Buildings have always been designed to signify something, whether as temples, cathedral or palaces. But with the advent of electricity buildings could be used to advertise products and services through neon lighting, night and day. We will explore the buildings of the first half of the 20th century, designed with commercial gain in mind, such as Michelen House in Chelsea, completed in 1911 for the tyre firm of the same name. It was designed by Francois Espinasse, and adorned with details relating to cars and bicycles, such as the Michelen Man design. Espinasse was not an architect by training but an engineer, but he understood that the primary function of this building was to advertise.
The cinemas of the 1920s and 30s were the epitome of the idea of the building as billboard. Hundreds of screens were built in the Golden age of cinema, for chains such as Odeon, ABC and Gaumont. The cinema architects had to produce increasingly extravagant buildings to attract customers to their particular chain.The designers often went for a theme such as Moorish, as seen at the Ealing Odeon, opposite Northfields station. Designed by Cecil Masey, the cinema opened in September 1932, and was originally called Spanish City Cinema. The exterior has a Spanish style frieze and cornices above the entrance, with whitewashed walls. The interior, designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, features a tent-like roof, turret style projections and Moorish arches. This style was known as Atmospheric for obvious reasons, and the idea was to immerse the customers in an exotic atmosphere, giving them a total experience.
Another example from Ealing is the Himalya Palace in Southall, designed by George Coles, the king of the cinema architects. Coles designed about 90 Cinemas, mostly for the Odeon chain, in a variety of styles. The Himalaya Palace, opened in 1928, is designed as a Chinese Pagoda with a red tiled roof and dragon gargoyles on the outside, and inside with chinese lanterns and decorative plasterwork in red and gold. Away from the Atmospheric style we have the Art Deco or moderne cinema. A great example of this is the Harrow Dominion cinema, designed by Fredrick Bromige and opened in 1936. The building features a magnificent art deco facade, unfortunately covered up since 1962, due to the cost of its upkeep. Plans are underway to uncover and restore the facade as part of a redevelopment into apartments. Bromige also designed the nearby Rayners Lane Grosvenor cinema, which has its streamline facade still uncovered. The frontage has a curving concrete mullion, said to be shaped after an elephant's trunk. Like many cinemas it has now been turned into a church.
The next building type we are going to explore is the underground station. In 1915 Charles Holden met Frank Pick, then the commercial director of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, the forerunner of London Underground. Pick wanted to revolutionize design on the underground network, bringing in a new eye-catching modernist influenced look. Pick wanted the stations to communicate speed, modernity and light. The tube network already had a chief architect, Stanley Heaps, but Pick felt his designs were not modern enough.
Holden's first step in bringing modernism to the underground were his designs for eight stations at the southern end of the Northern Line, featuring double height ticket halls clad simply in Portland stone. Holden’s next step was the Piccadilly line stations of the early 30s. With designs such as Sudbury Town and Chiswick Park, Holden managed to balance form and function, allowing passengers to move quickly from the street to the platform or vice versa, using Scandinavian influenced buildings. Holden used basic plans for these stations, usually rectangular or circular. Holden wasn't a modernist ideologue, but recognized that these forms were the most efficient and harmonious for the function of the buildings.
Although Holden’s designs were simple in plan, this gave the buildings a recognizable silhouette, when lit up at night. Pick and Holden were impressed by the use of night time lighting on their trip to Europe and decided to implement a similar technique when designing the new Piccadilly line stations. However, Pick had other ideas. By 1934 Pick was CEO of the new London Passenger Transport Board, and wanted to expand the influence of the organization into all forms of travel in the capital. Two new stations were to be built on the Piccadilly Line, near the Great West Road, only 10 years old at that point.The stations, Boston Manor and Osterley, both differed to the design of previous stations in that Pick had pressured Holden to produce something more eye catching rather than being a function of their purpose. Pick wanted the stations to stand out alongside the new road, and attract commuters who might be tempted to travel by car or bus.
The desire to attract attention can be seen in the design of the stations. Gone are the open ticket hall designs of Sudbury Town and Chiswick Park, replaced by low, squat buildings with tall, eye catching towers. These towers look rather like the towers on two buildings that Pick and Holden visited during a European tour in 1930, The Volharding Building in the Hague and De Telegraaf Building in Amsterdam.The Volharding building was specifically designed to allow as much advertising space as possible on the outside of the building. It was illuminated at night allowing for 24 hour adverts. The lighting of buildings in Europe impressed Pick and Holden on their 1930 trip, and they imported this idea when designing the Piccadilly Line stations of the 30s.
The pressure to design more eye catching stations did cause a slight rift between Pick and Holden, which was exacerbated by Holden’s preoccupation with his University of London work which kept him busy for the rest of the 30s. Another station, not by Holden, but by Herbert Welch and Felix Lander also shows a similar design to Boston Manor and Osterley. Park Royal station was opened in 1936, alongside Western Avenue in Ealing, and repeats the low ticket hall building, offset by a tall, eye catching tower.
