Lyall Bills & Young’s Stratford Box Pumping Station in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is at once sculptural, enduring and integrated into the landscape, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Richard Chivers
With increasing specialisation and segregation of roles in the construction industry, the image of the architect as the quintessential uomo universale seems a hazy vestige from the remote past and some are surprised to learn that two of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture concern hydraulics. Lyall Bills & Young Architects’ drainage and sewage infrastructure projects at London’s incipient Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park flies in the face of this.
Pudding Mill Lane sewage pumping station (AJ 28.08.10), along with the groundwater pumping station and water recycling plant at Old Ford, saw the practice in the role of infrastructure construction expert, as well as architectural and landscape visionary. Stratford Box Pumping Station, built to relieve groundwater build-up caused by changes in the water table, avoiding flooding of below-grade Eurostar and HS1 lines nearby, completes this jigsaw.
As with John McAslan + Partners’ Olympic Energy Centres, process engineers and other technocrats masterminded the station’s essential environmental contribution. As well as pumping excess water to the Lea Valley Reservoir, working in conjunction with a nearby balancing pond, which also encourages biodiversity, it generates potable supplies to alleviate shortages. But the architect’s knowledge of construction was invaluable at the interface between equipment - the project’s most costly element - and the building work that accommodates it. At Pudding Mill Lane, Lyall Bills & Young saved time and money by proposing a superstructure aligned with the cylindrical substructure. This alignment was integral to a convincing architectural concept and won the confidence of the practice’s client, the ODA, and operator Thames Water, both involved in Stratford Box and the Old Ford projects.
At Stratford Box, the architect discouraged the project team from pursuing a fully underground option, reducing expenditure on retaining walls and tanking. The practice’s understanding of the processes involved, founded on its experience gained on other Thames Water Olympic Park projects, was a further asset.
Other aspects of the station’s environmental profile, for example materials specification and features promoting biodiversity, were within Lyall Bills & Young’s immediate remit. Brickwork, rather than less durable materials often used in this type of project, was specified for the envelope, expected to last for more than 100 years, reducing life cycle costs. Two types of bird box, with alternate entrance hole shapes and sizes favoured by different species, were built into this brickwork. The cubic form of the station’s component volumes is suitable for green roofs, planted with a mix that includes seeds of flowers that will attract butterflies.
As with its other Thames Water projects in the park, Lyall Bills & Young avoided what director John Lyall describes as the default tin-roofed shed option often favoured in engineering-driven projects. It is possible to imagine how large, rectangular volumes might have worked, more flexible and easier to adapt than the tailored configurations that were built, and these could have been designed with imagination and finesse. But the benefits of highly flexible and adaptable options were questionable.
Like Bazalgette’s great Victorian sewage infrastructure, which was an inspiration to Lyall Bills & Young, they are durable, long-term projects, unlikely to be converted for alternative uses. The strength of Lyall Bills & Young’s strategy of articulating Stratford Box and its Old Ford siblings lay in its consistency and, more critically, in the way it enabled them to be conceived as part of a landscape which is a foil to the venues and other large structures in the park.
The architect analysed the main components - the sub-station, control room, sample room, well shaft and pump chamber - to establish which needed enclosures and also concluded that the site and processes offered an opportunity for a linear grouping of brick volumes with interstitial spaces and setbacks which open up views and enable them to cast dark shadows, emphasising their strong forms. In dialogue with engineering consultants, Lyall Bills & Young manipulated the walls, heights and axes of adjacent blocks and plinths to enhance the station’s sculptural qualities.
‘One of the nice things about these buildings is that you don’t have to be mindful of human comfort,’ says director Chris Bills. ‘So you can treat them as sculpture.’
Lyall Bills & Young imaginatively conceived the station as an archaeological find with subterranean layers of Piranesian construction also exercising characteristic flair in the subtle choice of delicious, refreshing colours, specifying turquoise pipework and yellow, green and pink door linings. The bricks, which register human scale, have distinctive Continental proportions, 490mm long and 50mm high, with glazed and semi-matt finishes arranged in dappled, graduating patterns.
As observed by former ODA principal design adviser Kay Hughes, the station belongs to a family of heterogeneous but complementary utilities forming a coherent public realm. Together with its Cor-ten, gabion and larch-clad siblings, and digitally-generated patterns, it forms part of a diverse and fanciful landscape of architectural ideas. ‘People don’t have to know what it’s about,’ says Lyle.
Hopefully, the public will one day have access to the station, as originally envisaged, rather than only being able to view it from afar.