The new Victoria underground service opened with little fanfare on Sunday 1st September 1968, with the first train leaving for Highbury & Islington from Walthamstow (which was then the extent of the line) at 6:30am. Three months later to the day, the next section opened, south from Highbury & Islington to Warren Street. The new line did finally get an official ceremony, with the Queen unveiling a commemorative plaque at Victoria station on March 9th 1969, and taking a short tube trip to Green Park, becoming the first reigning monarch to take the underground. The grand station had been linked up to its tube line progeny two days earlier, with another extension to Brixton being completed in July 1971.
The line had first been mooted in 1937, connecting North East London to the centre. After much to and froing, a Parliamentary Bill for ‘Route C’ from Walthamstow to Victoria was passed in 1955, with an extension to Brixton added in 1965. The name of the new line took some different forms, with a Bakerloo style portmanteau name favoured, with the results being “Walvic” (Walthamstow-Victoria) and “Viking” (Victoria-Kings Cross). Eventually “Victoria” was suggested and passed for use. Compared to its illustrious forebears, such as the Piccadilly Line, or future feats like the Jubilee line, visually the Victoria Line lacks the ‘Wow’ factor. However the line does have some design features worth exploring.
The new line did not have many new stations built for it, mostly using connecting stations that were already were part of the London Underground network. A new station building was built at Blackhorse Road, opening on September 1st along with the line itself. The station is in the tradition of the Charles Holden Sudbury Box, with a spacious rectangular ticket hall in dark brick. The real interest lies in its artworks, featuring a fiberglass relief of a black horse by David McFall, which is surrounded by a mosaic created by Trata Drescha.
Tottenham Hale is the next station south on the line, and not much to write home about with constant rebuildings and additions muddling any coherent idea (it is currently undergoing another redevelopment). However it does have a great, futuristic bus waiting room designed by Alsop Lyall & Stormer from 1992. It comprises a tunnel shaped waiting room, featuring porthole windows and a 50 metre artwork by Bruce Maclean. MacLean, designed three artworks for Tottenham Hale, Path of the People (the 50 meter mural), Bridge of Signs (a fountain) and Tower of Time (a blue beacon), but the last two have now been demolished.
At the other end of the line, Stockwell was given a new station building as well. It was in keeping with Blackhorse Road and Tottenham Hale in being a rather dour design, with a single storey entrance hall balanced next to the ventilation tower in dark brick. Flats have now been added above the station in the same dark brick. Brixton station was given a new entrance as well, in similar muted colours as the rest of the line. The station was rebuilt between 2001-2010 with a modern update of the Holden style ticket hall with generous glazing.
All of the Victoria Line stations feature unique tile work mosaics at platform level by Hans Unger and others, reflecting the history of the local area, something that had been done on the Piccadilly Line by Harold Stabler's ventilation grilles. The designs range from the straightforward, a black horse at Blackhorse station to the more abstract, such as the Abram Games swan design for Stockwell. Apart from the mosicas, the overall Victoria Line platform designs were very muted, with a colour palette of grey, black and white set out by Mischa Black of the Design Research Unit, in charge of the design of the new line.
An area where colour reigned supreme however, were the new posters advertising the line, with designs by many of the same artist who designed the platform mosaics. Tom Eckersley, Hans Unger, Denys Nicholls and William Fenton all produced posters influenced by contemporary styles such as Pop and Abstract art to advertise the new line.
So while the Victoria Line is not as highly thought of in architecture terms as the Piccadilly or Jubilee Lines, there are plenty of design elements to look out for next time you take ‘Route C’!
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, our guidebook to the suburbs best art deco, modernist & brutalist buildings is crowdfunding now. Go HERE to get your copy.
We just wanted to let you know about two tours we are holding in the next couple of months. First of all on Saturday September 22nd, we will be giving our Stanmore walking tour for Open House London. This will be the fourth year we have held this very popular tour, exploring the Art Deco & Modernist houses of Stanmore and seeing how modernist design changed between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. The Open House London listings don’t go live until August 21st, but the important details are that the tour is free and no booking is necessary. Tours will be held at 10am and 2pm meeting outside Stanmore Tube Station, just turn up!
Our second tour is in association with the wonderful 20th Century Society, which campaigns for the preservation and exploration of architectural design from 1914 onwards. We will be holding a walking tour called “Wembley and the Making of Metro-Land” on Saturday October 27th at 10.30am. Meeting at Wembley Park Station, we will how Wembley has grown since the start of the 20th Century and how its buildings help fuel the growth of “Metro-Land”. We will visit the site of the British Empire Exhibition, and buildings like the former Empire Pool, old Brent Town Hall, the modernist Haymills Estates houses and many others before returning to Wembley Park. The tour is limited to 30 people, and tickets cost £15 For 20th Century Society Members and £20 For non-members. You can book the tour HERE
If you can’t make it to one of the tours, there is always our Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land. Pledge HERE for your copy.
