Nairn’s Waterloo Bridge: Effortless

Waterloo Bridge #5

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn described Waterloo Bridge as:

“One of those structures which make the whole complicated process of designing look absurdly easy. It is effortless, making its small slam without a qualm …”

The bridge is now well into its seventies, but still it retains that appearance of elegant ‘effortlessness’. And yet, as Nairn implied, appearances can be deceiving.

Waterloo Bridge #2

The first bridge

The bridge we know is the second at Waterloo. The first was designed by one of the industrial revolution’s great engineers, John Rennie. When work began in 1811 its intended name was ‘Strand Bridge’, but by the time it was finished in 1817 Napoleon had fallen and the bridge was re-named to commemorate his world-historic defeat at Waterloo. We now refer vaguely to this whole area of riverside South London as ‘Waterloo’ and assume – wrongly – that the name derives from the railway station. But Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge pre-dated the station by more than 30 years.

Rennie’s bridge was a handsome classical affair with nine arches and Greek Doric columns on the piers, and was well-known to thousands of soldiers in the Great War, a century later, as they milled around the station, off to the front or back on leave. And not coincidentally, throughout the War, Waterloo was one of London’s most notorious red-light districts. Most business was done on Waterloo Road itself, but it spilled out in all directions, including the bridge. One of the soldiers who passed through was Robert E. Sherwood, an American, passionately pro-British, who hadn’t waited until his own country entered the War but instead had crossed the border and came to fight with a Canadian regiment.

Sherwood survived, and returned to the USA and a career as a writer and playwright. By the late 1920s he was highly successful, a name on Broadway and attracting attention in Hollywood. And one of his plays, made into a feature film not once but twice, was Waterloo Bridge. It deals with a romance between Roy, a soldier, and Myra, a prostitute. It was based on a brief, real-life encounter in Trafalgar Square, but when Sherwood came to write his play he re-located it to Waterloo Bridge, using its reputation to signal his theme. The two film versions were James Whale’s 1931 film with Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery aka Kent Douglass, and, in a cameo role, a very young Bette Davis; and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. LeRoy’s 1940 version is better known: Leigh came to it fresh from her triumph in Gone With The Wind, and it was a box office hit. But Whale’s 1931 version is the better film, more honest about Myra’s work as a prostitute, and more sensitive in its handling of sexual morality, personal integrity and class privilege.

Rennie’s bridge was declared unsafe in 1923. A ‘temporary’ iron bridge was erected (and was still there almost 20 years later) while rival proposals for a new bridge were endlessly debated by Parliament, press, and the London County Council. The design that we see today was finally agreed in October 1934, to be built by construction company Rendell Palmer & Tritton, which had just successfully built the new Chelsea Bridge; and architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who had just successfully designed Battersea Power Station.


When Nairn referred to the bridge’s “effortless” appearance, the point he was making was that appearances are misleading, that design is always difficult and intricate. But why and how does Waterloo Bridge appear to be ‘effortless’ in the first place?

Waterloo Bridge #3

The key, I think, is the horizontality of the bridge’s design. Its five elegantly shallow arches, and plain facing of light Portland stone, and low parapet, and elongated hand-rails, and the absence of visibly-vertical features or obstructions, all combine to create the impression of a cool and confident horizontal leap across the river; the sort of leap we associate with an arched bridge.

Waterloo Bridge #4

But despite appearances, Waterloo is not an arched bridge. It is a box-girder bridge. Behind the appearance of five elegant arches the real work is being done by reinforced concrete box-girders, cantilevered on the piers, relying on the sheer brute strength of their material: high quality concrete, and thousands of reinforcing steel bars held together by 1.5 million welds. The effortless-looking arches are, as Pevsner says, “disguise”. None of this makes Waterloo Bridge any less elegant in appearance. And yet, absurdly perhaps, I find it disappointing. The effortless simplicity of the form is so striking that we want it – or at least I want it – to be matched by a similar effortless simplicity of function. But it isn’t.


When construction began in 1937, it was carried out by thousands of regular building workers – men, of course. When war broke out in 1939 labour shortages started to appear, here as elsewhere, as men joined the forces. The new bridge might, in principle, have been abandoned or mothballed, but wartime had transformed it into a strategic priority, a key river-crossing. In other priority sectors – agriculture, munitions – labour shortages were met by drafting in women workers. Did the same happen at Waterloo Bridge?

Waterloo Bridge #1

There is a longstanding conviction in London that it did. For years the bridge has been known, to some at least, as ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’ in memory of the women workers who were said to have helped build it. Until recently there was no hard evidence to back this up, but now there is. Historian Christine Hall has found witnesses and photographs which confirm it, and film-maker Karen Livesey has made a short film about it: you can watch it online at The Women’s Engineering Society is also on the case: more info at

A majestic colonnade

Waterloo Bridge’s clean, elegant, apparently ‘effortless’ leap across the Thames is therefore deceptive. Behind it lies a hard-working, muscular feat of engineering; plus complex histories and memories of this bridge, and of its predecessor.

I have indulged in a certain disappointment that the ‘effortlessness’ of the bridge’s form is not matched by a similar ‘effortlessness’ of function. But this is of course entirely naïve, because if all that hard work were not being done behind the elegant façade, there would be no bridge, and therefore no façade to beguile us with its elegance. Nairn was right: the point about Waterloo Bridge is that it looks effortless, but isn’t.

The bridge opened to traffic in August 1942, amid much excitement. The local press reported that the first person to cross was 16-year old Leonard Mitchell from Balham, on his bike. It’s clear that the opening fuelled a real sense of London pride, partly because the job had been done during and despite the worst of the Blitz, and partly because it was just so handsome.

One feature in particular caught the attention – a feature which is only possible because the arches are essentially cosmetic. The Builder (14 August 1942) described it like this:

“An unusual effect results from the employment of twin piers and arches … enabling a view to be obtained underneath the bridge along its entire length”.

Nairn was just as enthusiastic, twenty years later:

“ … the arches don’t run the full width of the bridge; there is a deep channel between them, which gives a breath-taking view from directly underneath … looking down what seems to be a majestic colonnade”.

This majestic view is still there for us today, just outside the entrance to the National Film Theatre, next to the second hand book-stalls.

Waterloo Bridge #5