Wallis, Gilbert & Partners were the pre-eminent factory designers of the interwar years. Established by Thomas Wallis in 1916, the practice produced a wave of factories, becoming more extravagant in design as the 1920’s became the 1930’s. The building that brought them to the attention of the architectural and wider world was the Firestone Factory on the Great West Road in Brentford.
Completed in 1928, the art deco office building which fronted on to the road, quickly became the symbol of Firestone in Britain. Behind this facade was the actual, more down to earth production buildings, which were nevertheless meticulously planned out for the most efficient use of space and time. The factory was famously demolished on August Bank Holiday weekend 1930, as the papers to save it, sat in an in-tray at the Department of the Environment.
A few years after the Firestone factory, the practice would begin work on maybe their most famous building, the Hoover Factory at Perivale. Situated like the Firestone building, along one of the new arterial roads running into London, the factory became the symbol of the Hoover brand, projecting modernity and aspiration. Again like the Firestone building, the main administration block faces Western Avenue, with the production buildings behind. The 220ft long building has generous glazing, is decorated with colored tiles and also features Erich Mendelsohn influenced towers at each end.
The Hoover factory did not just advertise its wares to the road in front, but also to the train line at the rear with a neon sign of the slogan “Beats as it sweeps as it cleans”. The building was also used in posters and adverts for the Hoover brand. Buildings like the Hoover Factory and Firestone building were designed not to be seen from a fixed point, but as Joan Skinner says in her book on Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, viewed by “A young man on his motorcycle and the flapper on the pillion” speeding past. These buildings were meant to be assessed in horizontal motion, with the rhythm of stripes, squares, glasswork and render altering as you change speed and your position to the building along the road.
The flashy style of the building led to it being derided by some architectural critics. Nikolas Pevsner famously called it “ perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road typical of the by-pass factories”. Thomas Wallis was quite honest about the commercial aspect of his designs, telling the RIBA in 1933 that “ A little money spent on something to focus the attention of the public is not money wasted but a good advertisement”. Not every Wallis, Gilbert & Partners factory was quite as extravagant, sometimes the client did not want a billboard for a building. Many of these buildings have now been converted into apartments.
Of course cinemas, tube stations and factories were not the only 1930s buildings to act as billboards for their services. Garages, showrooms and shops all tried to grab the attention of the passersby. Stuart Cameron Kirby designed a range of moderne car showrooms, such as this one in Staines. They were designed for Stewart and Arden, exclusive dealers for Morris cars in London. They set up their showrooms on the new roads into London, away from the traditional car showroom areas of Great Portland St and Piccadilly. The buildings had long plate glass windows, illuminated at night to show threat cars to passing motorists.
Electricity Showrooms proliferated across the capital in the 1930s, as electricity replaced gas as the main power source. The new showrooms were designed to showcase the various electrical appliances, like radios, televisions and kettles. The shops were designed in a futuristic style, all glistening chrome and shiny glass. Even priests of high modernism such as Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry were persuaded to design such buildings, as can still be seen at their shop in Cannon St, now a noodle bar. Other high street shops adopted the futuristic look, fitted out in vitro lite glass and adorned in neon. One of the most famous examples is the HMV store on Oxford St from 1939 by Joseph Emberton, with its black granite and neon exterior.
The new exhibition centre buildings of the 30s were also intended as giant billboards, letting passerby’s know which convention or exhibition there were hosting. Emberton designed the new hall for the Olympia centre in 1929, with its monumental streamline facade. The other famous west London exhibition centre, Earls Court was opened in 1937, with its giant concrete framed frontage able to accommodate eye catching signs.
The 1920s and 30s were the time that modernism and art deco (slowly) made its impact on Britain. It was also an era of expanded commercialisation, where advertising and what we call today “branding” started to make its way into the cityscape. These two strands combined, and have helped shape the Britain we live in today.
In December 1955 The Architectural Review published an essay by Reyner Banham titled “The New Brutalism”, which defined for the first time, the bold, new architecture emerging from Britain and Europe in reaction to the watered down modernism of the immediate post war period. The word Brutalism had been used two years before by Alison Smithson in Architectural Design when describing a project for a house in Soho. The origin of the term “Brutalism” has a few different origin stories, from the straightforward (from Breton Brut, the French term for raw concrete) to the more fanciful (an amalgamation of Peter Smithson’s nickname, Brutus, and Alison’s name).
The term Brutalism has come to mean any concrete building built in the postwar period, but to begin with it was much more specific, much more of a philosophy than a design guide. The main idea was “truth to materials”, i.e. not disguising the concrete or brick or steel being used in the construction of the building, but making the materials an integral part of its appearance. Banham summarizes Brutalism as “1, Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities 'as found'."
Banham’s 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, brought together influences on Brutalism such as Le Corbusier and Owen Williams, and examples from around the world. The British examples included buildings by the Smithsons, Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall, Denys Lasdun, Owen Luder, Lyons, Israel & Ellis, John Voelcker and many others.