Thank you, and we hope to see you on one of our tours soon!
The modernist estate was attempted many times in the interwar years; visions of rows of fashionable white walled, flat roofed houses filled developers eyes. In practice the idea was less popular with potential house buyers. In the Metro-Land suburbs of London, estates were attempted in Ruislip and Stanmore, with a dozen houses at most being built. One estate that produced more modernist houses than most, albeit less than planned, was the Frinton Park estate at Frinton-on-Sea on the Essex coast.
The estate started taking shape in 1934, when 200 acres were purchased by South Coast Investment Company Ltd, led by Francis Arnatt. After a management company was formed, Oliver Hill was employed as the consultant architect. Hill was known for his house designs, which spanned styles from Arts and Crafts to Modernist. Hill was to draw up a plan for 1100 homes, as well as a shopping centre, luxury hotel and offices. 30 acres of this were set aside for showcase the best of British modernist design. The plan was for prospective buyers to buy a plot and then engage architects to design their new house from a list of designers drawn up by Hill. The list featured some of the best modernist architects working in Britain at the time; Maxwell Fry, Wells Coates, F.R.S. Yorke and Connell, Ward & Lucas (who designed the doomed Ruislip estate) among them.
As wonderful as this sounds today, the buying public of 1935 did not quite agree. The majority of potential buyers were apparently put off by the Estates insistence on flat roofs and modernist designs. Plan B was to build a number of show homes to seduce the public into buying the modernist dream. Of 50 planned show homes, around 25 were built, with about 15 more houses built to order. The majority of these were designed by J.T. Shelton, the estates resident architect, with a number designed by other architects like Hill, Frederick Etchells, RA Duncan and Marshall Sisson.
The most famous building in the estate is now known as The Round House, formerly the Estate Office. It was designed by Oliver Hill, and in its circular plan perhaps most resembles Charles Holden’s Southgate tube station. The office also had a mosaic map of the estate on its floor. It is now Grade II listed along with another Hill house, Seaspan, 4 Audley Way. The rest of the houses aren’t as distinctive, but show all the usual International Style elements in differing arrangements; flat roofs, white rendered walls, Crittall windows, staircase towers and sun decks. In this catalogue of elements, the Frinton Park estate most resembles another exhibition estate of the same era, Gidea Park, now in Havering, which features a number of modernist houses by the likes of Tecton, FRS Yorke, Minoprio & Spencely and others.
The completion of many of these houses was problematic, with builders inexperienced in bringing these modernist designs to life. As elsewhere, the gleaming white concrete walls were in fact usually brick with render applied over them. And of course the much complained about flat roofs did tend to leak. Hill left his post as consultant architect in July 1935, with the agents and developers Tomkins, Hamer & Ley taking over sales and new designs. The modernist portion of the estate did not grow any further, numbering about 40 houses in the end.
Today, of course, these houses are highly sought after and even imitated in the new builds near the estate. The majority of the houses are well maintained, with many still having original (or replacement) Crittall windows. It is a wonderful place to visit and imagine what might have been, a picture perfect modernist Metro-Land-on-Sea.
Explore the original Metro-Land with our “A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land”, a guide to the art deco and modernist buildings of the region. Follow this link to help make this possible and see the great rewards for pledging
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Back in February we wrote a blog post on the 45th anniversary of the first screening of Sir John Betjeman’s “Metro-Land” film. Recently we have been in correspondence with Edward Mirzoeff, who directed “Metro-Land” and many other films with Betjeman. He very kindly offered to answer some questions about the making of the film and working with Betjeman.
How did you first meet Sir John?
In 1968 the BBC found itself in an exceptionally rare situation - it was awash with cash (because of a big leap in Colour TV licences). Among other things, it decided to hire a helicopter for three years. When the bosses got round to thinking what to do with a helicopter, they came up with a wholly new idea - a thirteen-part documentary series about Britain, to be filmed entirely from the air.
Although I was a junior and inexperienced film-maker, I was asked to take charge of the series, which I named Bird's-Eye View. It was immediately clear that films with no sync. sound would require writers - indeed, would take the form of essays. A whole gaggle of potential writers was invited to convene for a seminar at our offices, Kensington House. Among them was John Betjeman, whom I had never met before. Although the most distinguished of the group, he seemed affable and approachable. We immediately got on. After some hesitation, he agreed to sign up as a writer, and in the end wrote the commentaries for three of the programmes, two of which I directed myself.
What was he like to work with?
