The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Mechanised Letter Office in Hemel Hempstead by Richard Bryant,

Hemel Hempstead MLO: ‘It’s like a bloody cathedral’


Aldington, Craig and Collinge’s Mechanised Letter Office in Hemel Hempstead was commissioned by the Post Office in the early 1980s in response to the newly-introduced mechanised letter sorting. The complex comprises three dramatic white sheds of different sizes around a loading yard: the main sorting shed, the administrative block and a link block housing the motor store and bay. Most recognisable by the principal shed’s shaped roof of corrugated steel with a white plastic coating, folded over the series of welded tubular-steel space-frame trusses, the MLO was compared by John Winter to ‘a giant caterpillar crawling up the hill or, seen from the top, an early reptile with a long neck and drooping head’.

The use of bright colours for its steel elements is strongly reminiscent of established High-Tech repertory. Structural engineer Mark Whitby has openly acknowledged the direct influence of Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, built a decade earlier (most obvious in the glazed ends of the main sorting office), and also drew on the technical expertise that had been developed for that project, while the combination with concrete-block areas added a distinctively ACC touch.

Extensively covered in the architectural press at the time of its completion and also included in the RIBA exhibition Mind Into Matter: Eight Exemplary Buildings 1834-2009 (part of the RIBA’s 175th anniversary celebrations), the MLO is undoubtedly a striking architectural work. As Alan Powers notes in his recent Aldington, Craig and Collinge monograph (part of the ‘Twentieth Century Architects’ series), ‘on the first day at work in the new building, one postman said “It’s like a bloody cathedral”, which Aldington took as a compliment.’

The design was in line with then current Post Office estates policy intended to ensure that new buildings would ‘not only satisfy PO demands for efficient postal operations but… when the occasion demands, have a good open-market value.’ With its absence of supporting columns, its eaves height and floor loadings to commercial standards, and its separation of specialist functions and non-structural internal accommodation, the MLO is indeed particularly suitable for imaginative, adaptive re-use, but, contrary to that farsighted Post Office Estates policy, the building is at present under threat. With early vacation and active marketing as a development opportunity, the Society is deeply concerned about its future. In a small booklet published by the Post Office when the complex opened, it was celebrated as ‘distinctive’, and optimism was expressed that the ‘better working conditions and bright new surroundings’ would last ‘well into the 21st century’.  We hope this will prove to be a prophetic statement.

Christina Malathouni