Water Folly

Jul. 8th, 2010 11:17 am
malsperanza: (Default)
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In 1858, the water supply of London finally failed to meet the needs of the population, and the result was the Great Stink. Which in turn led to the movement for health and sanitation in English cities, and such curiosities as the London International Health Exhibition of 1884 (which attracted 4 million visitors and was called the Healtheries by Londoners).

Imperial Rome was the center of power in the west not least because the Romans had engineered a plentiful supply of running water in aquaducts, underground drains (the word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, used to make the pipes), and for the wealthy, steam heat.

So in London, a city built on numerous covered rivers and much drained marshy ground, pumping stations are a vital bit of infrastructure. In the 1980s the city needed three new ones, and because of the influence of RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the city planners had a penchant for commissioning such projects from big-name architects.

I was staying in an apartment in Docklands, on the Isle of Dogs, a lovely rehabbed warehouse on the river, with the Thames footpath under my windows. One morning I walked downstream toward the Thames Barrier and its odd little park. About halfway there, I came upon a large, unmarked Egyptian temple. No signs, except one warning of "deep water" inside and danger of lethal electrical shock.

It was a weekday morning, and the area was silent and empty; no one to ask. The little road on which this oddity stands is called Folly Wall, and I can certainly see why. I don't usually like to take a camera with me, because I think taking pictures mediates too much, and it's better just to look, and maybe write some notes. But I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the low wall bearing the street sign, because someone had backed into it with a truck, and it was half tumbled into the road. And next to it was this Thing. Follies of all sorts.

The Internet was silent on the subject of mysterious windowless enormous postmodern follies on Folly Wall. It did give me the history of the street's name, though:

The name dates to 1753, when one Thomas Davers, esquire, of the Middle Temple, acquired the copyhold of 1½ acres of the Osier Hope, a parcel of riverside land south of Blackwall, where he built, "at vast expense, a little fort . . . known by the name of Daver's folly." In financial difficulty, Davers surrendered his property in August 1754. The first occupant to sell liquor was Henry Annis, who became copyholder in 1755 and obtained a licence in 1758. The name Folly House first occurs in 1763. Nothing is known of the original structure, which was apparently altered by Annis by 1757. Additional buildings for the accommodation of "Friends and Customers" were erected in the mid-1760s by William Mole, who also made use of the surrounding foreland as a garden. Perhaps because of its convenient riverside location between Greenwich and Blackwall, the Folly House was a popular venue for whitebait suppers throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When the property was auctioned by Mole's widow around 1788 it contained a variety of rooms "for the accommodation of genteel company," an extensive pleasure- and kitchen-garden, a paved causeway, and a landing-place leading to a terrace of 186 ft. in front of the river.

In 1800 possession of the Folly House and surrounding land passed to Benjamin Granger, the Blackwall coal merchant, who appears to have added to the existing group of buildings almost immediately. A plan of 1817 shows the public house, its outbuildings and gardens (which at the time included a cockpit), with smaller buildings flanking to the north and south. Pictorial representations of the Folly House of this period are somewhat inconsistent and the tavern may have been considerably altered or even rebuilt on a number of occasions. However, the evidence indicates that it was a two-storey main building of three bays facing the river, with a shallow gable roof surmounted by a balustraded balcony. The building was extended to the south, further away from the riverside, where the terrace featured a row of triangular shelters or bowers for patrons. Further alterations and additions to the property in the 1830s and 1850s included the building of a new causeway, 60 ft. long. The tavern enjoyed a resurgence in business with the growth of shipbuilding yards on the riverfront in the 1850s and 1860s, until it was closed in 1875.

(Source: Hermione Hobhouse (General Editor), Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs English Heritage, 1994, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=46530#s1000)

Of course, it turns out that the Stewart Street Pumping Station is a celebrated, award-winning work of postmodern architecture, on everyone's A list. The architect is John Outram, whose website link I have given so that you can see that he is eccentric in the English manner. I expect he goes out in the midday sun.

But I had never heard of it, and so to happen upon it on a sunny morning in an area whose architecture is a mix of generic low-rise 1970s council flats, generic high-rise1980s Miami-style balconated greedfests, and generic (albeit pretty) recouped warehouses was startling. Apparently it is unlabeled because it is unattended, and if it were blown up by terrorists, London would fill up like a bathtub. Or something.

And as I should have guessed, London has a habit of turning its pumping stations into extravagant follies--this is, after all, an icon of the Victorian taste for blending architectural extravagance with engineering wit. (Just visit the great greenhouses of Kew, with their scrollwork spiral staircases, or the colored ironwork arcades of Leadenhall and Smithfield markets, or the bouncing arches of Vauxhall Bridge. Not to mention This Thing.

A temple to summer storms

Here's what English Heritage has to say about Outram's pumping station:

"The windowless steel-framed building, designed to be vandal-proof, has the air of a mausoleum and can be best described as Post-Modern Egyptian Monumental, featuring columns, capitals, pediment and overhanging eaves, and having an overall symmetry. It is very colourful, with the capitals of the columns picked out in red, yellow and green and the walls having bands of striped brickwork of yellow, red and purple. The roof is of glazed clay pantiles. The overall effect is of a grand, if somewhat unconventional, structure. But the grand architectural features are both decorative and functional: the fat half-columns that rise to the pediment carry the steps and ducts connected with the gantry that runs the length of the turbine hall, and the roundel in the pediment is a gently rotating propeller-like fan which extracts methane gas from the building. The interior [not visitable, alas] is arranged in three bays. The pump room, a subterranean chamber 30 ft. deep, occupies the central bay and houses 14 large water pumps that pump water to the large surge tank, housed in the western bay on ground-floor level, which drains into the Thames. An electricity control room and staff areas on two floors fill the third bay. Durable materials and bright colours continue inside the building, with exposed facing brickwork, terrazzo floor tiles and brightly painted steel work. The station was designed to appear half submerged in symbolic recognition of both its function as a 'temple to summer storms' and the machinery hidden beneath it."

Is it silly? Yes, very. But take a look at what Outram was competing with:

Abbey Mills pumping station, 1868 (This was Arkham Asylum in "Batman Begins.")
Interior of Crossness Pumping Station, 1865
Tidal Basin Pumping Station, Richard Rogers, 1987
Store Road pumping station, Nicholas Grimwade, 1998

And still to come:

A church that does Palladian without scaring the pants off you

Deco in London
Deco--who knew?
Deco avant la lettre
a thin blue line
A funky bridge (no, not the famous one)
Another funky bridge (no, not the famous one)

And moar!


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