John Outram was an important 20th-century architect whose decorated yet elemental buildings communicate myths and metaphysics.
A contemporary of Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Michael Hopkins, John Outram (born 1934) is a late-20th century architect of a different stripe. The brilliant colours and exuberant gestures of his work have captured the popular imagination, yet still retain the ability to shock.
Outram launched his own architectural practice in 1974 and soon secured a reputation for innovative, creative and monumental buildings. As a result of his use of colour and decoration, he is often considered a post-modern architect, but how much does this label tell us about Outram’s intentions and tactics?
A new book by Geraint Franklin explores the deeper background of Outram’s work in architectural history, metaphysics and mythology.
Here’s our guide to Outram’s most significant work in the UK.
Outram studied architecture in the 1950s at the Regent Street Polytechnic and Architectural Association schools of architecture. This logistics building near Heathrow was his first commission of any size and shows his modernist training and the influence of the American architect Louis Kahn.
His building at Poyle proved pragmatic and economical because it employed common materials and building techniques: bricks of various colours, a steel portal frame, interlocking concrete paviours. These simple things are brought together in an imaginative way: wall and window are detailed in a single plane, as if forming a solid object, while the nine warehouse units are distinguished by oversailing brick arches.
The New House was Outram’s big break and was the making of an international reputation. The exterior is orderly yet enigmatic, a collage of contrasting materials, including Outram’s famous ‘blitzcrete’: a terrazzo-like concrete incorporating fragments of broken brick. The graceful interior features natural materials such as exotic stones and veneers.
Outram was invited back to make several later additions, with the result that the different phases trace his developing theories of architecture. The New House was listed at Grade I in 2020.
1200–1290 Park Avenue
Outram’s early commissions demonstrated that he could deliver robust, hard-working buildings without comprising on aesthetics – and 1200–1290 Park Avenue is no exception. It formed part of Aztec West outside Bristol, one of a new breed of business parks which featured prestige buildings, landscaping and recreational amenities.
The aesthetic is classical-industrial: pairs of units make up a giant pediment, supported on giant drum columns which double as a service duct. These Outram called ‘robot columns’ and they can be found in most of his buildings.
Perhaps Outram’s most instantly recognisable work, this colourful, elemental storm water pumping station serves London’s Docklands, an area of rapid growth in the 1980s. It is both a functional piece of urban infrastructure and an exuberant set piece of civic architecture, recalling classical temples and the monumental, colourful pumping stations by the Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
All that decoration earns its keep. The massive columns accommodate ducting and access to the maintenance gantry inside, while the 3m diameter fans turn at 16rpm to ventilate the pump hall. The high-security compound is enclosed by battered perimeter wall of engineering brick and a gate which incorporates an opening just large enough to squeeze a camera through.
Outram’s largest work in the UK, the Judge is a sensitive adaptation of the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital in central Cambridge. Outram retained the listed Victorian entrance front and added new elements behind, including the ‘Castle’ (lecture theatres) and the ‘Ark’ (staff offices). New and old are connected by the ‘Gallery’, a grand atrium which rises the full height of the building, animated by flying stairs, bridges and balconies.
Constructed in the 1990s, the Judge reflects new thinking on sustainable design. Natural ventilation is controlled by a building management system, while the thermal mass of the marble floor and concrete walkways is used to regulate peak temperatures. While Outram’s designs for a highly patterned interior were not fully carried out, the Gallery remains an impressive and convivial space.
Sphinx Hill is one of Outram’s late works, relatively modest in scale and budget yet boasting a complete interior scheme and a formal garden. It is a detached house on the banks of the river Thames in Oxfordshire for an Egyptologist and her husband. Its design reflects their passion for all things Egyptian – and a long tradition of Egyptian style architecture which goes back to the ‘Egyptomania’ fashions of Regency England.
Finished in pastel shades of through-coloured render, the symmetrical exterior incorporates curved roofs and windows and pilasters with ‘ball and beak’ capitals. Outram also designed the landscaped garden, which connects the house to the Thames and symbolises the course of a river from its source in the mountains to its delta where it enters the ocean.
East Workshops, Welbeck Abbey
Welbeck Abbey, one of Nottinghamshire’s ‘dukeries’ is an extraordinary estate, boasting Gothick interiors by Henrietta Cavendish Harley and a network of underground chambers excavated by the eccentric fifth Duke of Portland. In such a setting Outram’s set of craft workshops for the Harley Foundation, sited within the former kitchen gardens, both fits in and stands out.
The units are arranged in matching pairs and each has a double-height workshop space with a mezzanine studio. Outram intended the exteriors to be ‘a bit Art Deco and a bit classical’. Deep eaves throw rainwater clear of the coloured render, while a blockwork plinth shows what the walls are made of.
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1 Apr 2022