The suburbs of ‘Metro-Land’ — which blossomed in the 1920s and 30s around northwest London and into the nearby home counties — brought about a slew of exciting modernist architecture: from homes to cinemas to car showrooms.
Here, we pick some of the lesser-known and under-appreciated art deco gems, as documented by writer and tour guide Joshua Abbott, in his book A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land.
A striking, Grade II-listed design in white render, with a staircase tower, Crittall windows and sunroof. A group of nearby houses by architects Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander were similarly splendid, but now sadly much changed.
Originally designed by Leonard Bucknell and Ruth Ellis, the station scheme was revised by Charles Holden with construction beginning in 1939 and finally completed in 1942. From street level the exterior doesn’t have the visual clarity of earlier 1930s stations, with too many ideas not cohering. However from platform level the station is more interesting, featuring glass staircase towers, a set of offices bridging the tracks and a metal statue of an archer by Eric Aumonier.
A bold-looking church, designed by Welch and Felix Lander. The interior features a stained glass window depicting the work of women in the church by Christopher Webb.
An expressionist apartment block alongside the Metropolitan line designed by Peter Caspari. The building is six storeys high and built in banded brick that curves with an assurance not seen in other buildings of its period. Caspari was one of many émigré architects to flee to Britain from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. As with many Caspri only stayed for a few years before moving over the other side of the Atlantic. Kingsley Court represents the best of Caspari’s brief stay.
Many of the earliest modernist buildings in Metro-Land, and indeed Britain, were functional buildings such as factories and stadiums. This factory building is a good example. More subdued than the firm’s designs on the Great West Road, the firm of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners built a four-storey factory for the American Wrigley’s chewing gum company in 1928. The interior was designed to be rearranged to allow for changes in production, with the ceilings supported by circular mushroom pillars. The building has now been converted into a commercial centre.
Built 10 years after his work on the Empire Exhibition buildings and the Empire Stadium (the original Wembley Stadium), Owen Williams’ design for the 1934 Empire Games shows a leap forward in design. This structure, featuring three concrete span arches measuring 72 metres with exterior supporting fins, and boxy water towers, has a fortress-like air. Despite this it has come to be somewhat of a national treasure after its conversion to a popular concert venue, and marks the high point of Williams’ journey from engineer to architect.
George Coles produced nearly 90 cinemas in the interwar period, with designs all over Metro-Land. This cinema is a good example of the ‘more is more’ style of cinema design, in which the building acts as an advert for itself — an idea not so different from Charles Holden’s underground stations. The Gaumont State Kilburn has a central tower finished in cream-coloured faience and a lobby that is panelled with green Vitrolite. Like many surviving cinema buildings in London, it became a bingo hall before converting to a church.
A stark, concrete synagogue and hall on the edge of Gladstone Park, designed for the United Synagogue. The buildings are constructed of pre-stressed concrete folded slabs and have hexagonal and shield-shaped windows. Owen Williams’ (of Empire Pool fame) design here was not judged a success, with the architect forced to pay back some of the fee to his clients. Nevertheless it is now Grade II and still in use, now as a Jewish primary school.
The accompanying three-storey canteen and garage block for the very well-known Hoover Building was designed and built later than the main block, in 1938. It is constructed of reinforced concrete, and features a long, vertical, V-shaped window at the front.
A group of nine art deco-style houses designed by Frank Woodward, who along with his brother Charles also acted as developer for the scheme. As with many modernist speculative houses from the interwar period, they were built in brick and rendered white to give the impression of concrete. This was often done as at the time, many smaller building firms did not have the requisite technical expertise to build in concrete.
An exuberant art deco cinema designed by local architect Frederick Ernest Bromige, who specialised in designing cinemas. The front facade has a concrete mullion that is supposed to resemble an elephants trunk. Inside, the building features a sunken tea room in the entrance and an auditorium with a proscenium arch. After closing as a cinema the building became a bar/disco and slipped into a state of disrepair. It was then bought as a centre for the Zoroastrian religion and extensively repaired and refurbished.
A six-storey art deco block of flats sitting on top of Highgate Hill with views over London. The building contains 54 flats and a facade made up of three curving crescents. The architect Guy Morgan, also known for Florin Court in Charterhouse Square, used an array of materials: yellow brick, cast stone, steel windows and concrete balconies. They all combine to produce a perfect example of the 1930s mansion block, a contrast to its better-known contemporary, the Highpoint building, just around the corner.
The car was a potent symbol of status in the interwar period, with more and more middle class families investing in one. This led to an increase in car showrooms away from the traditional areas like Piccadilly and Great Portland Street in central London. Showrooms such as this, designed in the latest architectural fashion, sprang up in the suburbs and around the newly built ring roads.
An elegant former furniture store in Uxbridge, rebuilt in the late 1930s and featuring some lovely period design features. The exterior has a square tower with flagstaff, a neon name sign and is finished in cream faience. The interior was plainer in style, and featured a pneumatic tube cash system.
The Coty Cosmetics building, designed for a French perfume company, has a striking exterior of sculpted curves, quite different from Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ other buildings. Like all of the Golden Mile factories, it was designed with an art deco facade in front and a functional factory area behind. The factory area has now been demolished.
Built for University College School Old Boys Club by Brian Sutcliffe and H. C. Farmer with an exaggerated curved roof, giving it an almost expressionist air. The stand is constructed of reinforced concrete and features a refreshment room and amenities. It was completed in 1935 and used by the University Old Boys team until 1979, after which it fell into disrepair. The stand and clubhouse were listed in 2001 and the site was taken over and refurbished by a five-a-side football company in 2005.
A well-kept, Cubist-influenced house near the River Thames. The house is three storeys tall with a sunroof, and has a rectangular staircase tower. It is finished in brilliant white render and features a front door complete with jazzy motif. It was designed by the partnership of William Couch and William Coupland, who were based in the area, and designed many houses and apartment blocks in the 1930s.
A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land by Joshua Abbott is available to buy now, RRP £10.99
Also check out Josh’s website.