Banham was born in Norwich in 1922, and after an engineering scholarship studied at the Coulthard Institute of Arts, where Nikolaus Pevsner was one of his tutors. He was employed by the Architectural Review in 1952, where he wrote “The New Brutalism”. His criticism and theories were very influential on the post war architectural scene, through his journalism and books such as “The Well Tempered Environment”, “Theory and Design in the First Machine Age” and “Megastructures”. Banham would also go on to teach at the Bartlett, UCL and the University of California. He died in London in 1988.
Brutalism fell out of architectural fashion in the 1970s as architects and local authorities moved away from tower blocks to smaller, less uniform designs, and the oil crisis hit, making it more expensive to build on such a scale. Its reappreciation at the start of the 21st century has seen its praises sung in books and blogs, on social media and even on tea towels, but it is still a highly divisive term, much misused by both friends and foes. So it is worth reminding ourselves where it came from and what it originally meant, 65 years after Banham’s article.
You can read the original article HERE
It's that time of year where we send our Christmas lists off to Santa, so we thought we would do a quick gift guide for the modernist at heart. Most of the books featured were published this year, but we have also included a few from 2019 that we missed at the time.
First up is Luke Agbaimoni’s The Tube Mapper Project, a wonderful photographic journey around the tube network, capturing the hidden beauty of the underground world we all travel through but seldom notice. The project takes in Underground, Overground and DLR stations, and features poetry inspired by the tube and the city it serves. Luke also has Tube Mapper 2021 calendars available, both book and calendars can be purchased HERE
Mark Amies is a writer and broadcaster who is a regular feature on Robert Elms BBC London Radio show. Out of his appearances grew London’s Industrial Past, an exploration of the factories that were once the backbone of the capitals manufacturing industry. In the first half of the 20th century every neighbourhood had a factory, producing everything from biscuits to aircraft. Featuring archive images and illustrations, it's the perfect gift for the local history enthusiast. The book is available HERE
Moving northwards, Brutal North: Post War Architecture in the North of England is the new book from Simon Phipps, the man behind the Brutal London and Concrete Poetry books. The book focuses on the post war concrete buildings of the north, with buildings such as the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield and Preston Bus Station shown in all their glory through Simon’s powerful monochrome imagery. The book can be bought HERE
Lukas Novotny published the excellent Modern London book last year, illustrating the capital architecture from the 1920s right through to the present day. Lukas also has a range of gifts available, from christmas cards to bookmarks to illustrations, perfect for the design buff in your life (even if that's you). All of them can be found HERE
If you want to explore some Modernist neighbourhoods (more of which later..). Stefi Orazi has been producing a set of walking guides over the last 6 months, covering the best places to wander and see some of the best modernist architecture. So far, the guides cover Highgate, Hampstead, Archway & Belsize Park, Brussels, Blackheath and Bloomsbury to Barbican via Barnsbury. The guides are available individually or as a set which can be gift wrapped). Get them, and much more from Stefi’s site HERE
If you like maps and want something further afield, Blue Crow Media have you covered. Their architecture and design maps take in everywhere from Chicgao to Tbilisi, via our own capital. You can see the full selection HERE.
For the post war architectural devotee, two books published this year may be of interest. Richard Seifert: British Brutalist Architect by Dominic Bardbury chronicles the career of Seifert and explores 12 of his most famous buildings from Centre Point to the Natwest Tower. The other book is The Architectural Association in the Post War Years by Patrick Zamarian, an exploration on the role of the Architectural Association in the forming of post war architecture in Britain. Architects such as Neave Brown, Richard Rogers, Ted Cullinan, Nicholas Grimshaw, and nany, many more attanted or taught there, making it a crucible of design and ideas.
If you want to get the architecturally minded in your circle something truly important, then what could be better than membership to the 20th Century Society? The C20 have been dedicated to saving, publicizing and exploring the buildings and design of 20th Century Britain and beyond. Becoming a member means you will relieve the C20 Magazine a few times a year plus their annualish C20 Journal, discounts on a range of talks and tours, and most importantly the knowledge that your money is helping preserve the architecture you love. You can also purchase their book 100 20th-Century Gardens and Landscapes, featuring a contribution from yours truly!
Of course we can’t end with mentioning our own Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land. If you haven't got it already, we think it is the essential guidebook to discovering the modernist treasures of London’s suburbs. Featuring chapters on 9 London Boroughs and 2 counties plus maps, descriptions of each building and colour photographs. You can get your copy HERE.
Whatever you get and give, we hope you all have a happy and safe Christmas!
All these books, plus a few others, can be seen on our Bookshop.org page HERE
J.G. Ballard was born on 15th November 1930 in the Shanghai International Settlement, where his father was managing director of a subsidiary of Calico Printers Association, a Manchester textile company. Following the outbreak of war and his internment, the basis of his book Empire of the Sun, Ballard and his mother and sister returned to Britain, where he studied medicine. After a spell in the RAF, Ballard took up his writing career, starting off selling short science fiction stories to magazines like New Worlds and Science Fantasy, before publishing his first novel in 1961.
