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Title: Just arrived in port: a new deal for the dockers

Pages: 23 - 30

                        

Author: Alastair Best

Text: 
Just arrived in port: a new deal for the dockers
A new office and amenity building has been built at London's Millwall docks for the Fred Olsen Line by Foster Associates. Alastair Best examines how the building works and some of the reasons why it was built. Photographs by Tim Street-Porter.
Things have come on a little in the Port of London since the heady, Dickensian days when the men were forced to kneel at the sight of passing princesses. It is now the once subservient dockers who are more inclined to put the boot in. So when a ship must leave port at 6 pm to catch the tide the men wait until 4.30 before demanding 5 a head to handle the 10 ton of cargo remaining in the hold. It's a familiar story rehearsed in a recent book*- and it once prompted a Belgian shipowner to remark: "The British docker is the best friend we have in Antwerp."
But while dockers and employers agonize over the pay and productivity niceties of Devlin Part II, the Fred Olsen Line has been quietly steaming into the second half of the twentieth century. A working agreement reached last summer with the Transport and General Workers Union on behalf of dockers on the Olsen payroll has been held up as a model to jealous Port of London employers.
Under it the men work a 32.5 hour week for a 26-39 pay scale, without the option of overtime or Saturday working. More recently, as though to cement the goodwill between the employers and the best paid dockers in the Port of London, Olsen's opened the doors of a new, super-smooth office and amenity centre on the quayside of their Millwall berth.
In a sense the 250,000 centre, with landscaped offices above and eating, recreation and changing facilities down below, is visible proof that Olsen's are getting value for money from their 240 man workforce. Since they outgrew their berth on Canary Wharf and moved to Millwall in 1965 the tonnage handled per man hour has increased annually - in some cases by 100 per cent - to 350,000 ton for 1969. But the spectacular increase in throughput can also be put down to continued design improvements in the Olsen fleet. Olsen's believe in unit loading - a method of stacking the goods (fruit, building materials, paper reels etc) onto wooden or metal pallets, and fork-lifting them into the cargo space through ports in the ship's side. Specially designed Hyster side shifter trucks are kept permanently in the

*(footnote) The Dockers' tragedy by R B Oram Hutchinson 35s
Caption page 23: Crates, pallets and packages, above, litter the narrow docking strip at Olsen's berth, mirrored in the heat-reflecting window wall of the new office amenity building. 9 inch brick sidewalls, provide a four hour fire gap between the two transit sheds. Lef t dockers in the canteen.

Caption pages 24 -25: The view in after dark. First floor landscaped offices, and ground floor canteen, with red shell chairs stacked on the tables, run from front to back of the building. Plant-room ducts, below, painted lime green, branch out above the window wall. The glazing system was specially made in Pittsburgh, to the architects' performance specification.

hold, and the extra protection which this form of loading ensures, means that dockers can work in the kind of weather conditions that would bring traditional operations to a standstill.
Apart from being able to process cargo at rates approaching 100 ton an hour, Olsen's also pride themselves in their handling of human freight. During the winter the sister ships Black Watch and Black Prince can each carry 320 passengers on a 13 day cruise to the Canary Islands. These single class trips are almost invariably fully booked, and would probably make an excellent return in their own right. But, in addition, each of the "Blacks" has over 6,000 cu ft of refrigerated and general cargo space; this is situated below the passenger deck, runs the full length of the ship, and has been custom-built for unit loading operations. In summer the highly profitable "Blacks" (shortly to be joined by the much larger Blenheim) ferry cars and passengers between Harwich, Kristiansand and Amsterdam.
The very complexity of operations on their valuable quayside area, combined with the bewildering jumble of obsolescent buildings which they found on the site when they moved there in early 1966, prompted Olsen's to make a thorough appraisal of their future building programme. One of the priorities was an amenity centre to replace the somewhat makeshift arrangements provided in P shed, the new transit building which the PLA had built to Olsen's specifications the year before. The chief requirements were to unscramble the backland chaos and position offices, passenger handling and amenity at the core of the site, but separate and distinct from the loading and unloading activities at the quay side. In one sense the task was made simpler by the PLA's firm proposal to add two more transit sheds, J and K, to the dockside strip. These, similar in design and construction to P shed, but with 200 ft instead of 150 ft clear spans, would put another 2 million sq ft of the Olsen berth under cover.
After making exhaustive site and activity surveys, architects Foster Associates came forward with a brilliantly coherent scheme. They proposed clipping amenity, offices and passenger handling facilities in a linear mezzanine which could run, if necessary, the entire length of the two gigantic new transit sheds envisaged by the PLA. For a number of complex reasons the scheme was reluctantly shelved, and the architects arrived at the present configuration, with the two-storey amenity and office building slotted crisply

