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Structural underpinning to Sir Owen's reputation

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It is good to see the AJ giving coverage to the completed Daily Express building's refurbishment (AJ 13.7.00). Kenneth Powell's article mentions the structural design difficulties which Sir Owen Williams was brought in to solve, and outlines the generally accepted course of events.

Before leaving Hurley, Robertson and Associates at completion of the scheme design stage, it was my good fortune to have responsibility under John Robertson for the Daily Express refurbishment, and this adventure gave me some insights into the forced collaboration between Sir Owen and Ellis & Clarke.

The root cause of the structural difficulties referred to was Lord Beaverbrook's desire to run basement printing presses through between the new and existing buildings. The existing printing works at the rear of the site was nearly new when purchased, and both architect and structural engineer were retained to extend the project forwards towards Fleet Street.

Unfortunately, the existing building had been designed for short presses to run across the width of the site, and its structural design had never anticipated an expanded operation where the machinery would need to be turned through 85 degrees .

After construction of the extension to the stone-clad design had begun, a crisis seems to have arisen in which the owner lost confidence in the engineers' ability to adapt the existing structure. It seems to have been this emergency which led to Sir Owen's substitution into the design team. His bold solution, drawing on bridge-building experience, was to construct a concrete bridge deck under the existing building and then to sever the entire structural frame at deck level to create a clear space beneath. The extension which we now know as the Daily Express building was to continue this 17m span through to Fleet Street and express it dramatically on the facade. Unglamorously named the 'Underpinning Scheme', the crucial conversion element of Sir Owen's scheme, now demolished, has received no attention from historians. It is even absent from published drawings because it was only executed as the second phase of the project. (It is, however, magnificently illustrated by an uncaptioned photograph on page 68 of David Cottam's monograph Sir Owen Williams 1890-1969 (Architectural Association, 1986). ) In spite of his success at Fleet Street, the impression created by Sir Owen's further work for the Express in Manchester and Glasgow - that he supplanted Ellis & Clarke as the newspaper's designers - is a false one. Peter Tuffery, currently partner with Ellis, Clarke & Gallanaugh, told me that the Manchester project caused a rift; Ellis & Clarke asserted that Sir Owen had plagiarised its glass cladding design. The archive details of the Fleet Street cladding which survive today are indeed by Ellis & Clarke and not by Sir Owen.

However, this disagreement did not stop either company continuing to work for the paper, apparently because the Manchester and London establishments were, in any case, distant and rather cool in their relations. Sir Owen continued to build further phases in Manchester and Glasgow without outside architects, while Ellis & Clarke, working later with other structural engineers, was architect for all of the nine or 10 building phases carried out at Fleet Street over 45 years.

If the fabric of the Fleet Street building may be read for clues of the working relationship between architect and engineer, my impression is that it was a troubled process. The building as first built had quite a surprising number of misalignments between its primary structure and most other elements, perhaps the result of a problematic split in design responsibilities.Working with a free hand in Manchester, Sir Owen went on to demonstrate how these problems could be solved at one stroke by the use of a common planning module running through structure, cladding, access flooring, and so, a consequence of new modular forms of construction which our generation now takes for granted.

Richard Constable, Pinner, Middlesex

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