Nearly always a delight. He was one of those life-enhancing people who make you think you are witty, sparkling and intelligent - far more so than you really are. He was sensitive and funny, sharply observant (both of people and of buildings), ironic, enthusiastic, warm, and by no means always 'nice'. Absurdly generous - "I'm frightfully rich" he would say in a pub, producing a wad of crumpled notes; it took time to realise that this was Betjemanese, meaning the opposite of what it said (he was haunted by an irrational fear of poverty and "the workhouse", just as he was haunted by doubt, guilt, and fear). There were always drinks and lunches, gifts and treats.
Working on location with Sir John was full of surprise. When filming, we would prepare and rehearse his pieces to camera meticulously. But no two takes were ever the same, and improvisation was always a part of his performance. For example, at the Voysey house - if you look carefully you can see that he is carrying a little Beatrix Potter book. The plan was that he would read from The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, and compare it to the interior of The Orchard. But then Betjeman was suddenly struck by how deceptively low the interior was, and how he could show this by moving across the hall to stand under a door frame. Which he did, to the cameraman's considerable surprise - and Mrs Tittlemouse was forgotten.
He was very gifted at speaking to camera, at making contact through the glass lens with the individual viewer at home, perhaps because of his spontaneity, his sincerity, the unpatronising language he used, and his light-heartedness.
But most of our work together was in the cutting room, after the film had been edited, and when he would come in day after day to settle in front of the editing machine, running the sequences forwards and backwards, backwards and forwards, assimilating the rhythm of the editing, before setting pen to paper. He would write on A4 pads, tearing off sheet after sheet of unsatisfactory words, scrunching them up, throwing them on the floor. Most of what he wrote was in verse, often iambic pentameter in blank verse, varied with rhyme when the sequence seemed to call for it. His rhymes were sometimes couplets or quatrains, sometimes more elaborate schemes borrowed from other poets, such as Thomas Hood. It didn't always come easily. Sometimes he would get bogged down. Then he would retire to what he called his "composition cell" - a tea-making and broom cupboard - where he could shut himself off from the noise, chat and phone-calls, and emerge perhaps an hour later brandishing an immaculate piece of verse.
Our film editor, Ted Roberts, played a vital part in all this. A wonderful rapport developed between him and John. He could make the poet laugh, creating a jokey atmosphere that relieved the tension of creativity. Sometimes he came up with rhymes or even whole sections of verse in Betjeman's own style. "Oh, that's much better than I could do", Betjeman would say, and, altering just a word or two, he would incorporate Ted's whole suggestion.
Sir John loved the cutting-room because he felt part of a closely-knit team, with jokes, laughter, and fun. He himself was sometimes given to depression and self-doubt. On such days he might arrive with his teddy-bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, in a carrier bag. "Archie's feeling very gloomy today". "Well, let's cheer him up" the editor would reply, placing the bedraggled old bear on the film rewind machine, where it would spin round as on a merry-go-round. "Oh Archie's much more cheerful now" Sir John would then say, his wonderful smile breaking out, as if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds.
How was the idea of “Metro-Land” first conceived?
Metro-land was conceived in the upstairs dining room at Wheeler's Restaurant, Old Compton Street, Soho, early in 1971. Three of us were lunching together - John Betjeman, film editor Ted Roberts and I - to celebrate the successful conclusion of the series "Bird's-Eye View".
Aerial films consist largely of landscape and countryside (it is difficult to get permission to fly low over built-up areas). Such films may be beautiful to look at, but they are not about the way most people live. Over the fish (Sir John was very fond of oysters) we wondered about making another film together, this time ground based, about towns and cities. Suburbia, we agreed, was where most people wanted to live, although (at that time) the fashionable scoffed and planners derided it. Why not make a film about the delights of urban life, celebrating the unregarded suburbs? Nobody had done that before. By coffee we had even come up with a possible structure (I think this was Betjeman's suggestion). If we followed the course of the Metropolitan Railway from Baker St and St John's Wood out to distant Buckinghamshire, our journey would tell the story of how the suburbs grew and developed.
In order to bypass the cumbersome and risky commissioning process at the BBC, I persuaded Sir John to write a personal letter to the Controller of BBC2, Robin Scott. On 9 May 1971 he sent a note pleading for "a film on the beauties of suburbia. It is a rich theme and could be full of praise and stimulation. Most people are suburban and won't admit it. What trim gardens we could show, what shopping arcades, front halls, churches, schools and human-scale paths and bicycle-tracks and open spaces. I see it as a thanksgiving for traffic-free privacy throughout Britain - but not Southern Ireland, which isn't suburban, as is Yours gratefully and ever, John Betjeman".
Our devious trick worked. The Controller, charmed by the letter's eccentricity, directly commissioned a 50-minute documentary. Our working title was "The Joys of Urban Living", soon replaced by the snappier "Metro-land". Betjeman suggested that the film should resemble music hall performances of his youth - each item no longer than four minutes, variety and surprise the key-notes, lots of laughter and perhaps a bitter-sweet moment or two along the way. Certainly no interviews.
