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Architecture in Letchworth: the world’s first garden city


Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20 (all photos copyright the author)

Letchworth was the world’s first garden city. The city was the realisation of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas: an ideal city would combine the social and economic benefits of a town with the health benefits of the country. Howard never specified a physical form for the garden city, so his ideas were adaptable. By 1903, a site had been found in Hertfordshire and the winning plan drawn up by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, which is partly based on Wren’s 1666 plan for London.  I organised a tour of Letchworth for the Twentieth Century Society and here’s a few highlights.


Spirella Factory, Cecil Hignett, 1912-20

The Spirella Factory, 1912-20, by Cecil Hignett, is one of the most impressive Arts and Crafts style factories in the UK if not Europe. It was built for Spirella, an American company that revolutionised corset design with spiral wound springs. Known locally as ‘Castle Corset’, it was a progressive factory for its day, the workrooms received maximum natural light through large metal windows and the welfare and social facilities included a choral and orchestral society, library and even a ballroom. It was refurbished in 1999 as a business centre.


The Settlement, Parker and Unwin, 1907

The Settlement by Parker and Unwin, 1907, was originally ‘The Skittles Inn’, the ‘pub with no beer’. As a temperance inn, it served only non-alcoholic drinks, including Bournville Drinking Chocolate (Cadburys contributed to the cost), Sasparilla and ‘Cydrax’, a non-alcoholic apple wine. The temperance movement had a major effect on the Quaker-influenced Garden City and, incredibly, the town did not have a licensed premises until the 1950s. This, along with other aspects of Garden City life (vegetarianism, sandals), provoked satire and ridicule in the popular press. The Settlement contained a billiard room, skittles alley, exposed beams, cosy inglenook fireplaces and a large shaded porch (or ‘stoep’) with fixed settles. It has been an adult education centre since 1923.


Parker and Unwin’s Former Offices, Barry Parker, 1907

Parker and Unwin’s former offices and studio, 1907, now houses the International Garden Cities Exhibition. Based on the medieval thatched hall, their drawing offices were in the main hall, which was lit by concrete mullioned windows. The steeply pitched roof is made from Norfolk Reed, the walls have a roughcast finish typical of the Arts and Crafts style and the gardens were designed in the cottage style of Gertrude Jekyll.


Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935


Broadway Cinema, Bennett and Bidwell, 1935

Bennett and Bidwell’s  Art Deco Broadway Cinema, 1935, contrasts nicely with the nearby  conservative Neo-Georgian buildings. The cinema has beautifully intricate traceried windows in the foyer and a concrete vaulted roof.


Howgills, the Friends Meeting House, Bennett and Bidwell, 1907

Bennett and Bidwell worked in different styles, and also designed the Arts and Crafts Howgills, Friends Meeting House, 1907. This is partly based on Briggflatts, a 17 century meeting house in North Yorkshire, particularly the stone mullioned windows. Letchworth expert Mervyn Miller describes the wood panelled interior as “sober and beautiful”.


The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906


The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906

The Cloisters, W H Cowlishaw, 1906, is an unusual building, which the previous Twentieth Century Society Letchworth notes* describe as “a bizarre E.S. Prior-ish confection faced in flint, Suffolk bricks and Purbeck stone facings”. Built for Miss Annie Lawrence, an enthusiast of theosophy, callisthenics and suffragism, it housed a school of psychology, but, to quote the notes again, “most people in Letchworth didn’t have a clue what it was all about and suspected that Miss Lawrence and her disciples weren’t much the wiser either”. An Art Nouveau fountain in the central hall had twin basins, the lower one divided into eight sections for ceremonial hand washing. Communal meals were taken at a marble-faced dining table raised on an altar-like dais and residents slept in hammocks in the Cloisters Garth arcade, men and women strictly separated. It is now the home of the North Herts Masonic Lodge.

*Andrew Saint and Hetty Startup, Spread the People, Twentieth Century Society Tour Notes, 1986

Modern architecture and the car: A visit to Turin’s Fiat and Mirafiori car factories


Spiral ramp in the Fiat Factory, Turin (all photographs copyright the author)

I’ve long wanted to visit Turin’s Fiat Factory, famous for its rooftop test track. But when I finally arrived there the track was closed for maintenance. No randomly tried lift or stairs would get me to the roof, only to Italian office receptionists bewildered by an Englishman asking about the roof (Renzo Piano has converted the factory into offices and a shopping mall). For now, I’ll have to settle for the magnificent views of the track seen in the Italian Job. But at least I managed to walk part way up the spiral ramp leading to the roof, which is a particularly fine early example of reinforced concrete technology.


