Monday, 16 September 2013

55 Broadway

These are some notes and photographs from a visit to 55 Broadway, courtesy of the Twentieth Century Society. Completed in 1929 and designed by Charles Holden, who would later design many innovative Underground stations as well as the monolithic Senate House, it has enjoyed a mixed reception. Messrs. Jones and Woodward in their Guide to the Architecture of London describe it sniffily as “difficult to be very enthusiastic”. In recent times it has been celebrated as a masterpiece of Art Deco which seems even more misguided. A few decorative motifs featuring wings and some vaguely Streamline sculptures are not really enough to justify an Art Deco designation. This cruciform, angular, rather severe block has none of the flamboyance associated with Art Deco and might be better seen as a homage to Manhattan – the principle design influence having come from high-rise New York office blocks. 

It was upgraded to Grade I listed status in 2011 and may well be at the peak of public esteem. In a few years it will disappear from the public realm when it’s converted into apartments for oligarchs, non-doms and Asian billionaires. London Underground, the present occupants plan to move out in 2015, and cash in on the asset value. A building that was conceived not only to serve the needs of a public service but also to function as a highly visible statement of its confidence in the future will be reduced to a historical curiosity. The fabric and the detailing may enjoy some protection from the depredations of developers but the space and volume will be emphatically private and off-limits to the public. For all these reasons the opportunity to visit and explore was not to be missed. 

Holden and the client (London Electric Railways) wanted a building that would be as tall as possible within the heavy restraints of 1920s planning controls. They went for a maximum permitted 10 floors of accommodation and added a 4 storey tower which, due to fire regulations had to be left unoccupied. The cruciform plan offered natural light to all offices with services concentrated in a central core. When it opened it was the tallest office building in the city, exceeded only by sundry church spires and domes. London Transport was an organisation where, unusually, genuine pride was taken in the corporate tradition of excellence in architecture and design. This in turn promoted a culture of conservation, even at the expense of commercial considerations, and some of that can be seen still in this building and others. To this day it hasn’t been entirely extinguished despite the economic orthodoxy that dictates that absolutely nothing can be allowed to get in the way of optimising revenues. 

The visit included offices on the 7th. floor that had been occupied by senior luminaries, including that of Frank Pick, who in the 1930s had embedded an enduring culture of excellence in design that extended to every activity. The spirit of Holden and Pick still endures in the sense of sober and principled dedication to design values that hovers in the sombre corridors lined with walnut doors. There was no economising on materials with internally a generous use of Travertine marble on floors and wall-linings plus custom built fixtures and fittings in decorative bronze, an exterior in best Portland stone with Norwegian granite and black Belgian marble, but the overall impression remains one of high-minded restraint. The final treat of the day was a four floor footslog to the top of the tower to sample the panoramic views. We were warned not to photograph either the Home Office or Scotland Yard (it seems paranoia runs high in these places) which was no hardship as both are distinctly repellent buildings. So the final photo is an opportunity to survey London’s chaotic jumble of towers and spires. 

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