On 23rd August 1980, the Firestone Factory on Brentford’s ‘Golden Mile’ was demolished. Built in 1928 and designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners for the Firestone Tyre company. it’s demolition was done quickly on that August Bank Holiday weekend to avoid the building being listed, as had been recommended by an inspector from the Department of the Environment a week earlier. The outcry after the destruction of the factory led to greater powers being granted to list twentieth century buildings, and is regarded as the Twentieth Century Society's first important publicity case. In memory of this, we present an essay on the modernist factory originally written for Picpus magazine..
When people talk of iconic Modernist buildings, what are the first ones that are mentioned? Le Corbusier's Unite d’Habitation or Notre Daum du Haut?, Charles Holden’s Piccadilly Line Stations? or Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist housing blocks? One type of building that isn’t immediately associated with the Modernist project are factories. But factories were among the first and most widespread Modernist buildings. The AEG Turbine Factory, Berlin (1909) by Peter Behrens and the Fagus Factory, Alfeld (1913) in Germany by Gropius and Meyer were among the earliest 20th Century buildings to follow the Modernist dictum, “form follows function”. As Modernism spread from Central Europe to the British Isles, this new form of factory design took hold quicker and with more acceptance than other buildings types, especially compared to housing which was still rooted in the Arts and Craft style. Out went the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, in came the whitewashed walls, large windows and open interior spaces of the International Style.
The two most significant designers of the Modernist factory in Britain were the firm of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners and the engineer turned architect Owen Williams. Wallis, Gilbert and Partners are most famous for their flamboyant Art Deco factories that were erected along the newly built roads into London such as Western Avenue and the Great West Road. The Grade II* listed Hoover Factory (1932-38) in Perivale is probably their most famous building. An Art Deco tour de force that was loved and hated in equal measure, Pevsner called it “perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories”. The flamboyance of it’s ancient Egyptian decoration in colored tiling still gives a lift of the spirit to the thousand of commuters that pass it every day, just as it must have done to the workers who filed through its ornamental ironwork gates to clock on.
Owen Williams’ Boots Factory (1932) in Beeston, Nottinghamshire exemplified the puritanical end of the Modernist spectrum. More austere than Wallis, Gilbert and Partners Art Deco extravaganzas, but with a hint of German Expressionism, this was factory building not as mere icon or fulfillment of the owners ego, but as machine age functionalism. Designed to streamline every aspect of the industrial process, Williams combined flat slab concrete with curtain wall glazing to produce an integrated industrial site that could be rearranged or extended as needed. This was Williams masterpiece in factory building, something he had been building to since his first principal project, the proto-Brutalist Gramophone Company Building (1913) in Hayes Other examples of this restrained style in Britain include the Luma Light Bulb Factory, Glasgow (1938) by Cornelius Armour and the Shredded Wheat Factory, Welwyn Garden City (1925) by Louis de Soissons.
As manufacturing gave way to the services industry, these iconic buildings fell redundant. Some were adapted to the post-industrial world, converted into apartments or supermarkets. Others such as Wallis, Gilbert and Partners Firestone Factory on the Great West Road, Brentford fell victim to the wrecking ball, (An event which was greeted with outrage and ushered in more stringent listing procedures). Many are still extant, albeit reconfigured for other uses. The lucky few listed are by English Heritage, protected for future generations who will hopefully see them as not just architecturally ambitious and progressive buildings but also as example of an age when the industrial process was glorified and given centre stage, rather than hidden away on motorway ringed business parks behind barbed wire and under the gaze of CCTV.