As London’s sewer system accepts into its gaping maw a huge autumnal deluge, it is worth sparing a thought for those who created it. The Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855 to improve the cities infrastructure ‘under the earth and above the earth’. A contemporary view of the Board was as ‘appointed physician to the metropolitan organism… (with) the duty of restoring it to health and promoting its future growth, of giving strength to its muscular, and vitality to its arterial system, roundness to its limbs, and beauty to its face.’ A year later, Joseph Bazalgette was apppointed Chief Engineer to the body. In 1858 London experienced the Big Stink.
During 1858, the summer was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons. The curtains of the house were soaked in chloride of lime. Members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court. Plans were made to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans. In typical London fashion, heavy rain finally ended the heat and humidity of summer. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to end the problem.
Bazalgette designed an extensive underground sewerage system that diverted waste to the Thames Estuary, downstream of the main centre of population. Six main interceptory sewers, totalling almost 100 miles (160 km) in length, were constructed, some incorporating stretches of London’s submerged rivers. Three of these sewers were north of the river, the southernmost, low-level one being incorporated in the Thames Embankment. The intercepting sewers, constructed between 1859 and 1865, were fed by 450 miles (720 km) of main sewers that, in turn, conveyed the contents of some 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of smaller local sewers. Construction of the interceptor system required 318 million bricks, 2.7 million cubic metres of excavated earth and 670,000 cubic metres of concrete.
Gravity allows the sewage to flow eastwards, but in places such as Chelsea, Deptford and Abbey Mills, pumping stations were built to raise the water and provide sufficient flow. The Abbey Mills Pump Stations is probably one of the greatest pieces of architecture ever created to house water treatment. It was designed by Bazalgette, together with the architect Charles Driver and completed in 1868. By building a Byzantine, brick shrine, rather than a modest envelope, the engineer glorified waste management.
Today this sewage system, with the Pump Station as its crowning glory is being honoured in a clever, yet subtle way by a new sewage facility, designed by architect John Lyall. Although Lyall has worked on infrastructure projects before – particularly memorable is his Floating Fire Station on the Thames and his underground station at North Greenwich – the Pudding Mill Pumping station is a radical departure. Although a project like the Fire Station owes a debt to early Rogers with its exposed steel members and a corrugated cladding, Pudding Mill is dense and concrete. It’s less Hi-Tech and more Steam Punk, taking its cue from not just from brutalism but also from a decorative, Victorian tradition.
Lyall has scored reliefs of Bazalgette’s beautiful plans for Abbey Mills into the concrete paneling of his own pumping station. We too should glorify the civilised way we deal with out waste, it subtly says. It promises to provide a solid yet, texturally rich gatepost to the Olympics.