I thought that we would need three anchor-points in the film, significant houses of different periods and styles through which Betjeman could guide us in detail. He suggested Norman Shaw's Grim's Dyke in Harrow Weald, Voysey's small masterpiece The Orchard on Chorleywood, and the modernist High and Over in Amersham. My team and I would find everything else during the research. The script would come after the shooting and editing.
What are your memories of the making of “Metro-Land”?
It was hard to find anything of interest for us to film in Chorleywood (apart from The Orchard). I went to consult the local historian, and sat, for numbing eternities, as he told of one worthy municipal monument after another. In despair, I got up to leave - and heard him murmuring that he didn't think it was very interesting, but there was a man who had recently installed a cinema organ in his back room...
The sequence of Len Rawle and his Mighty Wurlitzer from the Empire, Leicester Square would, we knew, take a whole day to film. But when John Betjeman turned up that morning he announced, to general consternation, that he could spend no more than 45 minutes there. Never one who found it easy to say no, he had somehow agreed to film with us in Chorleywood and also with another team, on the same day, back at his home in Cloth Fair. The cameraman went pale, and muttered about resigning.
There was time only to film Sir John arriving at the door, and a couple of shots of him by the Wurlitzer. Then he was off to the station. All the rest of the complicated sequence was shot that day in his absence, with plucky Len Rawle at the console smiling at the stand-in (me) as if Betjeman were there. By the time the editor had finished, you wouldn't have known he wasn't.
Sir John felt it was in the spirit of the film to travel to and from filming locations on the Metropolitan Railway. So it was on the day we arranged to film at Moor Park, the imposing early 18th century mansion converted by its last owner, Lord Leverhulme, into a golf club, in 1923. During the war the unhappy Battle of Arnhem was planned here. And here we, too, we suffered a setback.
Sir John was to be picked up at the station and driven to the mansion. The crew and I waited on the steps for him to arrive. Time passed. Eventually a Mini drew up, and out of it emerged our distinguished presenter, stormy as a thundercloud. "I know I'm only the artiste, and therefore the least important person in this team, but..."
Apparently he had been waiting at one exit, our highly competent researcher at another, and neither had realised that there are two ways out of Moor Park Station. Sir John was not a happy man, and it was no good expecting him to discourse cheerfully about Sir James Thornhill and Giacomo Leone, the plasterwork, murals and trompe-l'oeil ceiling. I thought it might be best to switch the schedule around, and film him trying a drive or two on the golf course first. It might lighten the mood.
It didn't. When we got to the tee he was still fuming. Normally a good golfer, he took a massive swing - and missed the ball completely. Turning to camera, his black mood forgotten, he laughed and laughed, the cameraman went on filming, and a memorably joyous accidental moment was captured.
Where there any difficulties in the making of the film?
Metro-land was a happy film in the shooting and editing - no rows, no disasters. Quite unusual.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty came at the very last - the recording of Sir John's commentary. He was the finest reader I have ever known, with his mellifluous voice, perfectly judged intonation, superbly natural rhythm and emphasis. There was no-one like him for reading verse, either his own or other people's. So I was looking forward to recording day.
But when I arrived at the studio in Oxford St., the film editor seemed anxious. "Have a word with Sir John", he said, "see if you think he's all right." He wasn't. His speech was slurred and very slow. Had something dreadful happened?
We contacted his doctor, who spoke to him on the phone. It emerged that after lying awake for hours worrying about the coming ordeal, he had taken sleeping pills at about 5 a.m. He was not really fully conscious, and the only thing to do was to let him sleep it off. How were we to manage that? By good luck, the studio had a camp bed and a blanket. The Poet Laureate was put to bed, the lights were turned out, and we tip-toed away. I went to see if I could negotiate a lower hourly rate for sleeping than for commentary recording.
When we returned several hours later, Betjeman was nowhere to be found. Apparently he had awoken perfectly refreshed, and taken himself off to Wheeler's for a dozen oysters and a glass of bubbly. He re-appeared, wide-awake and in excellent form, to deliver a relaxed and masterly performance.
The music is a very distinctive part of “Metro-Land”. How was the music chosen for the soundtrack?
Film editor Ted Roberts was particularly gifted at knowing or finding the right music for a sequence he was cutting. He was responsible for matching Tiger Rag with the speeded-up Metropolitan journey at the beginning of the film. Absurdly fast music was hard to find, so he thought of speeding up his own (33rpm) LP of the Temperance Seven by playing it at 45rpm. This produced a suitably manic quality.
Ted also chose the Elgar's "Civic Fanfare" at Wembley, to go with archive newsreel of Elgar himself conducting what we think was that very piece. It was also his idea to use the 'Witch of Endor' section from "Le Roi David" by Honegger (a rather obscure work) to match the creepy 'Agapemone' house in St John's Wood.
