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Art Deco Britain

Buildings of the Interwar Years


Elain Harwood


London: Batsford, 2019

Hardcover. 272 p. ISBN 978-1849945271. £25


Reviewed by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

University of Kent (Canterbury)




The meaning and significance of art deco buildings to the British have changed substantially over recent years and the phenomenon is an interesting one. First of all, the term itself: it emerged in British use in the late 1960s as part of the title of a book by the critic Bevis Hillier, who himself had presumably drawn it from Les Années “25” : Art Déco / Bauhaus / Stijl / Esprit Nouveau, the title of a retrospective held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1966. Before that, the style of design still primarily associated with the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 was known locally as ‘moderne’, or streamlined modern’, or a variation on these. It had no formal title in art historical literature because it was considered insufficiently serious, or academic, to require one. Broadly, it was mostly associated with the bold curves, expressionist brickwork and colourful cladding materials used by the Odeon cinema chain during its great period of expansion, or with the better class of hotel and tea room. It lurked in the background as one sped down the interwar arterial roads, most notably the Great West Road which connects London to Heathrow, Windsor, Reading and Oxford, which was lined with white factories adorned, at best, with colourful ‘Egyptian’ and jazzy illuminated signs. In the long period which stretched from the 1950s right up to the last decade, art deco was well off the radar of the serious architectural historian.

As is the way, however, of the counter-establishment, it did make a number of noisy recurrences, especially in the aftermath of Hillier’s book. During the 1970s, the style was revived, together with what might be called a graphic designers’ version of art nouveau, for the styling of television programmes and (especially) film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s detective dramas. In 1973, the dress designer Barbara Hulanicki relocated Biba, her small boutique, into the cavernous and by then disused Derry and Toms department store on Kensington High Street. This building, designed by Bernard George in 1933 with the assistance of the Chicagoan C.A. Wheeler, contains a fabulous art deco dining hall with a glazed oval dome called the Rainbow Room; the cult science fiction film Brazil of 1985 made good use of it (as it also did of exteriors courtesy of Ricardo Bofill). Beyond this room lies a spectacular roof garden with areas landscaped in ‘Spanish’ and ‘Tudor’ styles – that is to say, ‘Hollywood-Spanish’ and ‘Hollywood-Tudor’ – with strutting flamingos to amuse the visitors. During the Hulanicki regime, the Rainbow Room was kept dark and mysterious whilst crowds of shoppers and staff furtively rummaged through display cases. This was British art deco at its most dissident. It goes without saying that the only people who took this style seriously at the time were connoisseurs of one kind or another, in spite of (or because of) its obvious popular appeal.

And then, later in the same decade, the masterpieces of this type of architecture found themselves under threat and, having come of age, their admirers began to find a case to save them. In the early 1960s, it had been the needless demolition of the Euston Arch, Philip Hardwick’s great propylaeum outside the London railway station, that had turned the Victorian Society from a convivial group of connoisseurs into an active campaigning force; for the newly formed Thirties Society, it was the destruction of the Firestone factory of 1924-1928 on the Great West Road in 1980 that proved to be the catalyst. What happened in this case was that the campaigners had succeeded in urging the Department of the Environment, the relevant government ministry, to ‘list’ the building – that is, award it statutory protection against demolition. The owners got wind of this, and destroyed the building over the weekend before this ‘listing’ was due to come into force. The factory vanished; it lives on only in photographs as a monumental white American-Egyptian temple. However, its architects, Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, also designed the surviving Hoover building not far away in a similar style, and it is thanks to the efforts of the members of the Twentieth Century Society, the successor organisation to the Thirties Society, that this extraordinary building still stands – in its current use as flats, following a period as supermarket offices.

Elain Harwood was one of the doughtiest of the Society’s campaigners; she has been for some time Senior Investigator at Historic England, the government agency responsible for historic building protection (disclosure: I am a trustee of the Society, the logo of which appears on Harwood’s book, but we have had no involvement in the content of this publication, which has been produced commercially by the publisher Batsford). Her earlier Space, Hope and Brutalism became the authoritative text on the architecture of the period between 1945-1975, and she has become the immediately recognisable face of the new public awareness of the type of interwar building in England which had no champion, and in this respect a figurehead for those Society members who have an affection for its varied ornamental styles.

