The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Joseph Emberton: The Architecture of Display

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Reviewed by Colin Hicks

Joseph Emberton was, says Historic England, ‘the first British architect to design convincingly in the Modern Movement style’. He was most active between 1924 and 1954, and responsible for such buildings as Olympia’s New Empire Hall and Simpson’s of Piccadilly in London, as well as the Blackpool Casino.

Seen from this distance, two things strike you about him: how well he understood what we might now call place-making – that need and ability to provide settings for activity; and the importance of light in the construction of buildings for this island climate.

In this Pallant House Gallery exhibition we discovered a string of works demonstrating a strong ability to design high quality spaces that will enhance commercial activity. These range from the State Express Pavilion at Wembley in 1924 – seen by Sir Lawrence Weaver as ‘the greatest poster in three dimensions’ – through to the Simpson building of 1936, which, said Design for Today, ‘concentrate[d] attention on the goods themselves, instead of distracting the customer with elaborate ornamentation’. Indeed, Emberton himself declared a preference for the open showroom to the barrier of ‘over-the-counter’. It takes a particular talent to marry utility with taste, and his buildings were repeatedly praised in his time for their orderly sequence and the rational and efficient lines on which they were built.

As to the second theme, Emberton’s strategy is illumination: witness the bold facades in the glass bricks of the 1936-39 HMV shop in London, the double-rolled rough-cast glass of the 1934 Timothy Whites at Southsea, and the sweeping views from the windows, open decks and rails of the 1931 Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham-on-Crouch, a building that is by, in and out of the water all at once. For darker days, artificial lighting was also part of his stylistic palette, from the shapes of the horizontal fenestration on the elevation of his 1930 New Empire Hall in Olympia which were designed to be floodlit without shadows, to the fabulous floodlighting troughs on what the Architectural Record called the ‘ingenious façade’ of the 1936 Simpson building.

His extensive remodelling of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach combined both these themes with great mastery and in confident, modernist style. Here Emberton displays a marvellously cohesive aesthetic that marries functionality and light to good effect, and in a ‘fun’ environment to boot.

Everyone knows the Simpson building but not who designed it, so why did Emberton fall from general view? Contemporary documents on display in the exhibition speak of his ‘novelty and vigour’, ‘sharp refinement’ and ‘successful display’ in buildings that are always ‘strictly appropriate’, and judging by the visitors book, people today still admire the confident aesthetic, the grace and charm of his work. Perhaps one answer lies in his 1946 proposal to surround St Paul’s with high-rise towers, which in these post-Shard days seems an almost acceptable and homogenous vision for an impossibly difficult site. However, one can quite see that it would swiftly have fallen victim to the post-war British struggle between innovation and convention, which has bred such an indifferent commitment to the contemporary built environment. On the evidence of an exchange of letters with Philip Johnson, Emberton was no stranger to the negative impacts of this.

This timely appraisal presents material from the Joseph Emberton Archive alongside loans from the RIBA library. The gallery ran it in parallel with an appraisal of the work of Leon Underwood, a fellow student of Emberton at the RCA and lifelong friend, who contributed a sculptural maquette for the façade of a proposed residential and retail development in Old Street by Emberton in 1954. The curator Catherine Moriarty declared her intention that the exhibition should serve as an invitation to visit the buildings themselves, and in this it was most effective. A pity, then, that there is little indication as to which of these stylish buildings remain standing – a frustration shared in the visitors book, I see.