Many recordings of songs of the '20s and '30s were sent to me by the extraordinarily knowledgeable assistants (sadly no longer there, thanks to John Birt) of the BBC Gramophone Library, and from them the editor and I selected the most appropriate and amusing ones, such as "Build A Little Home" by Roy Fox and "Sunny Side of the Street" by Jack Hylton, to counterpoint our 1920s and '30s Metro-land houses .
Willie Rushton's little floppy record "They Call It Neasden" came attached to the front of an issue of Private Eye. I had a copy, but the mix was so poor that the words could not be heard properly. I got in touch with Private Eye and found that, by extraordinary good fortune, the original three tracks were still extant; we re-mixed them, in effect re-mastering the record, so that the funny words were now loud and clear. I was rather proud of that.
The Harrow School song is the real thing, a private recording Betjeman tracked down and borrowed from an aristocratic Old Harrovian friend. Betjeman believed himself 'an Old Harrovian in all but truth'.
The car washing sequence is cut to "Down By The Lazy River" by The Osmonds. It was from the tape of the "Family Favourites" radio programme broadcast at just that time on the very Sunday morning that we filmed the sequence. Once again, the real thing.
The music towards the end of the "High and Over" sequence is a song ("Everything I Own") by a contemporary band called Bread. The editor chose it for negative reasons; it seemed grungy and mediocre and mindless, matching the pictures of encroachment by the dreary houses of the new estate. "Good-bye, High hopes and Over confidence - In fact, it's probably good-bye England".
Why do you think film has endured so well?
This is an impossible question for me to answer.
There may be a number of reasons. Betjeman was in good health and on the top of his form at that time, ebullient and entertaining. We had an enjoyable and stimulating relationship together, each bringing out the best in the other. It was a subject he knew and loved, but much of the content that we had found was new and enjoyable to him.
He loved the camaraderie of filming, and what he saw as the poetry of film language - Gennies and Blondes and Redheads, Pups and Bashers, Brutes and French Flags, Barn Doors, Baby Legs and Inky-Dinkies...
And it was a truly outstanding team - three brilliant researchers, a uniquely sympathetic film crew, the perfect film editor, all feeling involved and creative together. A happy film to make, full of jokes and high spirits, both on the screen and behind the scenes.
It was a timely film too. The tide was just beginning to turn against high-rise and brutalism, and the long-derided suburbs seemed fresh and attractive again. Those unexpected period houses - Voysey, Norman Shaw, moderne - all suddenly seemed interesting once more. And with them, an English timelessness too - Watkin's Folly, The Byron Luncheon Club, the Pinner Fair, the Croxley Green Revels...
And the format worked - a clear narrative drive, short sequences, surprise, a sense of fun, poetry, beauty, celebration, a mix of old and new - and no interviews!
Thank you to Edward Mirzoeff for his thoroughly detailed recollections of filming "Metro-Land" and of Sir John Betjeman.
More information on Sir John Betjeman, and his work and life, can be found at the Betjeman Society website
Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, architect and designer, was born on 28th May 1857. He designed not only houses, but also furniture and textiles as well. His designs combined functionalism with high levels of craft, bridging the link between the Arts & Crafts of William Morris and the coming modern styles of Art Nouveau and eventually Modernism. Although he was praised as a pioneer of Modernism by the likes of Nikolaus Pevsner, Voysey rejected this idea, preferring not to be thought of a part of any group.
Voysey was born in Yorkshire but his family moved to London when he was teenager. After leaving education, he trained with architect J.P. Seddon, and eventually set up his own practice in 1881. In his first years in practice, Voysey concentrated on designing furniture and textiles, including producing wallpapers, carpets, tiles, fabrics, ceramics and metalwork.
Voysey’s first houses were small cottages and studios, finished in a roughcast render with strong clear cut forms. The best example of this is 14 South Parade, Bedford Park in Ealing for the artist JW Forster from 1891. Its stark white walls and vertical emphasis contrast strongly with the surrounding red brick houses of Richard Shaw. The whole top floor is a studio.
The same year Voysey designed another combined studio and house, this time in Hammersmith for painter W.E.F Britten. 17 St Dunstans Road has a more horizontal emphasis than the Bedford Park house, set on just one storey but with the typical roughcast walls, ironwork railings and oversized chimney. Voysey designed over 40 houses, taking care over every detail including the furniture and fittings.
One of Voysey’s few non-house buildings is the Sanderson Wallpaper factory in Barley Mow Passage, Chiswick, (now called Voysey House). Designed for Sanderson & Sons wallpaper manufacturers and built in 1901, it combines a concrete barrel vault interior with a white glazed brick exterior, topped by vertical buttresses.
Despite his success for over 20 years, after the First World War, work dried up for his practice. Ending up moving in with his son. Critical recognition also came late, with the RIBA Gold Medal coming a year before his death in 1941. However his influence was felt far and wide, with his simplified Arts & Crafts style copied in towns, villages and suburbs all over Britain.
