For the love of civil engineers – and the Severn Barrage

‘I love civil engineers’ was the surprising declaration from architect John Lyall, speaking at an RIBA panel discussion last night called ‘The Olympics: Power Dressing’. It became less surprising when you realised that civil engineers have given him a whole new field of endeavour, since he was invited to join a bid for the sewage network under the Olympic Park, which resulted in him designing the Pudding Mill Lane pumping station, and then several related commissions.

So why does he love them so much? Partly it seems because they have an innocence about architecture and so are surprised and delighted by what can be achieved. And partly because their budgets are large and so spending a fraction extra on the building element can be easily absorbed. At Pudding Mill Lane Lyall actually saved money, by designing a circular enclosure that was supported by the caisson below rather than requiring separate foundations.

He decorated the external wall with original drawings by the great sewage engineer Joseph Bazalgette, a reminder that civil engineering was once a heroic discipline. And had the buildings to match, such as some of the great pumping stations that decorate surprising corners of London. Lyall himself won a much bigger project as a result of his Olympic work, a giant sludge processing plant at Crossness, that will transform the waste from south London into fertiliser. 

For architects these areas are exciting because the buildings they design are so definitely needed –  a counterpoint to some of the follies that have been built as part of the more misconceived arts-driven projects.  Here we have civil engineering in need of a building rather than a building in need of a function.

So perhaps it is not surprising that one of the architects best known for getting things done – Marks Barfield, the conceiver of the London Eye – is in a group backing the latest attempt to get a Severn Barrage built – a project that recently hit the news as Peter Hain quit the shadow cabinet to work for its realisation.  The project is still controversial, but represents an enormous potential win in terms of green electricity. In straitened, non-frivolous times, there is great satisfaction for architects in engaging with the issues that really matter. 





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