Thursday 17 May 2012

How a German architect upgraded the Royal Laboratories

The current English Heritage Research News carries an article on German involvement in the Royal Laboratories, Woolwich by Peter Guillery.

(for the full text of the new Survey of Woolwich - available for comment )

Peter first describes how barricades erected in Dresden's Republican uprising of 1849 were said to be of a quality not seen before in street fighting. This has been attributed to supervision from Gottfried Semper, the Head of the Department of Architecture in Dresden's Academy of Fine Arts, and architect of the city's opera house and art gallery. The rebellion was crushed, and Semper forced into exile, aged 45. A year later he arrived in London.

Semper first years in London were, apparently not happy – Peter says he "fell into impecunious depression’ but he got a government appointment, as Professor of Architecture through Henry Cole – the man who set up the Great Exhibition and, as a result, the V and A.

The Royal Arsenal,  like the Royal Dockyards was moving into the use of steam ­power but work on this was slow. The Royal Laboratory itself was housed in buildings from the 1690s and “was the target of the first major mechanising reconstruction” Building design was usually handled by Royal Engineers and the job was given to a Capt. Thomas Bernard Collinson, RE who had previously helped map Hong Kong and New Zealand

The Royal Laboratory buildings still stand in Woolwich and for many years have been separated in the way they originally stood. However in the 19th century there was a covering over the quadrangle between the two and Peter continues with the plans for this in 1853. “An area about 300ft by 138ft was to be covered on a grid of ninety cast-iron columns for a vast openplan steam-driven ammunition factory with a north-lit 'saw roof' and around 500 lathes”. Collinson sought help and was advised to write to Semper – who came to Woolwich and took on the job.

Peter says that Collinson's letters to Semper, survive in Zurich, and indicate that Semper was given responsibility for the entire form in detail of the iron frame and roof. Ironwork was supplied by Benjamin Hick and Son of Bolton and the factory was hastily erected. He goes on “The frame here was robustly moulded with octagon-section columns, as in the Crystal Palace, which Semper knew intimately and admired, though he deprecated the spindliness of iron in other contexts. The north elevation was eccentrically ornamental, with reliefs of cannon in the spandrels and a circle-pattern frieze depicting ammunition under a cornice bearing the initials of members of the project's committee”.

Semper moved to Zurich in 1855 “and his Royal Laboratory frame had become an archetype. It was the model for numerous later iron-framed workshops at the Arsenal, even into the 1880s. Some of these still stand. Semper's factory continued as the Royal Laboratory's main machine shop until after the First World War. It was not taken down until the 1970s”.

English Heritage. Research News. No 17/18 Spring 2012

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