More information on C.F.A. Voysey can be found at the Voysey Society website
We are very honoured to have been invited to give a talk at the Isokon Gallery, part of the wonderful Isokon Building in Belsize Park, designed by Wells Coates.
On Thursday May 31st from 6.30pm, we will be exploring the differing modernist buildings of the Metro-Land era and area. From the underground stations of Charles Holden to the fantastical factories of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, we will see how modernist architecture developed in Britain and made the world we know today.
The ticket price is £10, which also includes wine or juice. To reserve your place click HERE
Ian Nairn was a critic, writer and broadcaster who critiqued post war design and planning from the 1950’s until his premature death in 1983. Despite a lack of architectural education, Nairn, who served in the RAF just after World War II, managed to finagle a job with the Architectural Review magazine in 1955. He came to prominence, in public as well as architectural circles, with his withering denunciation of the failures of post war planning, Outrage, in which he coined the term Subtopia. Subtopia defined the messy, suburban sprawl that gathers around cities and towns as they expand and change, as the urban invades the rural. As well as working on Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, where he was let go due to his overly subjective style, he penned the books Nairn's’ London (1966) and Modern Buildings in London (1964), both equally cherished today as they were on publication. It is from these books that we will look at Ian Nairn's opinions on Metro-Land and its buildings.
Nairn’s London ranges all over the Greater London region, “A record of what has moved me between Uxbridge and Dagenham” as Nairn says in the introduction. Like Sir John Betjeman in his Metro-Land film of 1973, Nairn’s first stop in Metro-Land is at Wembley and the ruins of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Now almost all gone, at the time of writing Nairn’s London, many of the exhibition buildings remained, unlike those of the Festival of Britain only 15 years previous. Nairn praises the “bull-nosed” concrete buildings, then used as warehouses and business premises. He notes a concrete bridge mouldering away “among weeping willows and beer cans”, and calls it “one of the best things we did in the twenties...true English modernism”. Now long gone, presumably it is the bridge pictured below, most probably designed by Owen Williams. In his Wembley wanderings he also mentions The Torch pub, calling it “as good as anywhere in London to feel the real temper of the ‘ordinary England’ in the 1960’s”. The pub is still there, filled with football fans on weekends.
Again, like Betjeman, his next stop of interest is Ernest Trobridge’s medieval fantasy houses in Kingsbury. Also like Betjeman, Nairn doesn't mention the architect by name, presumably he was so out of fashion in the mid-1960’s his name had been forgotten. Nairn praises the houses, saying they are “a real expression of the dreams of individuality which sent people flocking here in the 1920’s along with the Underground”. This is very much representative of Nairn’s tone throughout the two books; against planners, out of touch architects and bureaucrats and for the man in the street. Nairn gives short shrift to some of the other Metro-Land towns; Harrow “swamps its village with Victorian buildings as ponderous as company reports”, and in Watford Nairn calls the new High Street “despicable” and the post war office blocks “just about bearable”.
Whereas Nairn’s London is interested in a sense of place as well as buildings, Modern Buildings in London is a more straight architectural guidebook, produced for London Transport. In it he praises Charles Holden’s work for London Underground from the early 1930’s as well as criticising the later works. Arnos Grove is described as one of the first modernist buildings in Britain “that did not throw their style in the public’s face”. In the entry for Sudbury Town, Nairn laments that Holden would “decline into frivolities and...weary classicisms..” after his early London Underground work. His later station at Uxbridge, designed with L.H. Bucknell, comes in for criticism, saying that exterior facade “just about ruins the centre of Uxbridge”, before praising the interior, calling it “one of Holden’s most luminous inventions”.
Nairn is never one for choosing the obvious to praise, indeed he seems to prefer criticising the more famous buildings of the era. Instead he often praises projects which are now forgotten in obscurity. In both Nairn’s London and Modern Buildings in London, he includes Mansfield Heights (1956), a small scheme of Metropolitan Police housing in East Finchley. The mini estate is still there, now presumably privately owned, with houses and two small blocks of flats, and some small scale landscaped gardens. A similar and nearby scheme noted by Nairn is Green Bank in Woodside Park (1961). Designed by Ronald Salmon & Partners, Nairn calls them “fresh, straightforward terraces” and presciently notes that scheme’s impact rests on its maintenance which “will need watching”. As we know, many modernist schemes of the 1950’s & 60’s looked fine on the drawing board and publicity photos but would later succumb to neglect and decay.