Giacomo Matte-Trucco’s Fiat Factory, Turin

Critic Reyner Banham declared the Fiat factory “the most nearly futurist building ever built”, referring to the Italian art movement that emphasised speed, technology and cars. Built from 1916-23 in Turin’s Lingotto district, the factory was designed by engineer Giacomo Matte-Trucco. Visits by Fiat officials to Ford’s Highland Park car factory influenced the concrete framed building’s design. But there is one major difference between the two factories. Ford’s car production process moved from the top floor to the ground; at Lingotto it went from the ground floor to top, and then, in spectacular Futurist fashion, completed cars would drive around the test track and exit down the ramp.


Arco Olimpico, Turin

From the factory, I walked across the Arco Olimpico footbridge, which spans many railway tracks, to see the former Olympic Village. The bridge became the symbol for the Turin Winter Olympics, 2006. Designed by architects HDA, the bridge’s 150m long deck is suspended from cables held up by a 70m high red steel arch. The inspiration for the bridge came from the parabolic arches of Umberto Cuzzi’s nearby former fruit and vegetable market. Described as the “only real rationalist project in Turin”, the market includes seven pairs of 100m long parabolic arches, which were incorporated into the athletes’ shopping area. Although Cuzzi’s arches look startlingly modern today, the area now lies forlorn and empty, which one critic blamed on a “lack of far sighted reconversion policies”.


Olympic Village, Turin: Umberto Cuzzi’s  parabolic arches

From here, I took the bus to the edge of the city to see Fiat’s Mirafiori factory. Even as the Lingotto factory was finished it was outdated, so in 1936 Fiat management discussed creating a new plant. They visited Ford’s massive River Rouge plant, the successor to Highland Park. River Rouge replaced multi-storey car factories with single storey buildings that consolidated the manufacturing process on one floor. This reduced unnecessary transport of materials and saved workers’ energy, refining rigid Fordist management practices. Designed in-house by Servizio Costruzioni Fiat, the Mirafiori factory was visited by Mussolini in 1939. According to John Foot, in Modern Italy, he was received by an unresponsive workforce, who were still mostly but secretly communist. The factory is on a huge 376 hectare site. At one point, this employed 50,000 workers, had 10,000 telephones, 37 entry gates and a canteen designed to accommodate 10,000 workers. It includes assembly lines, workshops, forges, a power plant, a network of underground tunnels, a surface test track and railways. The factory has had a chequered industrial relations history, with many strikes.


Mirafiori Factory 

It took forever to walk around its perimeter walls looking for photo opportunities and there seemed no way into the site through the security checkpoints. Then I discovered the Design Centre of the Polytechnic of Turin campus, which has taken over part of the site (the automobile industry crisis through the 1980s-90s has led to diminished production needs). I walked into the campus and found I could enter an adjacent abandoned factory building. Huge in size, with windows smothered outside by the rampant foliage of untamed Trees of Heaven, a melancholy feeling hangs over the place. Stripped of machinery, reminders of the workers remain – an old cat food tin (perhaps there was a factory cat?), a phone extension list to lines that no longer exist and safety signs to remind the long-gone workers to wear goggles.


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Mirafiori Factory


Midwest Modernism I: The Caldwell Lily Pool


Alfred Caldwell’s Lily Pool, Chicago, 1937 (Author’s photo)

Chicago is surprisingly green. In fact, its motto is “Urbs in horto” – “City in a garden”. Among its 570 public parks, Humboldt and Garfield are particularly interesting for their prairie style landscapes. These naturalistic areas mimic Midwest prairies. They were designed by innovative landscaper Jens Jensen around 1906. Alfred Caldwell was Jensen’s student  and went on to design the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park. This is a masterpiece of modern landscape design.


Lily Pool  (Author’s photo)

It includes a circular stone meeting place, a feature used by Jensen, a limestone path around the pool and sumptuous native Illinois planting. The pool’s limestone cascades and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired pavilion are all horizontals, appearing to grow organically out of the landscape. Eminent Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe met Caldwell at the pool. Impressed, Mies offered Caldwell a job teaching in his architecture faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Caldwell also designed the landscape at IIT, a campus famous for Mies’s influential Crown Hall.


Cascade, Lily Pool (Author’s photo)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEntrance gate to the Lily Pool (Author’s photo)

The pool became run down due to lack of maintenance, but was restored in 2000 and is now an National Historic Landmark. Other work by Caldwell in Chicago includes the rooftop park on the podium at Lake Point Tower. In a neat piece of synergy, this glass tower was designed by Schipporeit and Heinrich, two former Mies students, who based it on  Mies ‘s designs for an unrealised Berlin tower from 1921.