Ballards output of short stories and novels, which ranged from 1961 until his death in 2009, continuously tackles the problems of architecture and the built environment, with his protagonist often cast as architects and frequent mentions of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in his early short stories. His most famous work that tackles architecture is the 1975 novel High Rise, whose main character is the titular building, where civilization crumbles as the architect sits in his penthouse flat. The building in High Rise was said to be influenced by the Barbican Estate by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, and the architect character, Antony Royal, supposedly based on Erno Goldfinger.
“I came to live in Shepperton in 1960. I thought: the future isn't in the metropolitan areas of London. I want to go out to the new suburbs, near the film studios. This was the England I wanted to write about, because this was the new world that was emerging.”
We won’t analyze High Rise or any of Ballards work here, but we will explore some of the buildings that were part of his life or that he admired. Ballard famously lived in suburban Shepperton, where he worked and looked after his three children after his wife Mary died in 1964. The house he lived in, 36 Old Charlton Road, is a typical 1930s sun trap suburban house. The sun trap styled house was developed by the practice of Welch, Cachemaille-Day & Lander, who produced houses designs for building companies like Haymills and Roger Malcolm, and it rapidly became the default suburban house design from the start of the 1930s. The design of the house itself combined streamlined metal framed windows (the sun trap), patterned tiling, stained glass windows and sunken doorways. Some of the houses had flat roofs, but most, like Ballard's, were pitched. The fact that Ballard lived in such a normal suburban house was a point of fascination with critics, as if a master of such dystopian writing could only live in an abandoned electric substation or indeed a high rise block.
The Westway is an elevated dual carriageway which takes the A40 trunk road from west to central London. Construction began in September 1966 and it was opened in July 1970. It was designed by the Greater London Council Architects Department with engineering by G. Maunsell & Partners. The roadway is 2.5miles long and was conceived as part of the London Ringsway network, a ring road project that was never completed. The Westway features in two Ballard novels, Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974). The latter novel finds Robert Maitland, an architect, trapped in the intersecting roadway where again civilization breaks down amid concrete. Ballard would later call the Westway “like Angkor Wat... a stone dream that will never awake”.
“Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?”
Ballard was frequently asked about his favourite building throughout his career, and his answers are fascinating and often in keeping with his obsessions. One of those was the car parks of Watford. Reports differ about which was his main inspiration between Church Road and Sutton car parks, but Ballard called Watford “the mecca of car parks” and made a short film, CRASH!, which would inspire his later novel. Three car parks were built in Watford between 1965 and 1970 as part of a transformation of the town centre. Car parks in Rosslyn Road, Church Road and Sutton Road were designed by B.L. Williams and F.C. Sage of the Borough Engineers Dept. with helix spiral ramps and rugged concrete construction. Car parks are a theme of his short story collection The Atrocity Exhibition, and he says in the short film CRASH! that he sees “multi story car parks and their canted floors as a depository for cars seemed to let one into a new dimension.”
“I've decided to recast myself as Utopian. I like this landscape of the M25 and Heathrow. I like airfreight offices and rent-a-car bureaus. I like dual carriageways. When I see a CCTV camera, I know I'm safe”
Ballard would later say his favourite building was the Heathrow Hilton hotel. The Hilton, one of a cluster of hotels around Heathrow Airport, was designed by the firm of Michael Manser & Associates and opened in 1990 and later won awards from the RIBA and Civic Trust. Ballard said that it was a masterpiece and “keeps alive the spirit of the 20th century’s greatest architect, Le Corbusier. Beautifully proportioned, it resembles a cross between a brain surgery hospital and a space station”. Indeed Ballard seemed to have seen Heathrow as the real city centre, saying that Shepperton was a suburb of Heathrow rather than London.
Though brutalist estates like Trellick Tower and the Barbican loom large in his work, we can see from the buildings that Ballard talked about in interviews, his obsession remained the car and all the structures associated with it; flyovers, underpasses, car parks and the roadside hotel.
Hornsey Town Hall was officially opened on 4th November 1935 by the Duke and Duchess of Kent, just under a year on from when Mayor William Grimshaw had laid the foundation stone on 29th November 1934. The town hall, which replaced the council's previous offices in Southwood Lane, was designed by architect Reginald Uren, winner of the competition to design the new building. Uren was born in Petone, New Zealand in 1906, moving to Britain in 1930. After arriving in Britain, Uren studied at the Bartlett School and worked for Charles Holden. He entered the competition for the new town hall in 1933, vying against over 200 other entries, with his design picked by the assessor C. Cowles Voysey (designer of town halls at Watford and Bromley)
Uren’s design was heavily influenced by the Dutch architect Willem Dudok. Dudok was the Municipal Architect of the town of Hilversum in North Holland. The style he developed for the town grew out of the Amsterdam School of architecture, influenced by the brick expressionism as seen in Germany at the start of the 20th Century, and the Prairie school of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dudock’s most famous building in Hilversum was the town hall, completed in 1931.
