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.
We are pleased to share our updated website. The site has been freshened up, with a new theme and design, as well as some deeper changes. We have used new fonts throughout, with bolder type for the links and titles. We have also added notes and photos to existing pages, as well as adding over 30 new buildings to the site. We will continue to update the existing pages with photos and additional information over the coming months.
The deeper change comes in the organisation of the site. Previously buildings were arranged into either Interwar or Postwar categories, depending one when they were built, and then into categories of Building Types. This organization came from the early days of the site, when there were fewer buildings. As the site has grown and spread beyond its original North West London home, the amount of buildings has grown dramatically, leading to a somewhat baggy site.
To streamline the site and make easier to use, we have made some organizational changes. The Central London sections were moved to a new site Modernist London a couple of months ago. Now instead of the Interwar/Postwar Building Type organization, the site is organised geographically. All buildings are now listed according to the borough or county they are in, and the boroughs/counties have been grouped into North London, West London, East London, South London and Counties.
Hopefully this reorganization will make it easier for visitors to find buildings in a location they want to explore (the By Borough page was previously the most popular). Of course this geographical emphasis also reflects our forthcoming Guide to Modernism to Metro-Land (published 2020) which will feature modernist buildings from 9 London Boroughs and 2 counties. South London is a new area for the site, and so some of the Southern boroughs have only a few buildings in them, but we will look to expand them soon.
Hopefully you will like the new changes and find them useful. If you have any comments or anything else you’d like to bring to our attention you can leave it in the comment section of the blog or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy!
Nicholas Grimshaw was born in Hove, East Sussex on October 9th 1939. After studying at Wellington College, he won a scholarship to the Architectural Association in London. There he met Peter Cook of Archigram, John Winter and Cedric Price. After leaving he formed a partnership with Terry Farrell, becoming the Farrell/Grimshaw Partnership.
Together, Grimshaw and Farrell designed houses, apartments and factories. There most famous designs were; 125 Park Road, an apartment block overlooking Regents Park with flexibly planned interiors, the Herman Miller building in Bath, a factory scheme clad in fibreglass panels, and also a service tower for student accommodation in Paddington, which added bathroom facilities to a Victorian terrace. The partnership went their separate ways in 1980, with Farrell pursuing a more Post Modernist style.
Grimshaw stuck to the Hi Tech, modernist path he had followed since leaving the AA. A number of his projects from the 80s and 90s have recently been listed; the Sainsbury superstore in Camden and its attached housing on the Grand Union Canal , the former Financial Times Print Works in Tower Hamlets and the Western Morning News offices in Plymouth.
Like his contemporaries, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, his designs were in demand all over the world. His practice, now named Grimshaw Architects, have produced projects throughout Europe and in Australia and the US. Grimshaw was knighted in 2002 and was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 2019. The same year he stepped down as Chairman of the company but continues to be involved as a partner.
Buildings- Falling Lane, Grand Union Canal, Homebase Brentford, Sainsburys Camden
Open House London 2019 is approaching, taking place on 21st and 22nd September. There are hundreds of places to visit, covering 33 London Boroughs. As ever, there are plenty of art deco, modernist and brutalist buildings to explore. Usually in our roundup we list all the buildings we think are worth seeing. This time we thought we would take a more in depth look at 5 buildings we think are worth your time.
Furthest out from Central London is maybe the pick of the bunch. 64 Heath Drive, Gidea Park is a white walled modernist house, designed by Francis Skinner of Tecton. It was built as part of the 1934 Gidea Park Modern Homes Exhibition, which aimed to showcase the best of contemporary house design.The house is constructed of reinforced concrete and set in an L Plan with a roof terrace. The original intention was for this design to be part of a terrace, producing the effect of a long white wall. It won first prize in Category E of the competition, and is now Grade II listed having been restored inside and out. It is open Saturday and Sunday from 2.30-5pm for guided tours of the whole house (12 people max at a time) See the Open House page HERE.
Of the same style and era is Pullman Court in Streatham. An international style modernist block of flats, designed by Frederick Gibberd and completed in 1936. The estate consists of 9 blocks of varying heights containing 218 flats. Like Heath Close, Pullman Court is firmly modernist, with white walls, flat roofs and metal railed balconies. Internally the flats were up to date, including central heating and hot water, and had fitted furnishings such as wireless radio cabinets and electric fires. Pullman Court is open on Sunday from 10am-5pm. More information HERE.