Schipporeit and Heinrich’s Lake Point Tower, Chicago, 1968 (Author’s photo)


Art within architecture: John Piper’s mosaic in Birmingham Chamber of Commerce

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John Piper’s Mosaic in the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60)

Although best known for his paintings, the artist John Piper created murals and mosaics too, including one I saw in the foyer of John Madin’s Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60). It’s made from gloss-fired tiles in vivid greens, yellows and oranges on a dark background. Although seemingly an abstract work, the Birmingham Pesvner guide by Andy Foster speculates that it might be an “urban landscape”, perhaps, with tall towers”. Lynn Pearson’s pioneering post-war UK murals database notes that it “may be moved to the Barber Institute”, the art gallery of the University of Birmingham. This surely relates to news that the Chamber of Commerce may be demolished to make way for redevelopment.

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John Madin’s Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (1959-60)

If the Chamber of Commerce is demolished, it will follow the sad fate of other Madin works, including the Birmingham Post and Mail building and most probably the former Birmingham Central Library. The latter was supposed to be demolished earlier this year, but at the time of writing (November 2015) there seems to be a hiatus and campaigners are resurrecting a petition to save it (even as the demolition crews destroy yet another Madin building, at 103 Colmore Row).


Stuart Whipps, Detroit Public Library 006 (2011), Medium format slide (courtesy of the artist)

Many of Madin’s works can no longer be enjoyed in built form, but photographer Stuart Whipps ‘Why contribute to the spread of ugliness’ exhibition at the Ikon Gallery (2012) documented Madin’s buildings and archive. He even retraced Madin’s research visit to America, made when the architect was designing Birmingham Central Library. In a neat piece of visual symmetry, an image by Whipps of Detroits Public Library comes complete with a Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata), a plant also seen in front of Piper’s mosaic. I hope the mosaic survives; it certainly deserves to be better known.

A “meeting point of gardening and agriculture”: Dan Pearson’s new flower meadow at Compton Verney

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Dan Pearson with the yellow rattle in his new meadow

Recently I was lucky enough to enjoy Dan Pearson’s tour of his new flower meadow at Compton Verney in Warwickshire.

William Morris’s trellis pattern wallpaper inspired the meadow, which opened to coincide with the gallery’s Arts & Crafts House: Then and now exhibition. The straight lines in the trellis pattern influenced the meadow’s mown paths, while the informality of its wild flowers reflects the wallpaper’s rambling roses. The flower mix includes the semi-parasitic yellow rattle, which will help diminish the grass fertility, and create windows of opportunity for other flowers. Other species include wild carrot, ox eye daisy, wild red clover, tufted vetch and cowslips. Circles of annuals within the meadow, including poppies and corn cockles, represent the rose flowers seen on Morris’s pattern.

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Compton Verney’s meadow seen from the terrace

Dan explained that the meadow will go through several evolutions, before stabilising in around five years. The meadow will be cut at the end of the summer and the clippings removed to reduce fertility. There is even the possibility of sheep grazing it  over the winter. Dan aptly described the meadow as the “meeting point of gardening and agriculture”.

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Compton Verney House within it’s ‘Capability’ Brown landscape

Dan is the first garden designer to work at Compton Verney since Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown redesigned the landscape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps unusually for a piece of garden design, the meadow was crowdfunded by the public as an Art Fund Art Happens project. It’s well worth seeing over the summer, as is the related Arts and Crafts House exhibition.

*The Arts and Crafts House: Then and Now, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 27 June to 13 Sept 2015

Modern architecture in Oxford Colleges (part II)

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Hilda Besse Building, St Antony’s College, 1967-71, by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis (HKPA)

Oxford has so many top quality modern buildings that last year’s Twentieth Century Society tour could not include them all. I spotted one of those not included during the lunch break – the Hilda Besse Building at St Antony’s College, by Howard, Killick, Partridge and Amis (HKPA), 1967-71. Here, I particularly admired the pre-cast concrete dining hall roof – known as a diagrid , meaning diagonal grids – and ‘hooded’ windows that echo the shape of the roof.

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Hilda Besse Building, St Antony’s College, 1967-71, by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis (HKPA)

Back on the tour proper, I saw Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson’s fine, Alvar Aalto-influenced Law and English Library, 1961. There was no time to stop here, but its Scandinavian influences nicely set up the next destination.

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Law and English Library, 1964, by Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson

Arne Jacobsen’s sleek, austere St Catherine’s College, 1960, alone makes a visit to Oxford worthwhile, especially as the garden is interesting too. Designed on a rigorous structural grid system, the college is a true gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), with Jacobsen designing the furniture and cutlery (although unsurprisingly none of his original cutlery seems to be in the refectory today).

