Partners, with Outram designing the containing structure, as well as a small transformer house which neighbours the main building, the paving, bollards and the enclosing wall around the site.
Typical of Outram’s work, the pumping station is heavy with complex iconography, the multi-layered interpretation of which is discussed by Outram in various sources. Broadly however, the building can be read as a classical temple or ark rising from a primeval sea or river, expressed in the wavy lines of the courtyard paviours. A phoenix is expressed in the building’s pediment and central fan, and the break in the pediment is a cave between the mountains out of which comes the sun and the river’s source (the fan); the coloured lines in the blue brickwork are the ripples on the water. The columns are trees, and the battered walls are mountains, with the stripes in the brickwork the geological strata.
Outram much admired Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor, which in 1975 set out the idea of a river having a birth, life and death, and his Time and Narrative (three volumes, 1984-1988). The river symbol suggests the river of life from birth to death found in earliest mythology and evolved in the paintings of Claude Lorrain much admired by Outram, but the temple also has a religious symbolism. The giant columns are a development of the Robot order first used by Outram at Harp Heating in Swanley, Kent (demolished) and here acting as ventilation ducts. The building thus combines the practical functions and primitive spiritualism found in all Outram’s work. He suggests that the building appears semi-sunken, still in the act of rising from the river, explaining the relative shortness of the fat columns (especially on the river side where the ground level is raised) and the way the little door on the river side appears to have floated up between its white jambs. Red-paved circles in the courtyard on the river side represent the footprint of missing, or still submerged columns. Closest to the river the paving has been renewed as the boundary of the site has been pushed westwards towards the building, and northwards along the south boundary. This has been to create a publically-accessible stretch of riverside, and has left a stretch of Outram's dark brick wall to the south outside the main footprint of the site's enclosure.
John Outram was born in Taiping, Malaya, in 1934 and came to England in 1946. He was set for a military career but was dissuaded by national service, and instead discovered architecture. He studied at the Regent’s Street Polytechnic in 1955-1958 and at the Architectural Association in 1958-1960 where his tutors included Peter Smithson. He thus had an identical training to many brutalists and members of Archigram, the avant-garde architectural group of the early 1960s. He worked for the London County Council and Greater London Council, for Fitzroy Robinson and Louis de Soissons, before forming his own practice in 1973. He built his practice slowly with a series of warehouses in which his distinctive style slowly emerged, based on a practical building technique of traditional steel frames clad in pre-cast concrete, brick and with tiled roofs, but informed by a personal iconography based on years of acquiring antiquarian and philosophical books. The publication of his warehousing in Kensal Road, London, in 1983 brought him to wider attention. Elements of the pumping station’s design can be identified in buildings such as Harp Heating in Swanley, 1984-1985 (demolished), and the Aztec West business park near Bristol, 1985-1988 (altered), but the pumping station is the culmination of ideas and devices which had been evolving for a number of years within his work. It is the first example of Outram’s mature style and remains one of his best-known buildings. It led to a series of large office buildings that were never realised, and to his two major buildings with interiors: the Judge Business School, Cambridge (1995) and Duncan Hall, Rice University, Texas (1997).
Outram’s work is associated with (although not necessarily by the architect himself) the Post-Modern idiom. Post-Modernism, a movement and a style prevalent in architecture between about 1975 and 1990, is defined in terms of its relationship with Modernism. Post-Modernist architecture is characterised by its plurality, engagement with urban context and setting, reference to older architectural traditions and use of metaphor and symbolism. As a formal language it has affinities with Mannerism (unexpected exaggeration, distortions of classical scale and proportion) and the spatial sophistication of Baroque architecture. Post-Modernism accepts the technology of industrialised society but expresses it in more diverse ways than the machine imagery of the contemporary High-Tech style.
The origins of the style are found in the United States, notably in the work of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore which combined aspects of their country’s traditions (ranging from the C19 Shingle Style to Las Vegas) with the knowing irony of pop art. A parallel European stream combined an abstracted classicism or a revival of 1930s rationalism with renewed interest in the continental city and its building types. In England, the American and European idioms converged in the late 1970s, to produce works by architects of international significance, including James Stirling, and distinctive voices unique to Britain such as John Outram. The movement in architecture coincided with the revival of the British economy in the 1980s that encouraged new commercial and housing developments in areas such as Docklands. The style lends itself to larger buildings and therefore most often finds expression in commercial offices and flatted developments, but at the Isle of Dogs, in the heart of Docklands, the pumping station is an unusual manifestation in a public building.
Storm water pumping station, 1986-1988 by John Outram Associates for the London Docklands Development Corporation and Thames Water.
MATERIALS: the building has a structural steel frame above massive concrete foundations. The steel columns are encased in concrete for fire protection and clad in brickwork connected by steel ties. The external walls are formed of bands of contrasting Staffordshire blue engineering bricks, Butterley Rochford red facing bricks and Redland Otterham stock bricks, with cast concrete dressings. The roof is covered with green glazed Roman tiles and faced internally with diagonal tongue-and-groove boarding nailed to timber joists.