The new building at Hornsey featured a two storey building in pink brick with a rectangular tower at the junction of the L-shaped front that looks onto the small green. The exterior has long first floor windows with bronze balconies, above a triple door entrance. The tower also features Portland stone decoration by Albert J. Ayers. Inside, the building contained the council chamber, committee rooms and offices. The interior was finished with wood panelling, etched glass screens and metalwork balustrades.
The other buildings flanking the green were Broadway House and the Electricity showrooms. Broadway House was designed by Drew and Carter as Gas Showrooms, and completed in 1937. It features reliefs above the ground floor depicting the uses of gas. The electricity showrooms on the opposite side of the green to Broadway House, was designed by Uren’s partnership, Slater, Moberly & Uren and completed in 1938. It also features artwork, with a carved brick facade representing light, above the entrance.
The design won Uren the RIBA bronze medal and all three of the buildings were listed in January 1981. By then the Municipal Borough of Hornsey had been abolished and the area transferred to the new borough of Haringey, who used the 1958 Wood Green Civic Centre as their administrative base. The old town hall hosted concerts and events, until it fell into dereliction in the 1980s. The hall was leased out as an art centre and in 2019 renovation work was carried on the buildings, which are often used for filming period dramas. The site is currently undergoing redevelopment into a cultural centre and hotel with new housing being built around the town hall buildings.
Serge Chermayeff was born in the city of Grozny, in what is now known as Chechnya, on October 8th 1900. His family moved to Britain and Chermyaeff attended Harrow School, before completing his further education in various European countries. After working as a journalist and a designer, he trained as an architect and went into partnership with German architect Erich Mendelsohn, who had left Germany for Britain to escape the Nazis. Like Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry, Chermayeff and Mendelsohn had a brief but interesting working relationship. Together they designed the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea (1935), the Cohen House, Chelsea (1936) and Shrubs Wood, Chalfont St Giles (1934).
The De La Warr Pavilion was one of the first prominent modernist public buildings in Britain. Chermayeff and Mendelsohn had won a competition to design it, promoted by Herbrand Scakville, the 9th Earl of De La Warr, looking to regenerate the town of Bexhill-on-Sea. The finished building uses reinforced concrete around a steel frame, designed by engineer Felix Samuley. The long horizontal shape is punctuated by a glass stair tower at one end, containing a steel spiral staircase. The building is now Grade I listed, having been refurbished by John McAslan in the early 2000s.
The Cohen house at 64 Old Church Street, Chelsea, also has a long low appearance like the De La Warr pavilion. It was designed for the publisher Dennis Cohen, and despite its appearance is not built of concrete but rendered brick. It was designed to be in harmony with its neighbour No,66, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry for Cohen’s cousin, playwright and MP, Benn Levy. The Cohen house now features a conservatory by Norman Foster, added in the 1970s.
Their partnership was dissolved in 1938 with Chermayeff moving to the United States in 1940 (Mendelsohn would move a year later). Apart from his works with Mendelsohn. Chermayeff left behind a number of other buildings in Britain; a house in Rugby (1934), the Gilbey Office and Factory in Camden (1937) and his own house in Halland, Sussex (1938), all now listed. The offices for the Gilbey Wine and Gine company are situated at the junction of Jamestown Road and Oval Road in Camden, and Chermayeff and Samuley designed the foundations with cork insulation to protect the wine from road and rail vibrations. His own house, Bentley Wood in Halland, was designed with a timber frame of jarrah wood, with the grounds landscaped by Christopher Tunnard.
He spent the next 35 years teaching at various institutes, including Havard, Yale, MIT and the California School of Fine Arts. He designed and built his own house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and spent time there painting. He had two sons, Peter who also became an architect and Ivan, a prominent graphic designer. Chermayeff died in Cape Cod in 1996.
Sunday August 23rd 2020 is the 40th anniversary of the demolition of the Firestone Factory on the Great West Road in Brentford. It is an event which sparked a backlash against the quick demolition of such buildings (although it did not stop them) and galvanised the growing consensus around preserving 20th Century buildings. We shall explore the building itself and its design, and the aftermath of its demolition.
The American Firestone Tire & Rubber Company had run a distribution base from Tottenham Court Road from 1915, but the 33.3% import tax was reducing their profit margin. By 1928 they had decided to build a British factory, and a 28 acre site alongside the newly opened Great West Road running out of Brentford was chosen. The plot was bounded by road, railway and canal, with the road frontage measuring 1260 feet, sloping down to the carriageway. Firestone wanted an integrated site, with raw goods being received and making their way through the factory and leaving as the finished product. Their factory in Akron, Ohio, built by Osborn Engineering, was designed to extract maximum efficiency from the journey of the raw material through the industrial process. In awarding the commission to Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, Firestone employed a practice who understood this idea.
