The Functional Tradition

27 May 2015
Ben Pentreath

It’s not often I write two posts in a week… but yesterday was an incredible day. We’re working on a wonderful project on the south coast where we are planning to reconstruct a huge, defunct industrial site and create a dramatic new series of marine yacht basins lined with tall apartment buildings that draw inspiration from the great mercantile and naval ports of the 18th and 19th centuries.

We are starting, together with our client and the team, to make a series of visits to these precedents and yesterday we went to the Historic Naval Dockyard at Chatham, in Kent. Here are buildings from every decade of the 18th and 19th century – starting in 1704 and running through 200 years of the great age of military building. All are being beautifully preserved by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, and it’s not often you see an organisation doing such an intelligent, careful, thoughtful job as to how to maintain and keep alive the spirit and character of such a massive site.

Our tour guide was Jonathan Coad, the renowned expert on Naval Military History, and author of the massive tome, Support for the Fleet, which is one of the books I most enjoyed buying for the office Library last year.

You must visit for yourself.  But here are a few photographs.


The beautiful, restrained entrance to the Admiralty office.P1060958

Looking across the rooftops to the Commissioners House – 1704.P1060969

I never quite found out what this dollhouse was for.P1060978

An amazing painted ceiling in the Commissioner’s House Staircase – originally painted for the Great Cabin of the “Royal Sovereign”, a Naval ship so lavish that questions were asked in Parliament about the expense.P1060983 P1060988

Steps in the Ropery.P1060996

The Ropery is the longest single room I suspect I’ve ever been in, apart from Heathrow airport, perhaps. P1070001

Bicycles are used to get from one end to the other.P1070006

And this machine, built in 1811, is still used for the production of ropes – which continues on a commercial basis to this day in this mid-18th century building. Incredible.P1070011 P1070012 P1070014 P1070015 P1070017 P1070018 P1070021 P1070026

Around and about are dotted gaudily coloured figureheads.  I’d love to get one of these in the shop window.P1070027 P1070028

A crest to George III, boldly gilded.P1070031 P1070037

The white yarn shed. An incredible space – now much used for films and fashion shoots.P1070039 P1070041 P1070042 P1070043 P1070045 P1070046 P1070051The storage warehouses. These contained Royal Naval supplies.P1070060

A miscellaneous collection of railway carts lies outside the warehouse.P1070061 P1070063 The warehouse is an extraordinarily long and powerful building. It is still used for storage – for an archive company based in London. The trust have resisted conversion to flats… they do not want the character of these buildings to be changed by hanging baskets and ventilation pipes.  Brilliant.

Inside the museum is a model showing the dockyard at its heyday in the mid nineteenth century.P1070068 P1070069

We could only dip into the museum – a brilliant display.

Officers’ terraced housing now forms private houses. Thankfully, the trust also decided not to split these into flats. They are all as originally planned.  The Doric porches are a later addition and feature in many officers’ houses in all the Naval Dockyards.P1070076

The joinery workshop is early 19th century but could have been designed in the post-WW2 period.P1070079

A view down the side of the joinery workshop.P1070081

The timber seasoning sheds were a crucial part of the success of the navy during the Napoleonic wars.  If ships were built from unseasoned timber they rotted.  In the late 18th century this became a major problem and a policy was put in place to season timber in preparation for rapid shipbuilding during escalation of war.  The seasoning sheds meant that the Royal Navy was built of stronger timbers than the French navy. P1070083

The 19th century smithy building – a metal foundry.P1070085P1070095

The most beautiful building of all is the last remaining covered slip – you can catch a glimpse of a ship being launched from this building in the photograph of the model, above.

It is a dramatic piece of contemporary architecture – built in 1838.P1070087

Beyond are beautiful, dramatic, later 19th century covered ship building sheds.P1070097

The interior of Slip No. 3 is remarkable.  It now contains a collection of ‘big things’, as our guide from the Trust said, that they don’t have anywhere else to put.P1070102 P1070106 P1070108

In 1906 a mezzanine floor was inserted in to the giant shed.  Arriving within the roof is a dramatic and beautiful moment.P1070109 P1070111 P1070114 P1070115 P1070116 P1070125

The sun came through the clouds and created a beautiful pattern on the floor, through the extraordinary series of staggered skylights.P1070127 P1070129 It is an extraordinary space – timeless – modern and traditional all at once.  One our favourite books in the office – which I guess we refer to on a weekly basis – is J M Richards and Eric de Mare’s The Functional Tradition – beautiful, haunting photographs of 18th and 19th century industrial buildings. Chatham features heavily.  This building is a perfect example of the Functional Tradition.
P1070132 P1070135

We left, amazed.  You will see why I had to post, and I hope this is a taster to inspire your own visit to the Medway coast of Kent.

