The Pumping Station on the Isle of Dogs as an Example of Postmodern Architecture

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Postmodernism, as a deviation of modern design, has become more of a tree, with many sub sequential branches stemming from the same root. Jencks describes this as, “nearly every major postmodern architect has adopted parts of the classical vocabulary”[1]. It is justified by other revivals related directly or indirectly to classicism. In my opinion by saying “the revival seems to be pragmatically motivated” Jencks was conveying that all these revivals were going back to basics, to the European cradle of architecture. All ‘attempts’ of reinventing the wheel, in his opinion, ended with fiasco; and thus started looking back to the beginning. Nevertheless, classical architecture as we know it was used in important and often majestic buildings, they were a minority of housing stock built at that time, hence; “As Joseph Rykwert has shown, the origins and development of the word 'classicism' have always kept a class distinction, implying social discrimination along with the architectural variety”[2]. This style links contemporary structures to the canon of architecture which were built according to certain “ancient norms of perfection”[3] which were already established by the Greeks. Temples or other important buildings were backed up by a double/hidden meaning, this might be something to do with flourishing philosophical thought, making a building more complex than it might seem.

The Pumping Station in the Isle of Dogs designed by John Outram, so called the ‘Temple of Storms’; was clearly designed with the classical Greek temple in mind. This resulted in concerns that such a building might not be fit for its purpose. The main concern was functionality, everything else was considered superfluous by the client as it was only to be visited by engineers during weekly maintenance checks. Perhaps disregarding this, Outram decided to design it with sculptural architecture in mind. Since construction the client, London Docklands Development Authority (LDDC), has deemed it suitable to its purpose.

Like most classical buildings this is also related to the religious beliefs of the age. It has been designed to look like a goddess “walking out of the river”[4] on pair of leg like columns. The paired oversized, largely decorative columns represent the stability and robustness of building. 3m diameter columns were considered appropriate, especially because this part of London was often flooded, and the building, according to brief was to have a life span of 100 years in this unfavourable environment. This has been achieved by creating a layered structure, where the extensive use of brick that is used externally as well as internally, is only cladding, used for the desired appearance as opposed to its structural heritage as a material. The main structure is made of a portal frame that is cased with in-situ cast concrete, which provides protection against fire and corrosion. This is shown as necessary investment by the value of the land it is protecting against flooding, which would cause immense damage to the city should the machinery the buildings contains fail. The walls, not only the columns are extensively thick and over engineered, it almost feels as though it is a bunker, emerging from the ground, it gives definite statement ‘nothing is going to move me’.

The structure of this building uses 3 common load bearing building materials. Steel, present in form of the portal frame, concrete, and finished with brick. “The construction of a new language from the fragments of the previous ones is common in eclectic periods, and Postmodern Classicism is decidedly syncretic”[5]. Having this extensive use of three materials all achieving the same function shows that this design starts off being eclectic, even at the structural level. The exterior is also kept in same appearance with smaller columns on either side in a different style. Colour suggests unity among the material choices and a divergence from the stylistic origins, for example most of the building is covered in grey engineering brick, tying it with similarly coloured paving brick surrounding the building. This shows robustness and in a way, just like in Richardsonian architecture, suggests that the building is ascending from the ground and yet is still held/pushed down by a high volume overhanging roof. The use of brick and the horizontal division with different coloured brick also gives a certain link to another American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. He uses similar techniques as described earlier, where the roof ‘pushes’ the building down, nevertheless he uses with roman brick, and horizontally articulated brick, giving the effect of a much wider and lower building. Outram used this trick to break up the façade and achieve a similar effect. This can also be representative of the tide rising and falling, while the Thames, as any river, leaves horizontal marks. The front and back façades, have two large columns which “are orange-red, and stand forth from the boxy body of the 'mountain' seemingly capable of supporting the roof-raft on their four giant bodies alone.”[6], With a narrow grey brick band at the bottom, making it look like mud washing down after stepping out of the Thames, once again the building showing its hidden meaning. The ‘boxy mountain’ is mostly made out of grey engineering brick common in structures such as railway bridges, tied with a thick yellow stock brick (used for their ability to control water and provide a maintenance free skin), with minor red brick horizontal accents tying all facades together. The side faces are similar in concept, they are extrapolations of the front, keeping the centre of the face between columns unique. In this sense it might be more appropriate to say that front façade is ‘clipping’ the sides with two columns. The side walls are accentuated with minor Tuscan pilasters partitioned into 3 articulated castings. Resting on a white concrete band on top of yet more brick, having been arranged to form pedestals for pilasters above.

