Saturday, 8 July 2017

London Art Deco and Modernism - Five Favourites

There are several hundred Art Deco and modernist buildings in London. Unlike Brussels with its Uccle neighbourhood and Melbourne's many suburbs, there is no single Art Deco quarter in London so in order to see our modernist treasures it is necessary to move around the city. This can be a treat in itself as many of the Underground stations were built during the 1930's at the peak of the modernist period and were designed in the style. In addition to the Underground stations, there are also factories, shops, cinemas, theatres, office buildings, banks, at least one car park and many residential Art Deco or Modernist properties in London. It is hard to pick out a single favourite, but this post details five buildings that I especially like...and might well be followed by a post about five more.

Florin Court
Florin Court is tucked away in Charterhouse Square, EC1, just a few steps from the Barbican Underground Station. Completed in 1936, it was designed by Guy Morgan and Partners and comprises 120 flats over nine floors. Morgan had previously worked for the iconic British architect Edwin Lutyens. Its most striking feature is the deliciously undulating beige brick facade which rises to recessed upper floors and a roof garden. The main entrance sports a number of deco features in glass and chrome but works carried out in the lobby included tiling over the original deco features. Perhaps the tiles could be removed at some point to reveal the original splendour. Residents have access to a deco style basement swimming pool introduced in 1980 as well as a small gym, library and, I assume, the private garden in the centre of the square. If this sounds impressive, original residents had access to a basement restaurant, cocktail bar and club room but these are now gone. The restaurant was open to the public.

If Florin Court seems familiar to you despite not having been there, it might be because it was used as the fictional Whitehaven Mansions home of Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in the late 1980's TV series devoted to his adventures.  The building was listed with Grade II status in 2003.

Florin Court
Ibex House
Ibex House is possibly one of London's best kept architectural secrets and is one of the city's best examples of the Streamline school of modernism. Tucked away in the Minories, near Tower Hill it was built in 1937 and designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also responsible for Blenstock House in the west end. Built on a steel frame, Ibex House rises to 11 storeys including a basement.

Inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Berlin it is clad in striking black and beige faience and has the longest strip windows in London. Like Florin Court it has beautiful curves and recessed upper levels as well as dramatic glazed "thermometer" stairwells on the Hayden and Portsoken Street sides of this huge building. There are a number of businesses housed in the building including an Italian cafe which has a wonderful curved glazed entrance.

Inside, there are 200,000 square feet of office space and this is London's largest remaining office building of the 1930's. In 1937, space was offered here for a rental of six shillings per square foot inclusive of cleaning. I suspect it is rather more than that today. And with many buildings there is a story attached to Ibex House. It is said that Hitler wanted it for his command headquarters should he have been successful in invading the UK and therefore ordered that this part of the city not be bombed. I have no idea as to the truth of this but have also heard a similar story about Senate House and the University of London. Given that the Nazis were generally disdainful of the modernist style it seems unlikely but its a good yarn. The building was listed with Grade II status in 1982, protecting it from the fate or several other older buildings in the area, demolished to make way for new office blocks.

Ibex House
Entrance to Italian cafe in Ibex House
Still with commercial properties, the former Hoover Factory in Perivale, West London is another large structure, part of which is now home to a large branch of the Tesco supermarket chain whilst other sections are being converted to flats. Built from 1931-35, it was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Parters who were responsible for a number of London's best Art Deco and Modernist buildings. The site's proximity to the railway and to the docks made it ideal for distributing Hoover's famous vacuum cleaners. Constructed using snowcrete, a white concrete that retains its white colour in spite of the weather, the exterior is decorated with green and red detail including faience ceramic tiles inspired by ancient Egypt as well as with stylised signage.

