by Alan Powers
In the summer of 2014, the newly cleaned façade of the old St Martin’s School of Art emerged from scaffolding. Facing east in a narrow street and dimmed by decades of dirt, it was never easy to appreciate its quality, and Pevsner/Bradley says ‘quite a modern brick façade, if of no very special merit.’ The steel framed structure rises sheer for five storeys above the street, with a set back row of studio windows above a balcony. Four materials are used: Cornish granite at the base, Portland stone around the openings for the paired entrances and central shop unit; red brick between the windows, with a big cornice running full width between third and fourth floors, and above this, exposed steel plates with rivets grouped in patterns of three. The idea is bold and simple, the materials and workmanship fine without being lavish.
For me, it is the cornice, in particular, that does something special for the design. I don’t think there is anything else quite like it in British architecture of the time. It is not a conventional classical cornice, even though it echoes the form of classical dentils. Its row of semi-circles made with sections of curved pipe or tile is like the corbel tables of the Middle Ages, and the way that it is clearly made from ordinary building components imaginatively arranged makes it ornamental without artificiality or pastiche. The inspiration is doubtless from German architecture of the 1920s, such as Fritz Höger’s Chilehaus in Hamburg or other examples where brick is treated like embroidered textile. Maybe the source is no further away than All Souls Church Schools in Riding House, Fitzrovia, or some other Edwardian building by Beresford Pite, deriving in turn from Byzantine sources. Compared to Pite’s relatively complex elevations, however, the Charing Cross Road building has a 1930s regularity to its repeating windows flush with the wall, the three at each end over the entrances set just a little wider apart from the six in the centre. Its modesty and simplicity, allied to the little flourish of the cornice, are to me its tokens of ‘special merit.’ At ground level, there was originally meant to be a shop window in the middle, but this was seemingly never occupied, and the building consequently had a rather forbidding look with the openings filled by glass brick, which Foyles have remedied with display windows.
The façade in St Martin’s Lane is not Modern architecture as it was understood in 1939 in terms of smooth abstract surfaces from which ornament was banished completely. Some architects occupied a middle ground between tradition and Modernism similar to this, but seldom as skillfully. Taken together these, plus a few other LCC buildings of the same period such as the old City Lit in Stukeley Street by the same authors, represent the possibility of marrying steel or concrete frame construction with a form of rational skin or cladding in the tradition of the German 19th century theorist Gottfried Semper who believed that weaving rather than carpentry was the origin of architecture. His ideas were never much understood or appreciated in Britain and have only been translated in recent years. British architects have been looking to Switzerland to discover how Semper’s ideas have fed into contemporary design by firms such as Herzog & De Meuron; you would only need to change a few inessential elements of the old St Martin’s for it to be a perfectly acceptable new building of 2014.
Now, with the new shop for Foyles, who have moved from their historic home next door, plus loft apartments, the old St Martin’s (originally incorporating, as the left hand door tells us, the College of Distributive Trades) has re-emerged like the missing piece of a historical mystery story. The title of the mystery is What became of the Arts and Crafts Movement? W. R. Lethaby, whose influence helped to bring the LCC architectural style into being in the 1890s, lamented in 1915, ‘just as our English free building arrived, or at least “very nearly did”, there came a timid reaction and the re-emergence of the catalogued “styles”.’ The main style that came in was neo-Georgian, whose popularity claimed many of the Arts and Crafts designers who did creditable but rarely exciting work, much of it for the LCC. What were lost in this transition were the northern qualities of roughness, and ‘savagery’ in architecture that Ruskin commended in ‘The Nature of Gothic’, and in the St Martin’s building we can see how they could bring vigour without fake rusticity or Art Deco glitz. There is a gleam from Ruskin’s ‘Lamp of Life’, too, in the way that details around each of the two doorways differ.
This is a building with ‘modern’ ornament, like the deep carved mouldings and abstracted pilaster capitals of the Portland stone framing around the doorways, with the carved reliefs relating to shop display by Adolphine M. Ryland, of whom I know no more than I do of the architects. Percy J. Delf Smith, a noted teacher, First World War artist and practitioner of lettering and heraldry, did the LCC coat of arms and the inscriptions.
Before he died in 1931, Lethaby lamented that the form of Modern architecture that he had seen so far, and which had become accepted as the real one, was ‘only another kind of design humbug to pass with a shrug. Ye olde modernist style – we must have a style to copy – what funny stuff this art is?’ I feel sure he would have recognized a more locally appropriate and originally conceived modulation between past and present in the St Martin’s building, which has scrubbed up so well and feels so close in spirit to the work of today’s architects who have rediscovered the street façade as a legitimate design exercise.
Who were the architects, E. P. Wheeler and H. F. T. Cooper of the LCC? Virtually nothing is recorded of them. Was Cooper the real author of the design, or was it someone more junior underneath him, whose name has been lost? Their achievement suggests that Lethaby’s legacy had not been forgotten in the LCC Architects Department at the end of the 1930s. Lack of knowledge and appreciation of this work means that neither St Martin’s nor City Lit are listed, but thankfully, both have come through major refurbishments externally unscathed.
Alan Powers is an independent scholar, and former Professor of Architecture and Cultural History at the University of Greenwich. He is currently working on a study of alternatives to Modernism in mid-twentieth century British architecture, among other books. He was Chairman of the Society 2007-2012 and is one of the editors of Twentieth Century Architecture and the monograph series Twentieth Century Architects.
Look for past Buildings of the Month by entering the name of an individual building or architect or browsing the drop down list.