PLAN: the building has a rectangular footprint, orientated east-west, and a shallow pitched roof with deeply overhanging eaves. It stands within an enclosed yard which is divided into two sections, east and west. The eastern part of the yard (by the river) is raised so the building appears lower on the exterior. The main entrance is from Stewart Street to the west, and in the south-west corner of the site is the transformer station.
The building’s interior resembles an aisled hall, with the central full-height pump hall running the length of the building. The south ‘aisle’ is occupied by the surge tank; brickwork columns rise from the top of the tank to form an arcade. The north ‘aisle’ is largely enclosed by brickwork and contains a double-height screen room (to remove large debris from the water) and an electrical control room with staff rooms above. Engaged piers rise from the ground, becoming an open arcade above the staff rooms.
EXTERIOR: the building’s character is that of an ancient trabeated temple: the pitched roof forms a shallow broken pediment at either end, supported by a pair of giant red brick semi-circular columns (which conceal ventilation ducts) flanking a central entrance. The columns have precast concrete fins, two metres high, which form huge stylised Corinthian capitals, their colours ranging from black to yellow, red, green and blue. At both ends of the building a large circular fan (to avoid a build-up of methane in the building) breaks through the base of the pediment. The pediment and fan are framed by curved-profile black galvanised steel fascias, which contrast with the white of the pediment’s corrugated tympanum and the sails of the fan.
Between the giant central columns the wall face has blue, yellow and red brick banding. On the Stewart Street elevation the central entrance door is slightly recessed, set within a splayed opening and surrounded by a wide, flat, white concrete architrave, interrupted by bands of red brickwork. The opposing door, facing towards the river, has a simpler variation of this arrangement, the door appearing to have risen up above a sinking architrave. Outside the columns the lower two-thirds of the yellow and red striped wall face are battered below a heavy white concrete dado, which returns down the sides of the building. The sides are broken into six bays by battered piers and, above dado height, by white clustered columns which appear as if to support stylised red and white joist ends beneath the roof. In each bay is a large, green, circular louvered vent with a red brick surround. Each of the long sides has a single set of loading bay doors, recently renewed (2017), and on the north side are two personnel doors, one at the lower courtyard level giving access to the electrical control room, and one at the higher courtyard level giving access, up a short external flight of steel steps, to the staff rooms.
INTERIOR: this is lined in engineering and stock brick with terrazzo flooring. The semi-circular moulding of the external dado is echoed in interior detailing; namely the capitals of the brickwork piers, the cornice around the top of the surge tank and the enclosed north aisle, and the chunky architraves of the windows in the north aisle overlooking the pump hall. The west door (the main entrance from Stewart Street) is enclosed by an internal curved brick lobby, and at the far end the door on the river front is at first-floor height, reached via steel stairs and a gallery. The roof structure is exposed, its steel members painted bright yellow, as are the rails for a travelling crane and their supporting brackets, fixed into the aisle piers.
The electrical control room and staff rooms are accessible only from outside the building, but they are linked with one another internally by a stair with terrazzo treads and a steel balustrade with slender black stick balusters, cylindrical blue newels and a rounded wooden handrail. Internal doors are flush veneered timber, stained peacock-blue. The internal architraves of the windows overlooking the pump hall have a flat concrete field, surrounded by the chunky semi-circular moulding found elsewhere, this time in black-stained timber. The floors of the circulation space are terrazzo, with red clay tiles in the rooms.
SUBSIDIARY BUILDINGS AND STRUCTURES
The transformer station is of grey engineering brick, three bays wide, with a hipped roof tiled in green glazed tiles to match the main building. The bays are defined by semi-circular columns with black tiled capitals, which appear as if to support stylised red and white joist ends beneath the roof. The central door is surrounded by a heavy round-headed brick archway which defines the main frontage. There are lower doors and cast concrete light fittings to either side, and metal caging to the side elevation. The rear is formed by the security wall.
The external concrete security wall is battered and faced in dark engineering brick with full-height vertical slits, giving glimpses into the site. At the main entrance gateway (on the west side) are two massive cylindrical piers, the interior of each creating a small storeroom accessed from within the yard. The top of the piers are lined with asphalt and serve as planters. The steel gates have a large eye motif at the top, the iris being a circular opening aligned with the building’s giant propeller. The wall continues round to the south side of the building, where there is a second gated service entry and the wall is partly topped with curved steel spikes. Newer full-height railings have been placed within the footprint of the original site to the east and south-east to allow public access to the riverside; these railings are excluded from the listing. The northern boundary is shared with the adjoining site and is excluded from the listing.
The courtyard is paved in interlocking paviors which form a ripple-like pattern. On the river side of the building there are red and yellow brick circles in the paving, aligned with the outer walls and aisles. These are symbolic of lost or submerged columns. Within the courtyard there are walls which separate the two levels (east and west). To the north-west, adjacent to the screen room, is a ramped pit with an overhead gantry crane, allowing containers of screened material to be loaded onto vehicles. The pit is surrounded by a black tubular steel railing. There are five concrete bollards on the site (including two outside the main gate); these have a semi-circular profile on one side, and a square profile on the other, with a part flat, part curved head.
Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that all plant, the full-height railings to the south and east of the building, and the north boundary wall of the site, are not of special architectural or historic interest.