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St Catherine’s College, 1964, by Arne Jacobsen

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St Catherine’s College, 1964, by Arne Jacobsen

Next, a little-known work by those doyens of British modernism, Peter and Alison Smithson. The student residences at St Hilda’s College, known as the Garden Building, 1968, has the same splayed corners as their more famous Economist building. The timber across the windows of this (once) all ladies college act as a modesty screen (Peter Smithson called it a “kind of yashmak”)  that was influenced by English Tudor buildings and Tunisian window screens.

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Garden Building, St Hilda’s College, 1968, by Alison and Peter Smithson

Last but not least, I saw the exterior of James Stirling‘s Florey Building, Queen’s College, 1965. Interior access was refused, so these student residences were viewed from an unkempt area by the river, where the planned riverside footpath was never completed, meaning the building’s ‘front’ is now the ‘back’. Students have a riverside view through the sheer glass walls that were an influence on ABK’s work at Keble College.

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Florey Building, Queen’s College, 1971, by James Stirling

Along with his Cambridge History Faculty and Leicester Engineering Buildings, the Florey is part of Stirling’s so-called ‘Red Trilogy’ – three controversial works that will be discussed in another blog post.

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Florey Building, Queen’s College, 1971, by James Stirling

Modern architecture in Oxford Colleges (part I)


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Thomas White Building, St John’s College, 1970, by Arup Associates

A few months ago I went on an excellent Twentieth Century Society tour of modern architecture in Oxford colleges, expertly led by architect Alan Berman. The themes of the day were – the use of high quality materials, both stone and concrete, superb craftsmanship, and innovative architectural design whilst (mostly) respecting the college’s historical context.

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‘The Beehive’, St John’s College, 1958, by Michael Powers from Architects Co-Partnership

The tour started with three buildings at St John’s, one of the wealthiest colleges. Firstly, the student residences known as ‘The Beehive’, 1958, by Michael Powers from Architects Co-Partnership, with interlocking hexagonal rooms influenced by organic forms (an architectural fashion at the time). Despite its modern look, the building, like several others on the tour, still has the traditional collegiate arrangement of rooms off staircases.

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Thomas White Building, St John’s College, 1970, by Arup Associates

Next came Arup Associates’ Thomas White Building, 1970, more residences, with a high-quality pre-cast concrete ‘exo skeleton’ that nicely integrates an historic boundary wall into the design. The Concrete Society gave this building an award in 1976, describing the quality of finish as ‘breathtaking’.

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The Garden Quadrangle, St John’s College,1995 by Richard MacCormac

Lastly at St John’s, I saw Richard MacCormac’s extravagant Garden Quadrangle, 1995, with obvious classical influences and the use of the finest quality materials, including screens made of thousands of pieces of sawn glass by Polish artist Alexander Beleschenko. Oxford academic Geoffrey Tyack aptly describes this building as: ‘a self-consciously dramatic Piranesian confection of upper and lower levels, brick, concrete and glass towers, geometrically disposed planting beds, and chains which channel rainwater into floodlights where it steams off dramatically’.

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Residences and bar, Keble College, 1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

At Keble College I walked through Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s superb residences and bar, 1973. This building makes no attempt to fit in with William Butterfield’s polychromatic Victorian masterpiece (Ahrends said the college ‘wanted to make a statement’ with a new build). This long thin building is only one room wide with an internal walkway ending (conveniently) in a bar. One side is a continuous wall of tinted glass that neatly reflects Butterfield’s brickwork, whilst the rear side is a huge fortress-like brick wall (which even has slit windows). I like Marc Girouard’s comments in the Architectural Review, where he compares this building to a snake, not just because of its long, sinuous plan but also because the glazing reminds him of a reptile’s scales. Here too, we have the traditional collegiate arrangement of rooms off staircases, albeit with brightly painted doors (organised in colours of the rainbow).

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Residences and bar (exterior wall), Keble College, 1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

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Residences and bar (internal walkway), Keble College,1973, by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek

I admired North Oxford’s Victorian Gothic on the walk out of the city centre to Powell and Moya’s Wolfson College, 1967-71. This new graduate college, located next to the River Cherwell, even has its own punt harbour. There are also beautiful water meadows, reached by walking over the arched High Bridge that was built as a relief project by the unemployed in 1923-24.  Thanks to the college, the tour group enjoyed coffee and biscuits in Wolfson’s fine refectory, which is possibly an unusual square shape because egalitarian President, Isiah Berlin, didn’t want a traditional Oxbridge High Table.

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Wolfson College, 1967-71, by Powell and Moya

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Wolfson College (refectory interior), 1967-71,-by Powell and Moya

Oxford is so rich in post-war architecture that even before the second half of the tour began I glimpsed more superb examples during the lunch break. These will be covered in part II, along with other exceptional modern Oxford college buildings, including St Catherine’s, that superlative modernist college by Arne Jacobsen.