With any classical style, construction columns play a big role, each one of the four ‘legs’ has a brick shaft and pre-cast concrete capital with a centralised cylinder. “To this inner blue cylinder are attached radiating 'fins' of painted concrete, which give the four giant columns the semblance of a ‘capital'"[7] The capitals are made of concrete and painted with 4 vivid colours, showing the essence of what post-modern classicism may be considered as being. Simple geometric patterns cast in concrete, making it modern in terms of its fabrication and design in comparison with how an ancient Greek temple would have been. The vivid colours, used as a form of decoration have been assembled in a deliberate way; this has been even spotted by William Turnbull, writing in the Architect's Journal, he talks about the “congruence of the Pumping Station design with the story of the origin of the Corinthian column described by Vitruvius.”[8] These modern and classical motifs feel almost essential for the style, nevertheless critics may say that it is more of eclectic design, unfortunately in architecture there is rarely a right or wrong answer.

We can come across primary colours when looking at the precast concrete beams, although when looking closely at them, they look more like a wooden structure or at least more lightweight, supporting an elegant roof. The pediment, with a centralised fan, shows that it’s not only, the Temple of Storms but also the temple of mechanical engineering. Yet, it maintains a classical look and feel, last but not least it implements its design via articulation in its colour scheme. The front of the pediment is made of corrugated steel, painted white, with a black stylish border, the same applies to the turbine’s white blades with a black border.

This might seem like all of the building is exposed and analysed, but nothing could be more wrong, the building itself is just part of the architecture of this place. As in the original brief it was stated that the building needs to be vandal and more importantly terrorist proof. One of methods to achieve this was to step the building back and securely fence it, border it off to people that may damage it. But what is the point of building a ‘Temple’, a great piece of architecture, and then hiding it? Outram spent time designing entrance gate and surrounding wall. This concrete cantilever wall clad in brick is very robust, so much so that there are rumours (not official, but reasonable) that the wall is capable of stopping any car from penetrating into the site. This wall is divided with 220mm slits that allow public to view in and admire the building, but more importantly from security point of view and according to Outram “These are designed to allow the Public to see anyone who has entered the compound of this uninhabited building, and report it to the Police.”[9] This leads to the crown jewel of the fence – the gate.

Gate and the area around it is planned out to complement the building. It is symmetrical, following the same axis that entire building is. The circle on top is placed such that when someone is looking straight at the building it frames the building’s iconic feature the fan perfectly. As Outram wrote: “the steel-tube gate into the fortified compound of the Station is given a form of a giant eye, whose vacant ball can be got to line-up with the 'solar cave'-between-two-mountains. The two wings of the gate-eye then lie over the two (aetos) 'eagles-wings' of the split pediment.” The gate is bracketed by two 2.8m column drums, these columns are used as planters, the traditional capital has been replaced by plants. Maybe this is paying tribute to idea behind Corinthian columns which had floral carvings all over its capital, and just like Outram suggested “plants sprout, emphasizing their role as 'ruined' sentinels”. The ‘columns’ are also very practical, as at the base, they are partially hollowed and can be used as storage for gardening and other maintenance equipment.

In short the pumping station at the isle of dogs is a great example of postmodern architecture. The columns used are representative of both modern and classical styles. The building is full of double meaning and hidden links to the classical canon of Greek architecture. The ‘Temple of Storms’ fits perfectly into it’s context, which even though abandoned besides being functional, remains as a piece of architecture. And just like classical architecture was almost obsessed with columns, this is column orientated build, reinforcing what I said before, this build, and definitely certain parts, are the essence of postmodern classicism.

[1] Charles Jencks, ed., “Post-Modern CLASSICISM,” Architectural Design, no. 5/6–1980 (n.d.).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Pumping Station, Isle of Dogs, London:-By JOA,” accessed May 4, 2015,

[5] Jencks, “Post-Modern CLASSICISM.”

[6] “Pumping Station, Isle of Dogs, London:-By JOA.”

[7] Jencks, “Post-Modern CLASSICISM.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.