Some of the buildings Nairn highlighted are no longer with us. Alexander Gibson’s house at 5 Cannon, Hampstead (1955) featured in a number of architectural books of the era. Nairn praised it for being “Small, simple and beautifully detailed”. Unfortunately the house was demolished in 2010 and replaced by another design by Claudio Silvestrin. In Uxbridge, Nairn noted the Imhof Factory (1957) by Tayler & Green, known for their housing work in Norfolk. Nairn calls it a “sophisticated, arcadian building” and laments that New Town factories were designed with the same quality. Again this building was demolished at the start of the 21st century.
Ian Nairn continued to range all over Britain, Europe and the United States producing books and television series, such as Britain's Changing Towns, Nairn’s Paris and Nairn at Large. Unfortunately Nairn would slide into alcoholism in his later years. He had always been a huge beer drinker, ( Nairn’s London even has a Beer section in the back of he book), but as he got older the work thinned out and the drinking increased. Nairn died 14 August 1983 at the age of 52, of cirrhosis of the liver. In recent years his influence and writings have received much more attention, with reissues of some of his books, including Nairn's London and Britain’s Changing Towns, as well as a BBC4 documentary about him. In an age of “Icon” architecture and ever increasing Subtopia between town and city, Nairn’s warnings about the desecration of our public spaces is one to heed.
Ian Nairn’s book were a great inspiration in starting this site, and we hope to produce our own “ A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land”, a guide to the art deco and modernist buildings of the region. Follow this link to help make this possible and see the great rewards for pledging
Pledge for A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land
I just wanted to send a quick message to everyone who has pledged to support A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land, and say THANK YOU! Your backing for the project at this early stage has been wonderful and I am really grateful for your help.
We have now reached 20% and have over 160 supporters, but there is still a long way to go. If there is anyone you know who might be interested please send them the link for pledging https://unbound.com/books/a-guide-to-modernism-in-metro-land/ Also, if you could let people know about the project on your social media platforms, we would also be very grateful.
Lastly, there are lots of different pledge levels available, offering a range of different rewards; from t-shirts and tote bags to photographic prints and portraits to a specially curated Jewels of Metro-Land tour, so if you feel like upgrading your pledge there are lots of options available. To upgrade, just log in to your Unbound account and next to your pledge for The Guide there will be a green Upgrade/Donate button.
Thank you once again for your support and we look forward to sending you A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land once we reach the target.
Images from the London Transport Museum
Last September we celebrated the opening of the first five stations in the Piccadilly Line extensions to Cockfosters. Starting at Manor House and culminating at the masterpiece of Arnos Grove, theses tations broke new ground in public modernist design in Britain. They also showcased the aesthetic qualities Charles Holden and Frank Pick, the CEO of the London Transport Passenger Board, had crafted since working together from the mid 1920’s. The stations were designed to act as adverts for the underground network; communicating modernity, speed and ease of use. In this blog we will look at the final three stations on the extension; Southgate, Oakwood and Cockfosters.
One of Holden's most distinctive stations, Southgate is a low circular structure, often compared to a UFO. The station opened on March 13 1933, along with Oakwood. The roof tapers to a point, and is topped with five circular lights, that slide open and shut, with a ball on top. Inside, as at Arnos Grove, a single concrete pole supports the roof, with a passimeter at the base. Like Turnpike Lane, there is an integrated bus station, with a long curved shopping parade, allowing buses to circulate into the station from the road. Stanley Heaps originally designed a box shaped station on the west side on the site, but Holden with his assistant Israel Schultz, revised the scheme. The exterior also feature the wonderful masts which were designed to combine lighting, seating and timetables.
Initially called Enfield West, then Enfield West (Oakwood), before being renamed Oakwood in 1946. The station was designed by CH James in a simple Sudbury box design. It is reminiscent of Acton Town, with a larger canopy at the front. A bus station had been intended as part of the design but was dropped to to low passenger numbers. The platform features cantilevered concrete canopies, designed by Stanley Heaps.
CH James was an architect more well known for his house designs, especially in Welwyn Garden City. James had been assistant to Edwin Lutyens and to Raymond Unwin and also worked on housing design in Letchworth Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb. Holden and James had previously designed a stand for the Empire Marketing board at the British Industries Fair in 1931, and they may have known each other from Welwyn, where Holden had lived for a number of years.
The end of the eastern Piccadilly line extension, originally planned as a much grander terminus style building, with towers either side of the road. As it is, Cockfosters is one of Holden's stations where the beauty is underground, much like Gants Hill. The station opened on July 31 1933, and features a long low above ground station building, with an subway entrance opposite. The ticket hall and platform areas are often likened to a church, due to the long nave like shape and clerestory windows. This design was replicated at Uxbridge. The use of plain board marked concrete also points the way to postwar architectural styles such as brutalism. The original plan allowed for extension to incorporate two parades of shops, a staff building, a garage and even potentially a cinema. However the expected passenger traffic did not materialize, and the station remains as opened in 1933.