Also built in the 1930’s, but very different from the modernist Heath Drive and Pullman Court is the former Tooting Granada Cinema. The art deco exterior of the building was designed by Cecil Massey, who designed many cinemas fro the Granda chain in the interwar years. The interior was designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, a Russian emigre who specialized in interior design as well as being a theatrical director. The interior is designed in a medieval style, using wood, brick, masonry, mirrors and tiling to create a spectacular experience. As Ian Nairn said in Nairn’s London, “Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don't miss this”. The former cinema is open on Sunday from 9am-12 noon, with a Guided building tour at 9.15am. Full details can be seen HERE.
Moving into the post war era is the Central Hill Estate in Dulwich. Built between 1967 and 1974, the estate is part of the great work of Lambeth Borough Architects Department under Ted Hollamby. The lead architect was Rosemary Stjernstedt, who filled the same role on the Alton estate in Roehampton for London County Council. Here the estate has 374 homes in a mixture of terraced housing and apartments, all arranged on the steep slopes of the hill. The estate has been rejected for listing and the current Lambeth council plan to demolish the estate, so see it while you can! On Sunday there will be resident-led tours between 11am-4pm, and a talk by residents at 2pm. The event page is HERE.
Over in West London is an opportunity to visit the brutalist Embassy of Slovakia in Notting Hill. Built as an embassy for Czechoslovakia in 1970, it was designed by the trio of Jan Bocan, Jan Sramek and Karel Stepansky, alongside Robert Matthew of RMJM. It is constructed of a mixture of prefabricated and in situ concrete sections in what Pevsner called “a snub to classical good manners”. Usually you get told off for trying to take a picture of the embassy, so this is a great opportunity to see it and take photos. The building is open to visit on Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm, as well as hosting the Velvet Generation exhibition, featuring contemporary Slovak design to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Read more HERE.
Of course we will also be hosting our own event for Open House, as our Stanmore art deco and modernist house walking tour enters its fifth year! We will be exploring the houses of the Warren estate and seeing how the expansion of the suburbs in the first part of the 20th century allowed the new styles of art deco and modernism to find their way into British architecture. There will be two tours on Saturday at 10am and 2pm, meeting opposite Stanmore tube station. All the details are HERE. We hope to see you there! Of course there are plenty of other buildings and tours that may interest you over Open House London weekend. You can check out all the buildings on the website HERE.
The Empire Swimming Pool and Arena was officially opened on 25th July 1934 by the Duke of Gloucester. It was built to be part of the 1934 Empire Games, and contained a pool measuring 200 feet by 60 feet, with facilities for ice skating. The stated aim of the building was to create a venue that would “create for Great Britain..the opportunity of establishing itself second to none in the swimming world”. The building, designed by Owen Williams, features three concrete span arches measuring 72 meters (236ft) with exterior supporting counterweight fins, and boxy water towers, giving it somewhat of a fortress-like air. The massive span arches avoid the need for internal pillars and give a maximum viewing field to spectators. The building of the Pool cost £150,000, the equivalent of £1.5 million today.
The original design for the building had curved fins, but these were dropped to simplify construction. The east end of the building was designed to open up, and led to sunbathing terraces and lawns, which have now been removed. The structure was built on top of the ornamental lakes from the British Empire Exhibition, which Williams had been involved in the construction of 10 years earlier. The Pool faced what was originally known as the Empire Stadium, (later Wembley Stadium), and also designed by Owen Williams, along with John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton.
The idea for the arena came from businessman Arthur Elvin, who had bought the Empire Exhibition, including Wembley Stadium, in 1927. Elvin was keen to ensure the grounds continued being a tourist attraction, and so after making the stadium home to football he wanted to bring other sports to the area. As well as being part of the Empire Games, the arena was designed to hold ice hockey matches. After being used as part of the 1948 Olympics, it has come to be somewhat of a national treasure after its conversion to a popular concert venue. The building was Grade II listed in 1976, and since 1978 has been known as Wembley Arena. In 2012 it again hosted events for the Olympics, with badminton and rhythmic gymnastics taking place there.These days it is rather dwarfed by the various buildings going up around it, part of Brent Council’s remaking of the area.
The Empire Pool, along with the Boots Factory buildings in Beeston, probably mark the highpoint of Williams journey from engineer to architect. Williams had had some notable failures in his career, (the Dorchester Hotel, Dollis Hill Synagogue, Warren Fields apartments), often when architectural pretensions obscured the brilliance of his engineering. However, at the Empire Pool at Wembley, he balances both the function and the form, producing one of the best examples of “the New Objectivity” and looking forward to the concrete extravaganzas of the post war era.