By the late 1920s, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners had already been practicing for around 12 years, designing factories and industrial buildings all over Britain. Two of those buildings were in nearby Hayes, for the Gramophone Company and Hayes Cocoa, but the Firestone commission was to be their most prestigious project yet. The design, which was submitted in February 1928 and altered over the next 6 months, consisted of a main administration block facing the Great West Road with the single storey factory building behind and a four storey dispatch and storage building further back. The journey of the raw material started in this four storey block, journeying through the production block before exiting as tyres back through the four storey building.
Of course it is the art deco office building which people conjure up when they think of the Firestone building. The building was to act not just as an administration centre but also as an advert for the company and for what we would these days call its “brand”, looking to project speed, glamour and aspiration. The building was a mix of Classical allusions. In plan it was a Greek or Roman temple with its row of columns along the frontage, in detail it was Egyptian, with references to the gods Horus, Ra and Amun in its decoration. Egyptian design was still popular 6 years after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922. By night the building was floodlit, producing a spectacular landmark along the Great West Road.
Despite the lamentations at the time of its demise, and indeed now, the Firestone Factory was not always feted by the architectural press. After initial good notices when it was opened, the building and others designed by the firm were described by architect Maxwell Fry as displaying “all the worst sentimentalities of uncultured commercialism”, whilst others worried about the effect of soot and dust on the brilliant white facades.
Firestone decided to close the factory in November 1979, moving all operations to their Wrexham plant, with the building being purchased by the conglomerate Trafalgar House. When they became aware that the Department of the Environment under Michael Heseltine was planning to list the building after the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980, they immediately acted to demolish the art deco facade. This act caused widespread outrage, and boosted the profile of what was then The Thirties Society, now the 20th Century Society. It also caused a reassessment of the listing criteria for 20th Century buildings, allowing many more pre-1939 buildings to be preserved.
Now all that survives of the building is the gateway and perimeter fence, although there are three other Wallis, Gilbert & Partners designs nearby; the Coty Factory, the Pyrene Factory and the Sir William Burnett workshop. Of course, the Firestone Factory wasn't the only art deco building demolished along this stretch. A peruse of the area on the Britain from Above website reveals a number of interesting looking buildings of the period, all now sadly gone. However, the Firestone Factory did not die in vain, its demolition led to a renewal of interest in buildings of period and their preservation, enabling us to enjoy some of the great designs of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners from the golden age of factory design.
The 20th Century Society still plays an important role in preserving the best buildings of the last 100 years. Help it prevent more demolitions like the Firestone Factory by becoming a member HERE
This website is very fond of celebrating the work of Charles Holden for London Underground in the 1920s and 30s. His designs brought modernism to the suburbs, especially the extensions for the Northern and Piccadilly Lines. Holden designed about 44 underground stations, the majority of which are now listed. However, there are a number of station designs which didn't get built, and it is those we will investigate here.
The majority of the unbuilt Holden designs for London Underground centre around the New Works Programme of 1935-40, and the cancelled Northern Heights project This was meant to extend the Northern Line further north than its terminals at High Barnet and Edgware. But there are a few unbuilt projects from earlier in Holden’s relationship with the underground.
Holden’s first underground stations came as part of the Northern Line extension to Modern, designing 8 stations that were completed between 1925-26. Not long after in 1928, Holden and his practice, Adams, Holden & Pearson, were asked to design a station for the Central Line that would have been called Notting Hill Gate. It would have stood on the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Pembridge Gardens, and the design is similar to Holden’s for Bond St station the same year, a simple facade in brick and stone.
Further west, Holden was asked to design a new station at Hounslow East, having also designed Hounslow West in 1931. Holden’s design here was a “Sudbury Box” style station with a tower that abutted the above ground railway viaduct, just as at Alperton. The station design was approved by London Underground CEO Frank Pick in June 1931, but construction never started. The station retained its 1909 station building until 2003 when it was replaced by a new station by Acanthus Lawrence and Wrightson Architects.
On the other branch of the westen Piccadilly line to Uxbridge, Holden had developed a modular station design that could be used at different locations along the extension. This was never used, like Holden’s various designs for a station building on the awkward site at Hillingdon, where again the old station building survived until 1993, when it was replaced by the new station by Cassidy Taggart.
One more Piccadilly station worth mentioning is Cockfosters. Opened in 1933, the station as built has modest street level buildings with one of Holden’s best interiors at platform level; all exposed concrete, looking forward to post war brutalism. The original plan for the station would have seen two brick towers either side of the Cockfosters Road, where the current buildings are, a grand terminus building for the new settlements around Trent Park that were stopped by the Green Belt Act.
