Breaking New Ground

Breaking New Ground


The art and process of building has always required a mixture of skills, teamwork and perseverance. It is in large part heavy, dirty, physical hard work. To build a major construction company takes courage, time, perseverance and wilful organisational ability and drive. It is a risky business, predicting the pricing against unpredictable elements. The competition is fierce and the margins tight. Seemingly insignificant mistakes in a field of complexities can have devastating consequences.

In spite of this, the UK has spawned a number of great family construction companies; Laing was one of them. The logistics of major infrastructure projects, especially innovative works, require long term planning and organisation together with huge man and machine power. Then there is the weather and equally unpredictable elements of ground conditions and of course, politics. The latter has inevitable involvement, but rarely exhibits more than superficial understanding of the real issues, problems and price.

Imagine trying to predict the timeframe and costs of constructing the first UK motorway, the M1 from London to Yorkshire; or the first nuclear power station.    The John Laing building company founded in 1848 was one such family business. Sadly, it died an economic death in 2002.

It has left an interesting legacy beyond important buildings such as the Barbican, the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park and countless others. The company commissioned thousands of photographs throughout the last century. They represent a social and building history of works in progress as well as finished projects, some with their royal ribbon cutting. These have been gifted to Historic England [HE].

 HE is currently digitising and cataloguing 10,000 of these images for public use  with support from the John Laing Charitable Trust. 2000 are complete, the further 8000 are scheduled to be available by autumn this year. The programme is linked to recorded interviews and stories of the unsung heroes; engineers, project managers, tradesmen and women involved in the realisation of these ideas that became homes, schools, concert halls, cathedrals, power stations, bridges and roads. This resource is being linked to regional educational programmes to encourage interest, learning and interaction with the local built environment.

As an architect, Squinch knows the toil, perseverance, privilege and rewarding satisfaction of being a part of some of these diverse teams that come together to deliver major architectural schemes. The Laing archive illustrates the foundations, the scaffold, cranes, structure, materials, details and people working on building sites. They bring to life the whole picture of realising the dream that begins as a sketch on paper and becomes a finished project. Such internet available resources tell a powerful story of one of mankind’s fundamental motivating forces; to make, to invent, to create; a roof, a place. We call them homes, villages, towns and cities. The setting of civilisation, for better and for worse.

Building has always held danger and risk, whether digging holes, mines or tunnels within the earth or reaching upwards to the sky to create cathedrals and towers. Some of the most spectacular images within this collection are of cranes and scaffold. Two of the most dangerous tasks in construction are the erection and dismantling of cranes. Having once climbed the narrow vertical ladder to the cab of a tower crane [ against all H&S regulation and good sense], one holds huge respect for the isolated job of delivering materials from ground, to sky, to precise point of installation. Scaffold forms the external skeleton that enables safe working at height. Again, its erection and dismantling athankless tasks, but which involve dreadful danger. Once a building is complete, the crane and the scaffold are soon forgotten.

The RIBA Trust holds the largest and finest collection of architectural drawings, artefacts and photographs in the World. The Trust looks after almost a million drawings from Wren and Palladio to Lutyens and Lasdun. ‘The Robert Elwall Photographs Collection’ comprises over 1.4 million images. The artefacts held in storage document the evolution of the architectural profession across four centuries. The formidable task of digitising this vast resource is ongoing, but regrettably will remain incomplete without major grant funding. Public access through the digitisation of such great collections does provide valuable educational resources extending learning about all aspects of design, architecture and our actual built heritage; ancient and modern.  At least the Laing Photographic Archive is being made accessible through Historic England.

Picture © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection.

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