London 3: North-West- Pevsner & Cherry
The Design and Performance of the Empire Pool at Wembley- Roy Perlmutter and Robert Mark
Owen Williams By David Yeomans, David Cottam
1964 saw the completion of a number of buildings in Britain that have gone on to be lauded as classic designs and listed, as well as influencing future architects. These buildings by Denys Lasdun, Basil Spence, Alison & Peter Smithson, Cedric Price and others have become exemplifiers of the era of the “White Heat of Technology”, the phrase made famous by Harold Wilson in his speech to Labour Party conference in Scarborough in 1963 (Wilson actually said “the white heat of this revolution” referring to the scientific advances of the time). Today this buildings are commonly labeled as “Brutalist” although their designers did not always feel kindly towards this term. The term brutalist has come to mean any large, concrete building from the 1960s and 70s, but the buildings we will examine from 1964 share a forward looking attitude, using a variety of materials in different forms and styles.
Harold Wilson was elected Prime Minister in October 1964, in part as a result of that speech in Scarborough, which looked forward to a technological future rather than towards an imagined past. Other harbingers of the future that included the first broadcast of Top of the Pops on New Year's Day, the agreement to build a Channel Tunnel in February and the abolition of the death penalty in November. That gleaming beacon of technological progress, the Post Office Tower, was completed on 15th July (although it wouldn't come into service until October 1965). Looming nearly 600 ft over Bloomsbury, the communications tower designed by Eric Bedford of the Ministry of Works was built as part of a network of Ultra High Frequency transmission towers, designed to boost telephone, radio and television communications. The tower was sited in Howland Street where the Museum Telephone Exchange sat, a small site necessitating the need for a small construction footprint. The tower was designed with an observation deck and a revolving restaurant, which was leased to Billy Butlin of holiday camp fame. The observation decks were closed in 1971 after an IRA bomb explosion, and the restaurant closed in 1980. The tower was listed in 2003, and remains as a glimpse of a space age future that never quite arrived.
A short distance away, another futuristic building was completed in 1964. What has become known as the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo was completed in October. Although named after the photographer and then husband of Princess Margaret, who led the design team, the idea was brought to life by architect Cedric Price with Frank Newby of F.J. Samuely & Partners as the structural engineer. The structure is constructed of aluminium and steel, and arranged in four tetrahedra with steel cables holding the tubes and netting in place. The structure is designed to allow the birds room to fly and for a path through the space for visitors.The aviary is a clear forerunner to the High Tech buildings of the 1970’s and 80’s produced by Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins, Richard Rogers and others. Foster + Partners are currently renovating the aviary for the actual 21st century.
Another building in the same vicinity as the Post Office Tower and the Snowdon Aviary, and also completed in 1964, is the Royal College of Physicians. Opened on November 5th, and designed by Denys Lasdun, this building on the edge of Regents Park has become one of the few post war buildings to achieve a Grade I listing. The building contains conference rooms, offices, a library, a lecture theatre and a dining room. A prestressed concrete frame forms the structure, with the lower volume of the building clad in dark brick and the upper in pale grey mosaic tiles, part of Lasdun’s brief for the building to fit in with the older terraces surrounding it. The overhanging volume containing the library is held up by three pillars. Inside the building balances everyday functions with ceremonial spaces, and features a freestanding staircase.
Slightly further to the north than the previous trio of buildings is Swiss Cottage Library by Basil Spence, which was opened on November 10th by Queen Elizabeth II (she also opened another library by Spence the same week, at the University of Sussex). It was designed as part of a civic center planned for the borough of Hampstead. With the reorganisation of the London boroughs (the elections for the new boroughs was held in April 1964), only the library and swimming pool part of the plan was built , with the swimming baths and their William Mitchell concrete designs demolished in 2002. The library is a rounded lozenge shape, with three storeys above a basement book stack. The exterior features vertical fins of Portland stone, designed to control sunlight and muffle traffic noise. Between 2000-3, John McAslan & Partners refurbished the building and remodelled the site.
Opening on December 10th was the Economist buildings on St. James Street, Westminster. The buildings were designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, who had brought brutalism to Britain with their school in Hunstanton, Norfolk in 1954. Here the Smithsons replaced an older set of buildings with three towers of varying height on a raised plaza, a piece of Chicago transplanted to higgledy piggledy Central London. The buildings are constructed around concrete frames with Portland sandstone facades and metal windows. The plaza featured work by Eduardo Paolozzi, and is itself formed of slabs of Portland stone. The scheme is now Grade II* listed and undergoing refurbishment by DSDHA.
