The suburbs provide a setting that allows the strange to blaze brightly against a background of uniformity. Victorian suburbs, however, make the strange itself part of the uniform, and cheerfully combine ordinary and exotic. The excitable approach of the people who made them becomes more alluring as they retreat into the past while we carry on living in the places they designed. This is how Streatham comes to be a town of domes – copper corner features along the High Road, full size onion domes from somewhere east of the Vistula on Gleneldon Road. But Conyers Road is the place where it all comes together, in the form of the Conyers Road Pumping Station. Squeezed into an unpromising location beside a railway embankment, the building was put up in 1888 by the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company in the days when water was provided by small, local companies. Aside from the security fence – this is still a functioning pump house – its function is not at all obvious, because it is designed as a fantasy mosque from an Arabian adventure story, with an impressive total of three and a half copper domes.
There are other fantastical water and sewage structures in London from the same period, a number also designed by Sir James Restler, the company’s chief engineer, but Conyers Road is special because it simply sits at the end of a residential street, where its design is even less expected. With its architecture best described as ‘Moorish’, the building is in three sections – a square, two storey block with a semi-cylindrical porch, a low, round room with rooflights like a Maghreb village hall, and a third round, small domed chamber. Before the Second World War there was also a standalone chimney, taller than everything else, which looked as though it had been borrowed from Venice. None makes a great deal of sense, but Restler may have been too wrapped up with the beauty of far-away places to worry about that. Restoration was completed during April 2020, and the scaffolding came down with ideal timing to help people prowling the neighbourhood on daily walks, trying to make sense of their lives.