The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

C20 Society celebrates the listing of John Outram’s Pumping Station

Today we are celebrating the Grade II* listing of John Outram’s “pioneering masterpiece”, the Isle of Dogs Pumping Station. This is a turning point for postmodern architecture, and we are proud of the part we have played in highlighting the need to protect Britain’s best postmodern buildings.

C20 Director Catherine Croft said “This is not the first postmodern building to be listed, but it is the first of its genre to be listed purely on its own merits without the presence of a threat. In a way it represents the advent of the postmodern style into the architectural canon which is an exciting and important moment.”

“This is an extraordinary building, fun but also incredibly thoughtful with a robust industrial vocabulary,” said Tess Pinto, Conservation Adviser at C20 Society.  “We are absolutely delighted that this masterpiece has now been publicly recognised, and look forward to more of our best postmodern buildings joining the heritage list.”

Outram was one of Britain’s most exciting and influential exponents of British post-modern architecture.  He praised the movement for unlocking ‘the vulgar dimension of Classicism: […] the bright colours, the garbled and chaotic iconography, the esotericism and eroticism’.

The Pumping Station was built as part of the 1980s Docklands regeneration into a postmodern landscape. This is a small part of the area but it makes a big statement: a ‘Temple of Storms’ as Outram nicknamed it, full of mystical symbolism. The Victorians built beautifully decorative pumping stations, and here the tradition is taken up again a century later.  Even the Prince of Wales called it ‘witty and amusing’!

The Society hosted a Postmodernism Conference last Spring amid concerns about alterations to leading postmodern buildings, including Sir James Stirling’s No 1 Poultry (now listed at Grade II* following a concerted C20 campaign), Sir Terry Farrell’s  Comyn Ching (now also listed at Grade II following an application by Sir Terry Farrell himself, supported by C20).

At the time C20 Director Catherine Croft said:  “Unless we can turn around recent trends, we seriously risk obliterating Britain’s best postmodern heritage.   The threat to postmodernism currently far exceeds even that faced by Brutalist buildings; we urgently need to build professional and public understanding of this much maligned and misrepresented architecture.”

Since then Historic England has been carrying out a thematic assessment of Britain’s best post modernism buildings and this decision to list the Pumping Station is one of the first outcomes.

Sadly this long-awaited thematic review of postmodernism is too late for Outram’s wonderful Harp Heating HQ in Swanley.  In autumn 2016, on hearing that the building was in peril of demolition, the Society moved to secure listing at Grade II. Unfortunately the Society was tipped off too late and the building was demolished before Historic England could assess it.

We remain concerned that buildings under 30 years old can generally only be considered for listing if they are both “outstanding” and “at risk” and that threat is often seen to mean demolition when less drastic alterations can be extremely damaging.