As mentioned earlier, the Northern Heights plan was to extend the Northern Line into Hertfordshire, pushing on from Barnet and Edgware, as well as integrating former London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) lines to the underground service. This was to be achieved under the New Works Programme of 1935-40, which looked to expand various tube lines and replace existing stations with modern designs. Highgate station would have been a connecting hub between the Northern Line and the LNER service. The site where the current and proposed station is situated is very awkward, on a sloping site on Highgate Hill. Stanley Heaps, chief architect for London Underground, produced a design with a hexagonal station building before Holden produced his designs. Holden’s designs would have encompassed a street level ticket hall with a circular tower, and then a long escalator ride down to the new platforms which were topped by a 12 ft high statue of Dick Whittington. Revisions were made to this design, and construction commenced in January 1939, with the station starting service a year later. However war time privations struck hard and building was stopped in March 1942. Post war, the design was strpped back to the basics and officially opened in August 1957. The island platforms are still intact and can be visited through the London Transport Museum Hidden London tours.
A few stops north, Finchley Station station was to be redesigned, with a new station replacing the Victorian era building. Holden designed a number of schemes alongside New Zealand architect Reginald Uren, who would design Rayners Lane station alongside Holden. The various plans situated buildings either side of Ballards Lane, usually with a number of towers, sometimes glazed at street level. For reasons unknown the rebuilding project was never started, and the original station is still there.
The extension of the Edgware branch of the Northern Line would have bought new stations at Brockley Hill, Elstree South and Bushey Heath. Brockley Hill station was to be designed between the office of Stanley Heaps and the planning office of All Souls College, owner of some of the land the extension would pass through. It was to be built on a viaduct next to Edgware Way, and would have incorporated a curving forecourt of shops. Work on the viaduct was started in 1939 but abandoned due to the outbreak of war. Remains of the viaduct can still be seen between the Edgware Way roundabout and Edgwarebury Brook.
Holden was asked to design the two stations after Brockley Hill, at Elstree South and Bushey Heath. Elstree South would have been located further along the Edgware Way, just north of the area that would become the M1 motorway. As usual a few different designs were produced, the last one featured a station sitting over the tracks with a Chiswick Park style square tower. A statue of a figure in Roman dress was also to have been included in the site, alluding to the nearby Roman settlement of Sulloniacis.
Bushey Heath station would have been the end of the extension, and located west of Elstree South next to the A41 roundabout. The building would have been in the centre of a new development, built to incorporate the expected continuation of the 1930s housing. Of course World War II and the Green Belt Act put paid to this sprawl. No firm plans were made, either by Holden or Heaps successor Thomas Bilbow, but various amenities were to have been included in the scheme including a pub, a cinema and a parade of shops. No construction was ever started on the scheme, and the Northern Heights project was officially canceled in 1950.
As well as the unbuilt stations, there are a few what-ifs in Holden’s designs for the eastwards Central Line extension. As part of the New Works Programme from 1935-40, Holden was asked to design 3 stations at Wanstead, Redbridge and Gants Hill. Building was started on all three stations prior to World War 2, but put on hold when men and materials became scarce. When construction restarted after the war, Holden’s original designs were revised to cut costs. Wanstead was originally to have glass bricks forming part of the ticket hall and its tower, along with a carving of St George and the Dragon by Joseph Armitage. The final design jettisoned these in favour of austere prefabricated concrete panels finished in grey render, with black tiles around the station entrance.
The design for Redbridge was to take the glass theme even further, with an almost totally translucent ticket hall, and an all glass tower incorporating a glass etching from the Paris 1937 Exposition. Obviously this would prove too expensive post war, so the building was finished with brick and tile. Thankfully the next station along, Gants Hill was less affected by shortages, with its Moscow Metro inspired platform area left alone. What it did lose, was a brick clock tower at street level, that would have sat in the roundabout above the underground ticket hall.
Of course, Holden’s most famous unbuilt project is his designs for the University of London. Holden had been appointed to design a new complex of buildings for the University, who wanted to move from Kensington. Holden designed a proto-groundscraper, covering the whole area from Montague Place to Torrington Street. Construction was started in 1932, but funds for the whole project ran out, and the only completed part is now the Grade II* listed Senate House and Library.
We have plenty of underground stations, and an array of other buildings like substations, signal boxes and depots,all designed by Charles Holden in the golden period between 1925 and 1940, but it's always interesting to think of what might have been…. Next stop Elstree South!
Bright Underground Spaces by David Lawrence
Underground History website
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to help you discover the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings. Go HERE to get your copy.
London Zoo opened in April 1828 as a scientific study centre, with grounds laid out by architect Decimus Burton. It opened to the public in 1847, with the grounds expanding and new animal enclosures and public buildings being added by Peter Chalmers Mitchell and John James Joass, such as the Mappin terraces, designed to provide a mountainous habitat for bears and other animals. In 1932 Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton partnership were given a commission by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to design a Gorilla House, a project that would lead to a fruitful period of modernist zoological design.