Captions pages 26 -27: Structure revealed, right, showing framework of castellated steel beams and air-conditioning system fed by plantrooms on both floors. The changing room, ground floor left, includes shower cabinets, trough shaped wash basins and individual lockers.

Paperwork and operations handling take place in the narrow, ground floor corridor which runs from front to back of the building, left and below. Documents are sucked up to the offices in pneumatic tubes.

Walls of the kitchen, left, and changing room, right, are lined with pale green Swedish Elonite. The lockers, designed in a staggered configuration, have been criticised for lack of space.

between the four-hour fire walls of the transit sheds. Passenger and baggage handling will be dealt with by a separate structure, now building: a monocoque, plastics-coated steel tube, resting on a steel undercarriage and pinjointed to the walls of the transit shed and to elliptical concrete pads 2 ft 6 in high. Thus the original concept of passenger cargo segregation has been retained and the combination of the tinted heat-reflecting window wall of the office and amenity centre, with the narrow elevated blue and white passenger tube may be even more memorable than Foster's original scheme.
It is the reflective glazing of the amenity building - usually connected with the rich executive pastures of Manhattan and Chicago - that is its most unexpected feature. By day the glass, which was made in Pittsburgh to the architects' specification, throws back a rippling image of the dockside scene; by night the picture is reversed and the eye has an uninterrupted view of groundfloor canteen and landscaped first floor offices,

Captions pages 28 - 29: The landscaped office floor, top and bottom and right, is carpeted grass green an offers spectacular close up views of shipping berthed 40ft away.
Staircase, above, is contained by rectangular section steel handrail, painted purple. Heat and light reflecting properties of glass window wall, dispensed with the need for Venetian blinds, the common solution to glazed office buildings in this country.
Chromed and purple painted tubular steel hat and coat stand, left top, powder room table, left bottom, and troughs for pneumatic tubes, far left, also purple, are examples of the architects' inventive handling of colour and detail. Wash basins, left centre, have foot operated taps and soap leaf dispensers.

separated by castellated steel beams. Inside colour has been used with an exquisite sensibility - quite unlike the typical killjoy "architect's interior." Grass green floor surfaces, warm brown facings to the service core (wcs and air conditioning plant stacked above kitchens and changing rooms) and peppermint green linings in Swedish melamine are the ground elements. Other details, such as purple stair rails, yellow edge tinted Perspex menu holders and bold semi abstract paintings provided by Fred Olsen himself add up to an environment more in tune with limpwristed aesthetes than with the brawny, matter of fact habitues of the London docks. But the men seem to like it; and so they should, since a ten-man works committee drawn equally from the management and the terminal force met regularly to hammer out the architects brief. The constricted locker space in the changing rooms and the present lack of a licence to sell alcohol in the canteen appears to be upsetting some of the inmates, but as one superintendent put it, with a philosophical smile, "we can't have everything all at once."

Caption page 30: Dockers relax between shifts, left and below, with darts and table tennis. The men can also watch colour tv - until it's time to step outside and unload the next ship. On the car park side, bottom, tubular steel trusses of the PLA transit sheds are cantilevered out to provide weather protection for incoming and outgoing lorries.

 

 

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