One of the first things that these newly empowered members started to do was to look around and see how they could construct a story which would connect the great mass of underappreciated buildings that they liked. Thus Harwood’s book brings together under the name of ‘art deco’ a mass of styles, very few of which ever receive detailed study except under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society’s journals, magazines, events, and tours. Following a short introduction, each project is introduced with a full-page photograph, most of which are by Harwood herself, and a page of text. In the case of Harwood and her colleague Geraint Franklin’s earlier Post-Modern Buildings in Britain of 2017, these descriptions were drawn from the studies made by their authors in their role as Historic England’s architectural historians and thus formed the basis for official records such as the descriptions which are published when new buildings are listed for conservation, and those in this new book no doubt follow a similar pattern.

The buildings in this collection are organised by type, which means that the well-known examples are freely mixed with unfamiliar ones. Some of the best streamline-moderne buildings are included here, for sure, although not all of them have survived: the prototype was Robert Atkinson’s Regent Cinema, Brighton, of 1921, which was demolished in 1974. But Atkinson’s Brighton Dome, the conversion of a late Georgian building, is included, as are several very fine true Art Déco interiors in the French sense: the New Victoria cinema, now the Apollo Victoria Theatre near the railway station in London; the Odeon in Muswell Hill in the inner city’s northern outskirts; and an astonishingly rich former cinema in Northwick, a small town outside Worcester, which is today a furniture showroom.

Some have seen a comparison between the New Victoria of 1929-1930, by Ernest Walmsley Lewis, and the stalactite style of Hans Poelzig’s Grosse Schauspielhaus in Berlin, and the building provides a link between the French and the American on the one hand, and the German and north European on the other. Some of the best buildings in Art Deco Britain are stylistically located between the work of Willem Dudok and the wild expressionist brickwork of the Bremen Böttcherstrasse, or something madder still. There are a surprising number of first-rate buildings in Britain on this axis. The best known is probably the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon of 1929-1932 by Elisabeth Scott, then a recent graduate of the Architectural Association (AA); the set piece of this, which was the foyer and staircase rather than its unloved and compromised auditorium, has survived the recent rebuilding. Louis Blanc’s Kendal Milne & Co department store in Manchester (1939-1940) looks completely German, as does the bricky, blocky Princes House (1935-1936), commercial offices and shops in Brighton, by H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, completed in the year that he became director of the AA; and Reginald Uren’s town hall for Hornsey (1933-1935), in north-east inner London, combines more Dudok with camp Swedish details externally around the entrance, and inside on the balustrades of the staircases. The work of Giles Gilbert Scott, Elisabeth’s second cousin and unlike her a prolific architect of very large structures, is a superior example of this style of building; many of his designs, including even the small Catholic church in my home town of Broadstairs, feature a prominent tower with the same battered proportions as his well-known telephone kiosk, the K2 of 1926. His Cambridge University Library of 1931-1934, which has one of these, represents him here. Thanks to his vast Anglican cathedral in Liverpool, Scott is generally thought of as a late gothic architect, but art deco is as good a description as any for much of his work; in fact, the ornamental metalwork of the central section of the cathedral has something of the look of the up-market American department store about it.

Many of Harwood’s buildings were built for public institutions, and it is here that some of the finest of all can be found, especially where there was a generous budget. The Portland Place headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects (by Grey Wornum, 1932-1934) and the Bloomsbury Senate House of the University of London (Charles Holden, 1931-1937) are the two outstanding examples, buildings that have some resemblance to the most luxurious of the ocean liners of their period as much as to any other stream in British architecture. Both of these are in a lush, idiosyncratic, more-or-less classical interwar style, with exceptionally fine detailing – particularly the former, which has decorative work by Raymond McGrath and Bainbridge Copnall amongst others. By contrast, this book also includes some small public buildings which simply tie together curves of brickwork, vertical windows and maritime balustrades: Harwood has recently published a study of interwar municipal fire stations like this, some with combined living accommodation, in the journal of the Twentieth Century Society, and one of those, that at Isleworth near Heathrow of 1936-1937, appears here.

All in all, this is a very useful collection, even where the buildings are at their most simple, or scarcely more than a British builder’s attempt at imitating high-art modernist buildings as seen in the British press at the time. There has been a revival of books on the subject which range from Arnold Schwartzman’s enjoyable and personal international selection in Art Deco City : the World’s Most Beautiful Buildings to a learned and substantial catalogue called Art Deco Chicago, edited by Robert Bruegmann, from that city’s Historical Museum. Harwood’s contribution to this genre is a valuable and pleasurable one, and I can report that in Britain students and young architects are already falling over it.



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