The Twentieth Century Society

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Building of the month

October 2009 - Central Criminal Court Extension, London

McMorran & Whitby, 1960-72, by Edward Denison

McMorran & Whitby was among Britain’s most intriguing architectural practices of the 20th century, yet their output remains shamefully unfamiliar. This obscurity was caused largely by their ‘traditionalist’ label in a Modernist epoch governed by what McMorran described as ‘a dictatorship of taste’. Half a century since McMorran & Whitby worked together, the buildings they designed and executed with such devotion to quality and scholarly sophistication have transcended petty stylistic feuds and are at last being widely appreciated. Among their best works was the last they worked on together. Initiated before Donald McMorran died in 1965 and completed only months before George Whitby died in 1973, the extension to the Central Criminal Court on Old Bailey remains unknown to many yet frequently appears almost subliminally in virtually every home in the country: the sublimely weighty entrance formed by those emblematic segmental-arched doorways hovers in the background of televised broadcasts from outside London’s Central Criminal Court.

The idea of extending the crowded Central Criminal Courts was first proposed in 1960, and two years later McMorran’s initial designs possessing a slender façade on Old Bailey were approved. In 1963, however, additional land adjacent to Edward Mountford’s original building (1902) was purchased, permitting the very much larger façade that was eventually built. McMorran laboured over these designs, repeatedly and rhetorically asking ‘Am I doing the right thing?’. It was while he was working at home, however, that his eldest son, Alexander McMorran, who later qualified as an architect, suggested he might look to the work of Louis Kahn (1901–74) for inspiration. The result fronting Old Bailey is McMorran’s response: a highly original composition sculpted in stone and demonstrative of the compressive architecture he championed. It was, as one critic wrote some years later, ‘well ahead of its time in the abandonment of Modernist conventions, not for the new vernacular, but for a far more coherent and radical style’. (Brian Appleyard, ‘From God’s House to Bauhaus and Back Again’, The Times, 20–26 November 1982.)

The giant recessed segmental-arched window openings allow dramatic vertical strips of stone containing ventilating shafts to cascade down the façade and plunge from view in beautifully angled chamfers that drive into the wall above the four splendid low doorways, echoing but surpassing the sculptural qualities of  Lutyens’s Castle Drogo or Holden’s Bristol Central Library. The whole effect is to emphasise the sheer, apparently suspended, mass above what Sir John Betjeman described as the ‘formidable entrance [to this] splendid fortress of the law’ ( Letter from John Betjeman to Charmian Whitby, 14 March 1973; courtesy of the Whitby family archive).This is a structure that appears hewn, not built. It is primordial in unaffected magnificence, ushering visitors into a building of such startling originality that it is both peerless and ageless.

With McMorran masterminding the façade, the interior planning represents the acme of Whitby’s extraordinary spatial faculty and is a reflection of his perfectionism. Six courts were specified in the original brief, but in 1966 this was doubled to 12. The office amended the plans in ten days. Moreover, Whitby also had to overcome the typically complex circulatory problems posed by courts where, in this case, they had to be separately accessed from the street by four different groups of users: judge and jury, barristers and witnesses, defendants, and the general public. The need for people to circulate around the building without ever coming into contact with anyone but members of their own group demanded an astonishing plan, which exists as a legacy of an exceptional talent.

The new building also had to dovetail with Mountford’s so that the floor levels would be continued throughout the extension. This was complicated by the topography of the site which not only slopes down Old Bailey to the south, making the ground floor entrance of McMorran & Whitby’s extension one floor lower than Mountford’s, but also rises from the front to back because the building stands on the line of London’s Roman wall, inside which centuries of development have caused the ground to be a storey higher than that outside the wall. The remains of the Roman wall were uncovered during construction along with a collapsed portion of wall from Dance’s Newgate Prison that once occupied the site and, on Whitby’s insistence, both were kept in situ.

Opened to the public on 27 September 1972, McMorran & Whitby’s Central Criminal Court extension was typically savaged by the architectural press claiming it did ‘little justice to architecture old or new’ (Building Design, 8 September 1972, p7) or that it looked like a penitentiary with its imagery suggesting ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ (Architects’ Journal, 6 September 1972, p516). Both failed to see that humanity was permitted in the building by the deliberate ‘avoidance of any grand entrance’, befitting a building that Whitby believed would provide a ‘more intimate, human and informal atmosphere’ (The Times, 1 September 1972). Today, despite the fruitless temptation to pigeonhole their work in relation to pointless ‘isms’, McMorran & Whitby’s building on Old Bailey stands as evidence of how they managed to step ‘effortlessly beyond modernism without the struggles and indecision which have characterized the same step among others’ (Brian Appleyard, ‘From God’s House to Bauhaus and Back Again’, The Times, 20–26 November 1982).

Edward Denison is a heritage consultant, writer and photographer with published works including McMorran & Whitby (RIBA, 2009) in the Twentieth Century Society’s monographs series, Modernism in China: Architectural Visions and Revolutions (Wiley, 2008), Building Shanghai – The Story of China’s Gateway (Wiley, 2006) and Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City (Merrell, 2003).

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