My Favourite Buildings…Crossness Pumping Station, Abbey Wood, London.
The Victorians, blessed with the control of a rich, global economy, housed their world-leading – and world-beating – engineering in buildings of uncompromised architectural brilliance. While today money is rarely spent on adorning buildings that have only been built to perform a commercial or industrial function, the Victorians’ sense of architecture, design and ornament extended across anything and everything they built – excluding, of course, the homes and hovels of the poor. Though even here, a few late-Victorian industrial philanthropists gave us model villages like Bournville and Port Sunlight, designed with more detail that was functionally necessary. Money didn’t seem to matter because so many of those commissioning new buildings had sackfulls of the stuff.
Crossness, though a favourite, is by no means unique and is but one of many buildings that exemplify the Victorians generous and uncompromising approach to civic architecture. It is easy to forget, therefore, that the following description is not of a palace or even a town hall, but of a pumping station, built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette to get water from A to B:
“Crossness was designed in the Romanesque style and constructed in gault brick, with considerable ornamentation including Norman dog-toothed red brick arches and dog-tooth string courses. The capitals of the columns, the mullions on the outside of the building and the supporting corbels to the arched overhanging main cornice, are of different designs, and although some of these are repeated, no two side-by-side, are alike.
The interior of the Engine House – rarely seen by anyone other than the workers – has wrought and cast iron work of the most ornate design. The four engines are placed in the corners of the building, the centre of which has an octagonal structure of iron columns with richly ornamented capitals, supporting iron arched screens and the open octagonal well on the main beam floor. Handrails were of highly polished tubular brass. The ironwork was painted in natural colours following those of the featured leaves, branches and fruit. The iron floors on the upper levels were painted in French grey and vermilion while the shafts of the main columns were in Indian red. The elaborately painted panels in the octagon, immediately below the beam floor, incorporated the monogram of the Metropolitan Board of Works, the same device being included in the centre of the cast-iron screens on the working floor. There was originally a magnificent chimney, 207 feet high, which has since been demolished.”
All that time, trouble, craftsmanship and, of course, money spent on the form of a building that was only there to help deal with sewage.
Joseph Bazalgette was a genius, undoubtedly one of our greatest ever engineers. To this day, London relies on the 83 miles of ‘interceptory’ sewers he designed and had dug to take its raw sewage away. But when you visit Crossness, it’s hard to think of him as anything other than an accidental patron of the arts.