Building bridges the 1920s
In 1919, Williams started his first company, Williams Concrete Structures Ltd, a specialist concrete design firm formulated along the lines still typical for the times. Williams had devised and patented his own system of precast concrete construction that he named "Fabricrete", and which his company offered to architects and contractors for a fee.
He was soon joined by his former colleague from the Trussed Concrete & Steel Company, Thomas S. Vandy. It was another former colleague, however, whose influence proved instrumental at this juncture. Ulick Wintour, with whom Williams had worked in the Admiralty, had been appointed General Manager of the British Empire Exhibition planned for 1924. It was he who, in 1921, introduced Williams to the architect of the exhibition's main buildings, Maxwell Ayrton of Simpson & Ayrton (British Empire Exhibition site
Besides the size and public profile of the commission, in Ayrton Williams found a collaborator who was equally keen to develop the architectural potential and public appreciation of concrete. The result, his buildings at Wembley, earned him a knighthood at the age of 34 an achievement all the more to be relished as he had been turned down by the Institution of Civil Engineers for an upgrade to full member status only the previous year.
In 1921, the year he received the commission for the Exhibition buildings, Williams had re-established his firm of specialist concrete designers as a consulting engineers' practice. Significantly, the change represents a shift of emphasis in the role of the structural engineer from specialist contractor to collaborating consultant.
Commissions from the Ministry of Transport resulted in a series of bridges Findhorn
, to name a few that increasingly demonstrate his ascendance as a designer in his own right.
Williams also became increasingly voluble on the subject of good meaning rational, economic and appropriate design. In 1927, he was awarded the Telford Gold Medal for his paper, The Philosophy of Masonry Arches, written for the Institution of Civil Engineers (he had been made a member at last).
Other papers and letters show that he was beginning to differ in approach from his collaborator, Ayrton, insisting more emphatically on structural and material "honesty" as superior to decoration, illusion or concealment. In other words, he began to frame the argument that engineering is architecture, rather than its support. His own career as an architect was just around the corner.
In 1932, his design for a pared-down Waterloo Bridge in central London, prepared without any architect-collaborator, took some of these ideas to an extreme. Typically, he chose the press as the forum to air his views and may well have enjoyed the debate and controversy caused by his proposal, although the bridge was never built.
Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc