Chrisp Street Market
Sir Frederick Gibberd
- Original design
- Sir Frederick Gibberd, 1951
The 2017 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2018 programme in July.
Hard to imagine now, but Chrisp Street Clock Tower was conceived as a modest marker for a new phase of architecture and design in this part of the East End, heralded by the Festival of Britain in 1951. Though located in Poplar, far from the Festival’s iconic structures on the South Bank – the Royal Festival Hall, and the Dome of Discovery and Skylon (both now demolished) – the clock tower was part of a project to demonstrate what could be achieved by good planning and design in worn-out neighbourhoods. In the 1950s, London’s docks were thriving, and lorries rumbled along West India Dock Road, to waterside cranes and cargoes, past Chrisp Street market, unchanged for decades.
The clock tower was a gleam in the eye of architect Sir Frederick Gibberd (1908-84) who was responsible for the new market as well as a much bigger adjacent scheme – the Lansbury Estate. Gibberd is renowned for his work on Harlow New Town, and his influence on post-war housing was widespread. The Buildings of England editors aptly called his style “gentle Modernism”. With Britain beginning to emerge from wartime austerity in the 1950s, Gibberd’s work demonstrated his belief that clogged urban spaces should get a clean, uncluttered look, which still respected the social structure of local communities.
His slogan could well be ‘Different but not too daring’. That certainly applies to the clock tower (completed in 1952) and the low-rise line of shops on the north and west sides of the market, plus the pedestrianised mini-mall along Market Way. (Several other sections, obscuring his original concept, have been added since.) The tower’s sparseness and simplicity are striking; with its low-pitched roof and a big, bold clock without numerals on the faces, it has a Scandinavian aspect. Freestanding, unlike many clock towers, it stands like a friendly sentinel to one side of the market square.
Gibberd described his tower as a “practical folly”. From the 18th century, follies – built purely for adornment – were fashionable landscape features on country estates. In its dense urban setting, Gibberd’s jeu d’esprit has an element of fun in the criss-cross pattern, picked out in concrete, up the two narrower sides; you feel that the tower might fold flat like a trellis, or an IKEA flatpack. On the two longer sides, are balconies at six levels. Below the clock, a viewing platform wraps round the entire building. Internally, two staircases, bare as only concrete can be, form an “open scissor-plan double stair” as the Buildings of England guide describes it. There’s nothing else, just a bracing climb of about 70 feet; fresh air – and a close-up view of the grander, glitzier towers of Canary Wharf.