It’s indicative of Britain’s hollowed-out industrial base that so many of our best known factories are now carefully preserved relics of a lost age of manufacturing. This example alongside Western Avenue in Perivale, built for Hoover (1932-35) is perhaps the most famous and the most esteemed. Architects Wallis, Gilbert & Partners specialised in designing long, low and deep factory premises for the wave of American manufacturers of consumer goods expanding into the UK in the inter-war years. For American business, advertising and promotion began with the factory facade and a prominent location. Wallis Gilbert & Partners rapidly developed unique expertise in the provision of eye-catching buildings tarted up with newly fashionable Art Deco detailing.
Western Avenue and the Great West Road offered highly visible development sites on newly expanded arterial roads to businesses that saw the future in terms of road transport rather than rail. Internally the new factories embodied all the latest efficiency thinking in production line technology and conformed to contemporary best practice in placing the journey from raw materials to finished product entirely under one roof. The Hoover and Firestone factories (the latter on the Great West Road) became the best known of these dazzling and exuberant facades designed to please and were viewed with affection by the passing public despite the generalised aversion to Modernism in the wider population. After 1980 when the Firestone Building was destroyed in an act of corporate vandalism there was renewed public support for conserving what remained of these time capsules as a result of which the redundant Hoover Building, by now II* listed, was redeveloped in 1993 to accommodate a Tesco supermarket behind a carefully preserved facade.
Joan S Skinner (in her book, Form and Fancy, Factories by Wallis Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939) takes a dim view of the Hoover Building. In her eyes it’s visually incoherent and lacking in unity – an unhappy combination of individually interesting but unrelated forms. She points out the uneasy relationship between Egyptian and Native North American design traditions. Modernist sensibilities were also offended by what they saw as vulgarity and frivolity, an absence of rigour and a regressive aesthetic. In 1951 Pevsner delivered his verdict (in the Buildings of England, Middlesex) – “perhaps the most offensive of the modernist atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories”. Pevsner’s seal of approval was reserved for the purest expressions of Modernist geometry – never to be found on Western Avenue. This is architecture as advertising – a working building with a flashy facade, best seen when floodlit after dark from the windows of passing Armstrong-Siddeleys, Lanchesters and Alvises cruising by en route from Denham Studios, Gerrards Cross or Beaconsfield to the West End.
The present situation has endured for more than 20 years but all is about to change. IDM Properties are preparing to convert the former (and now untenanted) office accommodation inside the Hoover Building into apartments. Planning permission and listed building consent for 66 apartments (zero affordable) was obtained on appeal in February 2016. Assuming the facade is refurbished and protected and there is no plan to provide car parking in front of the building this may be no bad thing, although from a social perspective, the all too familiar provision of zero affordable is deplorable. The external finishes are showing signs of decay so redecoration would be desirable.