17 comments on this post


amazing images the materiality of chatham shows the rich history of chatham’s dockyard, the architecture of the dockyard has a mix of contempoary architecture while respecting it’s heritage and local area.

Deby (in Canada)says:

Oh Ben You do spoil us! It is marvellous to see the joy you take in your work and lucky we readers to see so much beauty as we learn… cheers and hugs Deby

Ben, you have one hell of a good eye. The sheer volumes of space in some of these buildings make me catch my breath.

After we emigrated, we sailed around Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for 20 years in a 22 foot, c. 1910 wooden catboat that my father and brother had refurbished, so when I see wooden boats, masts, rigging, and rope-making coupled with architectural amazements, I’m in heaven.

It all comes back to me: the slap of the ropes against the mast, the squeak of the lines against the cleats, the gurgling of the scuppers, the smell of the bilge, the frantic flipping through Eldridge’s when the tide did something unexpected, like being out when we thought it would be in; the foggy day when we almost collided with the Woods Hole/Vineyard Haven ferry, and our motor was too old and under-powered to get us out of its way in time (not to be confused with the time we overshot Nantucket in the fog and headed out into the open ocean).

Whoever said that one only remembers the happy times in life was never a sailor. That kind of white-hot fear stays with you forever.

Oh, the stories that these buildings, and the boats they created, could tell.

(By some odd coincidence, my maiden name is Cochrane and my great-grandmother was a Halsey, which a naval history enthusiast of my acquaintance found highly amusing.)

Sorry for the appalling length of this. I do get carried away—but it is your fault, really, for inspiring me.



You are spoiling us rotten! Love anything historical nautical, and you have added functional historical nautical. Thank goodness we as a maritime nation can still make rope! Best, Nicola


Thank you Ben, I absolutely love your post, those buildings are a revelation to me. Wish I could live in a smaller version of the last slip building – a timeless beautiful space.
Your pictures are wonderful, would you mind telling me what camera you use. Thank you again.

What a fantastic, detailed, intelligent account of your visit . Thoroughly good read and just so interesting . Now on my list of must see places to visit x

Pierre B.says:

Remarkable post, Ben. I am sure you will not get me wrong if I say that many of your photos deserve a black and white treatment.

GORGEOUS pics! oh, the glory that is england! amazing is truly the word. love those doric porches but the light and the roof structures and the buttressing (?) thanks so much for this post.

Ben, this was one of my all time favorite blog posts from you, and that is saying something! I thoroughly enjoyed viewing the superb array of buildings, so well preserved and still in use, at the dockyards. I used to live close by and remember seeing off the troops as they departed for war in the Falklands. It was a huge deal to get down there and wave goodbye as they left on the ships.

The Trust is doing an excellent job maintaining the historic aspect of the buildings, which I commend. So many times it breaks my heart to see and old building being torn down and replaced with a modern monstrosity. I was just at a planning commission meeting of our town last week speaking up against this very matter, only to be ignored as the commission closed their ears to the cries of locals and chose to tear down an historic building located along an old downtown street which is full of early twentieth century buildings, and replace it with something to attract the hipsters. Ugh!


Now you’ve got your eye in you’ll recognise it in many period dramas. I’ve filmed there three times for three different Dickens adaptations for BBC Drama over the years, . David Copperfield in 1999, Oliver Twist in 2008 and Great Expectations in 2011. The Ropery is an absolute staple. I do hope future plans don’t rule out filming there as without it and Luton Hoo we’d have to completely decamp to Dublin. I remember larking about with Bob Hoskins, Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton on those Ropery steps!

Marvelous! I particularly like the “Haymen, Ltd” wagon – the lettering is perfect. I grew up with cobblestones, stone-walled mills and gas lighting, so this, despite being maritime, is nostalgia in its happiest form. How wonderful to have been able to see it and to photograph it. I’m going to buy the book, The Functional Tradition, if I can.


So beautiful, Ben! And so moving! Thank you.And my next thought is..why doesn’t modern architecture move me in the same way?


Ben I just love all the paraphernalia associated with naval history, so this a real treat. I knew virtually nothing about the Chatham Dockyards before. I visited the historic dockyards at Portsmouth on my last visit to England, which I enjoyed very much. There certainly is a real beauty to these old industrial buildings. I am always impressed by the care architects took in earlier times, to make these – very much – functional buildings look pleasing to the eye.

david noonansays:

stunning. absolutely marvellous.


Thanks Ben, you’ve made up our minds where to go for our September break; we could not decide between Devon and Kent, but Kent it is! Though I think you could find the beauty in any location.


what a stunning group of photos…oh happy week to have two sets of your photos posted! Those buildings, the Slip and the Seasoning Shed – wonderful. thankyou

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