Sunday, January 17, 2010
Western Avenue, London
When I visit London my route in and out of the capital city takes me past the former Hoover Factory in Perivale, and seeing its long pale façade on the way out, I know that I’ll soon be beyond the urban sprawl and on to the M40. For thousands of others every day, this great flash of white and green represents their farewell to London, and no doubt when the factory, designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, opened in 1933 it was designed to make just such an impression.
The Hoover Factory was one of many built on the western fringes of London in the Art Deco style. From the road, we see the office section, but behind stretched a huge manufacturing building – eventually extended to about a quarter of a million square feet – where some 1,600 people assembled the vacuum cleaners that were already synonymous with the company’s name.
For Hoover, manufacturers of the latest cleaning devices, this factory was a perfect symbol. Its white walls suggested cleanliness and hygiene; its flashes of coloured decoration implied that the company's products were stylishly designed; its big windows created light, airy spaces inside, showing that modern workers could work in modern comfort.
Gliding past along Western Avenue, one takes all this in, but stop and look at the details and it gets even better: the great cinematic sweep of the window above the entrance; the artful arrangement of diagonal glazing bars in the doors (mirrored incidentally in the patterns of the iron railings around the site); jazzy light fittings; white sculpted variations in the wall surface; amazing recessed quadrant windows in the stair towers.
For a while, buildings like this were unappreciated. They were seen as ephemeral cinema-style architecture, their flashy decoration out of kilter with the puritanical tenets of modernism. And so, one by one, as manufacturing moved away from London, they were demolished. Hoover shifted their manufacturing away from London in the 1980s, and their building looked likely to suffer a similar fate.
But by this time, more people came to see the virtues of buildings like the Hoover. The decorative flair, and sometimes excess, of postmodern architecture helped many see them in a new light. Architects and public alike realised that cinema-style building was not all bad (I once heard a well known postmodernist modestly refer to some of his own work as ‘B-Movie architecture’). So the Hoover Factory was saved, although it’s now the called Hoover Building, because nothing is manufactured here and it is occupied by offices and a supermarket. For which I for one am grateful, as I drive westwards, dodging speed cameras and dashing objects, and saying my farewell to London.