The Gorilla House consists of a circular plan, half enclosed and half open.The caged, open half can be insulated by a moving screen, allowing the interior climate to be kept warm enough to mirror conditions in the Congo, original home of the Gorillas. The closed half of the drum is constructed of reinforced concrete, with an asphalt flat roof. Alongside Charles Holden’s underground stations (of which some it mirrors in plan) it was one of the first public modernist buildings in Britain. The enclosure was opened on 28th April 1933.
The following year Tecton produced their second building for the zoo, one that would create headlines around the world and come to signify both the positives and negatives of modernist design. The Penguin Pool consists of an elliptical pool containing interlocking spiral ramps, all in brilliant white reinforced concrete. The upper part of the pool has framed viewing areas supported by thin steel columns. The ramps have no such similar support, curving for 14 meters. Their design was made in cooperation with Ove Arup, who would work on many Lubetkin & Tecton projects in the 1930s, with Felix Samuley carrying out the structural analysis. Famously of course the penguins were moved in 2004 and the pool left empty, as the structure was not felt to be a natural environment for them.
Tecton also designed a combined entrance gate, office and kiosk for the northern side of the zoo in 1938. Another building Tecton designed for the zoo was the Studio of Animal Art. The building was the first part of what would have been a complex of buildings used to investigate and research animal behaviour. The studio, the only part built, featured a studio to seat 25 students and two separate workrooms. The studio section contained a cage where animals would be placed for the students to observe. A separate cinema and lecture hall were planned but never built, and the studio was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Nuffield Institute building by Casson and Conder, who also designed the new Elephant and Rhino House in 1965. Tecton had designed an elephant and rhino house for the zoo, but building was stopped at the outbreak of World War II and never completed.
At the same time that Tecton were designing the Penguin Pool in London, they were also given the commission to design a number of buildings at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, also owned by ZSL. Tecton designed an elephant house, a giraffe house, a kiosk and a cafe for Whipsnade. Only two of these four buildings still survive, with the giraffe house and the kiosk demolished. The timber giraffe house was the first completed of the four buildings, built in a rush to accommodate the arrival of the animals who were en route by sea. The local building firm employed to complete the structure did not follow Tectons designs exactly, with the public viewing area being reduced in size. After several modifications through the years, the building was demolished. Another Tecton design that wasn't built was a Gibbon House at Whipsnade, that featured an amphitheatre shaped canopy that would have amplified the Gibbon’s calls over the park.
Neither of the two surviving Tecton buildings at Whipsnade are used for their original purpose. The concrete elephant house, made up of a series of circular stalls, was designed for younger elephants, with the older, larger animals kept elsewhere. Like the penguin pool in London, the elephant house was later deemed unsuitable and the elephants were moved and the building left empty. The restaurant is an annexe to the 18th Century farmhouse in the park, that served as the dining area. The new structure featured a wall of glass bricks for the entrance and views out to the park from two of the other three walls. The wall of glass brick was an idea Lubetkin and Tecton reused on their Finsbury Health Centre in 1938. The building now houses small primates.
Tectons third zoo commission would prove to be their largest. Dudley Zoo was opened in the grounds of Dudley Castle, owned by the Third Earl of Dudley. Tecton designed thirteen buildings for the zoo, between 1935 and 1937, to house a range of animals, many moved from Oxford Zoo which closed in 1936. Twelve of these structures are now listed by Historic England, with only the penguin pool demolished, due to salt water corrosion, in 1979. The animal enclosures number a birdhouse, a bear ravine, an elephant house, a seal lion pool and a polar bear pit. The buildings for visitors that Tecton designed include the famous curved entrance, the Castle restaurant, two cafes and a number of kiosks. The buildings had all deteriorated by the start of the 21st century, and following funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, refurbishment was undertaken from 2012.
Tecton designed a number of highly influential buildings throughout the short life of the practice in the 1930s. Buildings like the Highpoint apartment in Highgate and the Finsbury Health Centre would set new standards for British modernism and be talked about by architects throughout the world. However the buildings that would embed them in the public's imagination were their buildings for animals. Designs such as the Penguin pool at London Zoo would often be the public's first experience of international style modernism, and although not always successful in terms of the original purpose, i.e. as homes for the animals, they remain part of the country's cultural imagination.
Trevor Dannatt was born in London on 15 January 1920. He studied architecture at Regent’s Street Polytechnic, and joined the firm of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew upon leaving. Post war, he joined the architect's department of London County Council under Leslie Martin, and worked on the design of the Royal Festival Hall for the Festival of Britain, alongside Peter Moro.
Later Dannatt formed his own partnership and would go on to design a range of buildings; from houses to schools to churches. His first significant house was for Prof Peter Laslett in Cambridge in 1958, now Grade II listed. His other listed buildings include Blackheath Meeting House (1971), the Assembly Hall at Bootham School, York (1966) and his work at the University of Leicester (1960-62). Dannatt also produced a range of work for local authorities, designing social housing, children's homes and sheltered accommodation.