1964 also saw the completion of a number of other modernist buildings of interest in Britain. Opposite Hampstead Heath, 9 West Heath Road by James Gowan was completed for furniture designer Chaim Schreiber, the house fitted with furniture also designed by Gowan. With its sombre appearance and strong vertical emphasis, it’s draws from the same language as the Economist buildings. Another private house completed that year is New House in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Designed by Stout and Litchfield for prominent London barrister Milton Grundy in 1964, New House has an interesting composition of five linked pavilions with mono pitch roofs, and a Japanese gravel garden. The house, constructed of local Cotswold stone, was Grade II listed in 1998. It was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.
A couple of apartment blocks from this year are also worth noting. Corringham in Craven Hill Gardens, Bayswater was designed by Kenneth Frampton alongside the firm of Douglas Stephen & Partners (whose own The Mount apartment block in Kensington was also competed in 1964). Internally, Corringham is arranged in a scissor plan, with each flat having split levels with bedrooms facing east and living rooms and kitchens facing west. Externally the block is formed of an exposed reinforced concrete frame, with prominent steel ventilation units. Further west in White City is Malabar Court, an old people's homes designed in a hexagonal form by Noel Moffett for the LCC. Moffett designed a number of social housing projects with distinctive hexagonal shapes or projecting balconies across London, most of which are still in use such as Ashington Court in Bethnal Green.
Of course no mention of futuristic architecture in 1964 could be complete without mention of Archigram, the architectural design group known for their colour illustrations of projects that never got built. Two of their most famous ideas, the Plug In City and the Walking City were published in 1964 via their own magazine. Both ideas saw technological megastructures replace the traditional organic city, with buildings truly becoming “machines for living in”. These ideas would filter down to the next generation of architects, such as Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw, influencing their Hi Tech designs of the 80’s and 90’s.
As we have seen, in 1964, the era of the “White Heat of Technology” was reflected by the completion of a number of buildings that would go on to be hugely influential and later on listed. Today they can be seen as moments to optimism and the belief in the power of technology to overcome the problems of humankind. That idea seems quaint nowadays, but these buildings live on to remind us that we can use architecture to reflect ideals rather than as just a way of creating capital.
London 4 : North- Pevsner & Cherry
London 3: North-West- Pevsner & Cherry
Atlas of Brutalist Architecture
British Buildings 1960-64
British Public Library Buildings- Beriman & Harrison
This Tuesday July 9th 2019 sees the 85th anniversary of the official opening of the Isokon building on Lawn Road in Belsize Park. The stark modernist apartment block, also known as the Lawn Road Flats and designed by Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard, was declared open by Miss Thelma Cazalet (later Cazalet-Kier), an early British feminist and then Conservative MP for Islington East. Cazalet errounesley thanked “Russell Coates” for designing the building and broke a bottle of beer on the side of the Isokon to declare it open.
Construction on the building had started in September 1933 after a stuttering fruition. The Pritchards had originally wanted a house for themselves on the site. The brief then changed to two houses, then to two houses and a nursery school before settling on an apartment block designed to provide inexpensive flats for young professionals. The finished building provided 22 flats for single people, named “minimum” apartments, as well as larger apartments, a caretaker's flat and the penthouse apartment occupied by the Pritchards.
Inside, the flats were fitted out with space and labour saving fixtures and fittings, including sliding tables, electric cookers and lighting. The furniture was mostly in plywood and manufactured by the Venesta furniture company, who Jack Pritchard worked for. Food was also available from the communal kitchen, first as room service then as part of the Isobar, converted by Marcel Breuer and FRS Yorke in 1936. Breuer was an early tenant of the building alongside Walter Gropius, Arthur Korn, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and later on novelist Agatha Christie. Externally the building was formed of reinforced concrete, using the 10ft 8in module which reflected the width of the flat's main room. This meant no internal supporting columns were needed, allowing the spaces to be open plan and flexible.
Like most interwar concrete buildings, the Isokon suffered from weather related deterioration, with the roof, walls and windows needing repair after World War II. The postwar period was not kind to the building. After being sold to the New Statesman magazine, the building passed into the ownership of Camden Council in 1972, falling into disrepair, becoming essentially derelict and abandoned by the 1990’s. As part of a competition, the building was acquired by the Notting Hill Home Ownership Housing Association and refurbished by Avanti Architects. The building now provides 25 flats as shared ownership to key workers, and 11 flats for sale.
The building was Grade I Listed in 1999, and the former garage was converted into the Isokon Gallery in 2014, as a permanent display (open Weekends, March to October) telling the story of the building and its inhabitants. Today, the rejuvenated Isokon building stands as a monument to an earlier age, when the idea of designing an avant garde yet affordable building was not a pipe dream, as well as reminding us of the impact of one of the earliest modernist buildings in the country.