Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Wapping Project

The London Hydraulic Power Company was set up by an act of Parliament in 1883. A network of cast-iron pipes ran beneath the streets of London, and pressurized water drawn directly from the Thames River was piped to various locations to power machinery such as cranes, lifts, theatre machinery, and the Tower Bridge. The company built five pumping stations around London, and one, the Wapping station, operated until 1977. The building, an historic landmark, has since been converted into an arts space and restaurant.

It's taken me a while to write this post, because I have had a hard time getting my head around what 19th century hydraulic power was and how it worked.  

My first mistake was confusing hydraulic power with hydroelectric power. A former Seattle-ite and Westerner, I've toured the great hydroelectric dams of California and Washington State, which use the power of cascading water to generate electricity. So when I first heard about the Wapping Power Station, I thought that it was an early electrical generator plant. 

The Wapping Power Station today
But I was wrong. What the London Hydraulic Power Company did was pump water through pipes, and it was the power of the water that ran the machines and raised up elevators - "lifts" in Britain - by the simple principle that you can't compress water, so it will move things by displacing them.

Can you imagine it? It's hard for me to do so. What we think of today when we think of hydraulics is a compact, stand-alone system with a pressurized fluid that's usually oil-based, with cylinders and hoses that operate things like forklifts and jacks. The idea that you'd pump water all over a city so people could tap into it to run elevators is still something I can't quite grasp. I still can't figure out how the actual elevators worked with water pressure.

The Wapping Power Station in 1893
But in 1893, the Wapping plant's coal-operated steam turbines operated pumps that sucked Thames water from the nearby Shadwell Basin, and sped it, pressurized, through an underground network of pipes at a pressure of 700 pounds per square inch.

The turbine hall in 1893
By 1923, the London Hydraulic Power Company was retrofitted so that electrical power, not steam power, drove the pumps. In hindsight, it sounds goofy to use electricity to pump water to run lifts when you could use electrical motors to run lifts instead, but as technology evolved, things took a while to sort themselves out. At its peak, the London Hydraulic Power Company pumped 1.6 billion gallons of water a year through the network.

The main turbine hall today
 The Wapping Power Station continued to operate until 1977 - no doubt because the nearby docks and warehouses still had hydraulically powered cranes. When it closed, it was the only operating hydraulic power station remaining in the world. 

In 1992, the building was discovered by Jules Wright, who began using the building for art installations. You can read THIS article for an interview where she describes those early years and history. It is now the home of The Wapping Project, run by Wright, and the building is owned by the Women's Playhouse Trust.

It's also the home of Wapping Food - a restaurant acclaimed for its seasonal menu. We hosted a dinner there for our son and his friends.

Tomato tart with broad beans
 As the evening progressed, the hall, lit from skylights above, grew darker and more mysterious. Candles glowed among the ancient machinery, and a few strategically placed stage lights picked out features of the building. 

The wine flowed and so did the conversation. The food was delicious.

After dessert, Jules Wright introduced herself and invited us to see the current exhibit, installed in the lower Boiler Room of the building. "Yohji Making Waves" by Yohji Yamamoto, avant-garde fashion designer and artist. There, in darkness, the room flooded, a silken wedding dress is suspended over the surface of the water, lit from within, and reflected. Strings of lights rim the space, and during special hours, a boatman takes viewers out on the water (he was off-duty when we saw it). It was hushed, with only the sound of dripping water. 

My photo wasn't the best
 You can read about it and see more photos HERE

It was like being in another world from the busy restaurant above- indeed, walking back into the lights and smells of food was almost a surprise.

Our son and Jules go back into the restaurant ahead of me
The Wapping Project is an amazing building to visit, whether you like the art installations, the excellent food, or just the strange and wonderful building itself.  Visit The Wapping Project's website for more information, a look at the menu, and a preview of upcoming exhibitions.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

In hindsight, it sounds goofy to use electricity to pump water when you could use electrical motors, but as technology evolved, things took a while to sort themselves out.

We needed to solve some current problems.

Looks like you picked a great place to host a dinner, Aunt Snow.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Awesome- N__B, being an engineer who specializes in older constructs, may be able to comment on hydraulic power systems of the 19th Century.