John Outram: classicist

In 2016 Historic England listed 25 ‘post-modernist’ buildings. Amongst them were four by John Outram.

Outram can safely be included amongst the post-modernists, but he is better understood as a classicist.

Outram believed that there wasn’t one single correct form of architecture:

“I put it all in, and you can do what you like with it. I have a canonic version but it doesn’t stop [others] from inventing their own”.

John Outram quoted in John Outram by Gerraint Franklin, page 148

Yet he returned to the dressing box of history again and again. He wrote in 1988:

“There is everything to be learned from the study of the past except how to copy its forms”

Page 147

He was drawn in particular to ancient, classic forms, although Outram’s classicism was pluralistic and included Sumer, China, India, Maya, Greece, Rome and above all Egypt. Gerraint Franklin in his new monograph of the architect, quotes Outram saying that

He came to consider the classical world as being ‘much more like India than like the British Museum. Very noisy, very smelly, very colourful’.

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This is best seen perhaps in his creation of the first order since Vitruvius, the Robot Order. The Robot Order allowed Outram to hide the vital innards of a building (the various necessary electrical wires, water pipes and gas mains) within hollow service columns. 

The first building to use these columns was the Harp Building, a reconditioning of a 1960s office building that Outram likened to a ‘Minoan aircraft carrier’. The capitals of the columns were shaped like stylised flames, a nod to the company’s business. 

Even when he designs heavy buildings, like Harp, they look bright and energetic. This building also shows Outram’s most postmodernist aspect, his use of signs and traditional aspects of architecture in playful ways. 

Harp was demolished in 2016 (leading to the project by Historic England which resulted in the first listings of post-modernist buildings).

Outram loved cutting edge consumer technology, was an early adapter to computer assisted design and the internet, but had a very distinct look: ‘tweeds, woolies and spec’s with thick black hair.Country Life said he had “the air of a fifties bohemian from a Fellini film’. He might be played by Sir Colin Firth in a biopic.

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Temple of Storms

The Temple of Storms is perhaps Outram’s most iconic building. Still standing and relatively easy to get to and see in London’s Isle of Dogs, it actually quietly subverts much of what we think we know about postmodernism.

In the UK, the style is often associated with Thatcherism and the expansion of high finance in the public realm. Yet this is very much a municipal building.

Built between 1986-88, it is a Storm Water Pumping Station to help with water run off and prevent flooding in the new Docklands redevelopment.Thatcher had decreed that only private buildings could be developed in the Docklands, with the exception of utilities. According to Olly Wainwright, the Guardian’s Architecture Editor, “in a pointed rebuke to her policy”, Ted Hollamby, chief architect of the Docklands Development Corporation, commissioned three architects (Outram, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw) to design three buildings for water treatment. The buildings were to have a 100 year operational life.

Outram’s building is a sturdy brick building. Heavily set on thick columns, balanced with colorful metal capitals, the pediment is virtuoso utilitarian: a fan set amidst corrugated metal. The scale of the building is immense. Looking a photo, it appears as a temple from the imagination of David Roberts. In person, it feels possible to nurse it in your hands.

It is a classic. 

It was the first post-modernist building, says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, “to be listed purely on its own merits without the presence of a threat”.While Roger Bowdler, Historic England’s Director of Listing said “John Outram’s pumping station was one of the most exciting buildings of the 1980s. Outram exulted in the panache and exuberance of classicism, and gave this utterly functional structure an exterior which is unforgettable.”

Sphinx Hill

Christopher and Henrietta McCall’s joint love of ancient Egypt began on their honeymoon when they traveled to Petra in Jordan via Egypt. Henrietta, an avid crossworder, was inspired to learn hieroglyphs in an evening course at City University London and began a career as an Egyptologist. 

The couple’s love of Egypt also inspired them when they came to move house. Instead of moving to an existing house, they wanted the challenge and thrill of building and designing a new house. They compiled a list of favorite buildings and the Temple of the Storms was high on both lists. They wrote to John, he invited them over for drinks, they stayed for dinner and the rest is history. 

Sphinx Hill is on the River Thames between Reading and Oxford (‘obviously an Egyptian house has to be on a river’ says Christopher). Although Henrietta’s mother was initially skeptical, the planners were largely supportive. The planner officer wrote “the proposal is a most exciting one and is either going to be brilliant or ugly”.

It is indeed John Outram’s masterpiece. One of Britain’s most beautiful buildings.

Built between 1998-9 on a modest budget, Outram used a thorough-coloured render on the outside in pastel colors to create an idealized vision of Egypt. Motifs run through: stylised columns, pyramids, suns and winged solar disks, and an ever so subtle eye of Horus in the attic.

Gerraint Franklin writes that it could be a distant descendent of the Temple Works in Leeds as a unmistakably British piece of Egyptian inspired architecture, but he also compared the barrel-vaulted chapels in the Saqqara with its curved roofs. 

The Egyptian theme is complete inside, with gracious and bright interiors, with the garden has a water feature resembling Hadrian’s villa in Rome.

While fully Egyptian and full post-modern, it fits well beneath the gentle light of England.

Perhaps these buildings show why John Outram is better understood as a classical architect, working in the long tradition of architecture, inspired but not defined by the past but in his inner genius, inspiring and defining the future. 

John Outram by Geraint Franklin. Published by Liverpool University Press on behalf of Historic England (ISBN: 978-1-800-85622-6)

A post-modernist building in the rain
A rainy day in Cambridge: Judge Business school John Outram (1995)