In late 2011, I interviewed Dr Wilem Frischmann, the engineer behind the construction of Centre Point. (For fans of Britpop trivia, he is also the father of Justine Frischmann, former lead singer in Elastica.)
Now a partner in global engineering firm Pell Frischmann, Dr Frischmann was then a young and extremely ambitious engineer. I was struck by how personal and hands-on this project was for him.
This is the first part of our conversation, with more to come in future posts.
Nick Asbury: Take me back to the time when Centre Point was being built. What was the mood like?
Wilem Frischmann: There was a lot of fear and scepticism. The country was covered in concrete bridges and motorways that were suffering badly from rust. People thought concrete buildings would be the same. They said Centre Point would become the tallest rust pile in the world within a few years. A lot of people believed it.
NA: What made you so confident Centre Point would be different?
WF: Because we designed that way. First of all, when you’re using concrete blocks in prefabricated units, they’re connected with metal tie-wires. We insisted on using stainless steel tie-wires that would be resistant to rust. To this day, they remain rust-free.
Secondly, it’s about the quality of the concrete itself. This was a big battle for us. All concrete is basically cement, sand and aggregate. But we used a very particular kind of aggregate that was white in appearance. You’ve heard of Portland stone?
NA: Yes, London is virtually built of it.
WF: St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace… the classic London stone. Well, go to the Isle of Portland where it is quarried and you’ll see there is a layer of capstone on top of the Portland stone itself. We crushed that capstone to make the aggregate. That’s where it gets its white appearance. But we also compressed it to the point where it was very dense, and then polished it until it took on a marble-like appearance. I think it retains that marbled quality even now.
NA: Was this a new method in its time?
WF: Completely new. In those days, you normally used concrete from the immediate vicinity, which was covered in a mosaic rendering, or a material called terrazite. The problem is you have to replace it every ten years or so. This is why people argued a prefabricated building would look so unsightly after a few years.
NA: So this Portland concrete was shipped in specially?
WF: Yes, I used to drive down to the Isle of Portland, just off the Dorset coast, and spend the weekends with my wife in a little boating house. I would call in and supervise the making of the concrete units. Each one had to be shipped to London in a very particular order. Centre Point looks like it is the same size all the way up, but it gradually gets narrower. It’s a technique called entasis – the Romans used it for their classical columns. By imperceptibly narrowing the width as the building gets higher, you achieve a more pleasing effect. But it meant each concrete block had to arrive in exactly the required order – and these were the days before we had computers to help.
Every night, a block would be loaded onto a truck and driven from Weymouth up to the Centre Point site. The roads were very rudimentary back then, so it took the best part of eight hours. Each block would arrive first thing in the morning and then be hoisted into position on the same day.
NA: I believe the construction process was the fastest achieved at that time?
WF: It was a very innovative process. There was only one crane, which was gradually lifted up the centre of the building. This was a real marvel. Many people thought you simply couldn’t build tall buildings in central London, because there would be no room for the cranes – usually, you needed five or six positioned around the site. This was a single crane positioned near one of the busiest junctions in London – and the roads stayed open the whole time. There wasn’t even any scaffolding.
We built at a rate of one floor per week, which is still not achieved by many buildings today. It was really very quick. The funny thing was that, at that time, details of planning permission weren’t made available to the public in the way they are now. So people had no idea when the work would stop. There were competitions to guess the eventual height of the building. These days, you would simply look it up online.
Look out for part two of the interview in a future post