The opening of these three stations completed the northern Piccadilly Line extension. It also represented the high water mark of Charles Holden’s design for London Underground, and probably the most coherent set of tube stations designs until the Jubilee Line extension of the late 1990’s. The integration of design and purpose leave these stations as some of the finest modernist buildings built in Britain, buildings that are still carrying millions of commuters to and from their destinations each year, a fitting testament to the vision of Frank Pick and Charles Holden.
All these stations and many of more of Charles Holden feature in our "A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land", pledge HERE to help us make it a reality.
The documentary programme “Metro-Land”, written and presented by John Betjeman and directed by Edward Mirzoeff, was first aired 45 years ago this week, on 26th February 1973. Forty-nine minutes in length, the programme follows Betjeman as he travels the course of the former Metropolitan Railway, from the hustle and bustle of Baker Street to the abandoned station of Verney Junction, near Aylesbury. In between, Betjeman explores the north western suburbs of London, the area that became known as Metro-Land in the first part of the 20th Century. Betjeman had previously hymned Metro-Land’s praises in his poems such as “Harrow-on-the-Hill and Middlesex”. The then Poet Laureate takes in various buildings; from John Adams Acton’s neo-gothic house in St John's Wood, to Norman Shaw’s Arts & Crafts Grim’s Dyke in Harrow Weald and C.F. Voysey’s The Orchard in Chorleywood. And of course he also visits a few buildings that may be familiar to visitors to this website.
The first of these is at Wembley, and the site of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, now largely demolished. The exhibition was one of the engines that fueled the growth of Metro-Land, drawing 27 million visitors to the outskirts of London. Indeed Betjeman notes that before it Wembley was “an unimportant hamlet where the Met didn’t bother to stop”. The exhibition was built on the site of the 1890 tower known as “Watkins Folly”, an attempt by the railway magnate, Sir Edward Watkin, to construct a British version of the Eiffel Tower. The project ran out of money after the tower had reached just over 150 ft, and was abandoned before being demolished in 1907. The design and construction of the Empire Exhibition was handled by John Simpson, Maxwell Ayrton and Owen Williams. Among the many pavilions and halls were the Palaces of Arts, Industry and Engineering. Betjeman appears in the film in the first of these, as well as on the pitch of Wembley Stadium, also built as part of the Exhibition, and reminisces about attending the event Almost all of the exhibition buildings have now been demolished, with the Palace of Industry being torn down in 2013. You can read about the last surviving remnants HERE.
Next was the decidedly un-modernist Highfort Court in Kingsbury. Designed by architect Ernest Trobridge, this personification of the saying “An Englishman’s home is his castle” sits at a crossroads amid a number of other Trobridge designed buildings. Trobridge believed in the healing powers of design and built his homes for those returning from the horrors of World War I. His house designs can be found all over what is now Brent, and are instantly recognisable from their faux-rustic appearances, using timber, brick and tile hanging to create a vision of the (non-existent) idyllic past. For the programme, Betjeman perched upon the battlements of the entrance, providing one of the most memorable images of the film.
The most modernist piece of metro-land visited by Betjeman was High and Over house in Amersham. Designed by Amyas Connell, and completed in 1929, this house was one the first modernist houses in the country and one of the most infamous due to the publicity after it was built, as Betjeman says “..all Buckinghamshire was scandalised..” Connell designed the house for Professor Bernard Ashmole, then Professor of Art and Archaeology at the University of London. Connell and Ashmole met in Rome at the British School, were Connell had been A Rome Scholar. The house is arranged in a Y-plan, with three wings radiating from a hexagonal centre. The stark white walls, sun terraces areas and glazed staircase where all elements borrowed by Connell from contemporary European architecture, particularly Le Corbusier’s early house designs. Despite the appearance of solid concrete walls, as with many early modernist houses in Britain, it is in fact white rendered brick around a concrete frame. Connell's later partnership, Connell, Ward & Lucas, would design four smaller ‘Sun Houses’ on the slopes below High & Over in the 1930’s. Unfortunately the dramatic effect of these four modernist houses on the hill has been denuded by the 1960’s estate of detached houses now surrounding them, something Betjeman notes in the film.
“Metro-Land” ends with Betjeman visiting the abandoned stations of Quainton Road and Verneys Junction, reminiscing over waiting for trains at the stations when it was still active and ending the documentary with the words “Grass triumphs. And I must say I’m rather glad”. Of course this wistfulness and melancholy was fully in keeping with Betjemans poetry and especially his later works. So while the ‘shock of the new’ wasn’t particularly new or shocking even when “Metro-Land” was filmed, it allows us to see some of Metro-lands modernist architecture along with the characters and traditions that make this region so interesting.
We are hoping to tread in the footprints of John Betjeman in producing “ A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land”, a guide to the art deco and modernist buildings of the region. Follow this link to help make this possible and see the great rewards for pledging Pledge for A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land