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Date updated: 19/05/2022

Introduction to London's Grand Designs

London is home to some of the world's most striking architecture and innovative engineering. Whether driven by divine purpose or the needs of a growing population, the grand designs of architects and engineers have shaped the identity of the city and the lives of Londoners. This regular series delves into the historical collections at LMA to present drawings and photographs that record the development of some of London’s greatest buildings and structures. The projects cover a wide variety of aspects of life in the capital, from worship to entertainment, transport to housing, and all add to the story of the developing city. Many are still present today, but others have not survived the passage of time and exist only in memory and archives.

Thames Barrier

Constructed by the Greater London Council (GLC) and operated today by the Environment Agency, the Thames Barrier is one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world. Michael Melia describes its construction.

Prior to the development of the barrier, London lacked protection from tidal and fluvial (river) flooding. The solution was to build embankments and higher river walls, but floods in 1928 and 1953 led to the development of proposals to raise the height of bank levels and install a barrier with movable gates. The 1972 Thames Barrier Act and Flood Protection Act followed and the GLC set to work.

Consisting of seven piers covered by stainless steel roof shells, ten steel gates and two additional piers, the new barrier was devised by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, and construction started in 1974. The concept for the barrier's rising gates, which rotate up in a circular motion to close, was developed by (Reginald) Charles Draper; the iconic roof shells were designed in the Architect's Department of the GLC.

The gates, each of which are 19 metres high and weigh 3300 tonnes, divide the river into six navigable spans, four of 61metres (200 feet), and two of approximately 30 metres (100 feet). The barrier was designed to be solid, durable (serving London until at least 2030), failure proof and bomb proof. It has so far survived 12 collisions with ships without sustaining any serious damage.

The barrier became operational in 1982 and its 520 metre (1706 feet) span across the river continues to protect 125 square kilometres of the capital from flooding today. The gates are closed during storm surge conditions to safeguard against flooding from the sea and during periods of high flow over Teddington Weir to reduce the risk of fluvial flooding in areas of west London.

A brief look of a working Thames Barrier model, can be found in the Flood Prevention and Pollution video on the London Picture Archive.