It is difficult to photograph the entire site partly due to its size but also because of myriad obstacles including Tesco branding, a huge car park, a dual carriageway on one side of the building and scaffolding and hoardings where the conversion to residential space is being undertaken. However, the Number Seven building, added in 1938, stands proudly and  unobstructed. Formerly the Hoover staff canteen, it is now home to Royal Nawab's Indian restaurant, serving as the London branch of this famous Manchester establishment. A number of structures in this part of the complex were demolished when Hoover quite the site in the 1980's but number seven was saved due to its Grade II listed status. Apart from the addition of the restaurant name, the facade retains all the original features including a 'thermometer" stairwell, full height windows and deco details around the entrance. Curry and architecture in one place. Fantastic.

Number seven building, former Hoover Factory
The extension of the Underground in the 1930's brought many villages formerly on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Better off families began to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment and rapid public transport to their place of work. Stanmore Underground station opened in December 1932. Now the final station at the northern end of the Jubilee Line, it was the original terminus of the Metropolitan Line once plans to take the tube as far as Elstree had been abandoned.

The land opposite the station was the property of Sir John Fitzgerald, an Irish Baronet and Knight of Kerry. In 1931 he granted Douglas Wood architects permission for a residential development on part of his estate, just a short walk form the new station. This resulted in the properties now numbered 2,4,6 and 8 Valencia Road, a private road within Harrow Council's Kerry Avenue Conservation Area.

My favourite of these four houses is number 4 which was restored in 2014 under the supervision of English Heritage before being offered for sale at £1,795 million. A bargain. Completed in 1934, it was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926, fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in Kings Cross where he established a restaurant before opening two more elsewhere in the city. According to an Azzali family legend, he brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932 and fell in love with the area which would still have been largely rural then. This prompted him to buy number 4 which remained in the family's ownership until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

The house has five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a variety of other spaces arranged over three floors. There are also two roof terraces and a feature staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The exterior has some wonderful modernist features including the original crittal style windows, fully restored and now double glazed for a London winter. The beautiful tubular staircase with a glazed panel at midpoint is another striking feature of the facade. And if the residents still can't find somewhere to sit, there is a 130 foot garden at the rear. There are several other modernist houses in the conservation area making a schlep to Stanmore more than worthwhile.

4 Valencia Road, Stanmore
My final choice is another residential building in Downage, a quiet street in Hendon, North-West London. Known as The White House, it was completed in 1935 and was designed by architect Charles Evelyn Simmons for Haymills Ltd, a building and development company active in North London during the 1930's. 

The exterior appears to have been perfectly preserved, possibly thanks to its being listed with grade II status in 1997. The two storey building is constructed from rendered brick with a flat asphalt roof. Built to a square plan, it has rounded corners on the south elevation with continuous windows on both floors. The double entrance doors are set back behind fluted mouldings on either side with a sign bearing the name of the house beneath the balcony above. Another great example of the Streamline school of Modernism, the White House has a nautical feel with the sun room resembling a ship's observation post. The fabulous glazed stairwell gives passers-by a glimpse into the life of the occupants and is topped by a motif inspired by the Art Deco "rule of three". 

The listing record says that some of the internal features have been lost including a fireplace in the drawing room but others survive including taps set into the bathroom wall and a green inset soap holder. There are six bedrooms as well as a substantial rear garden.

Architect Simmons was a local man, born in Hampstead in 1879 and educated at University College School before becoming articled to Horace Field between 1899 and 1903 where he completed his professional training. He commenced practice in 1905 before going on to establish a professional partnership with his former tutor. During the First World War he worked in the Ministry of Health Architects Department but later returned to designing residential properties and even two churches in Scotland.

The White House, 72 Downage.
These are just five examples of London's glorious Art Deco and Modernist buildings. Look out for most posts in this new series.


  1. The former Hoover Factory, 4 Valencia Road Stanmore and The White House 72 Downage are brilliant. They show all the geometric beauty of Deco while keeping a modest, respectful height. Florin Court is so tall and packed, the individual would feel like a numbered prisoner.

  2. Great post! A few weeks ago I took my Sunday morning walking group to Clerkenwell and we discussed Florin Court (and Poirot) then. The house in Stanmore is the finest Art Deco private house I have seen in London - and probably further afield too.
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