Saturday, January 26, 2013
Great West Road, London
Setting down a marker
Gate piers. They're one of the primary architectural signals of large buildings. You see them and straight away the eyes are peeled, the neck is craned. Somewhere beyond there's going to be a big house or somethings else – a school? a hotel? offices? something industrial? And rapidly your buildings correspondent is summing up the possibilities: is this a welcoming gate or one that wants me to keep out? If the latter, is there a gap in the hedge somewhere that offers a view of what's inside? Gate piers, like entrance lodges, are often the prelude to something interesting and exciting.
But sometimes, as I've noticed on this blog more than once before, the anticipation can no longer be fulfilled. The gate may be there, but what it heralded has long gone. It is often the way with country houses, which disappeared in their scores in the 1950s, less often with industrial buildings. But these gate piers on the Great West Road are reminders of an architectural loss as great as that of all but the grandest country house. From 1928 to 1980 they fronted the Firestone tyre factory, one of the most spectacular of the Art Deco factories on the western approaches to London. After it closed, it was demolished, during a public holiday in August 1980, just before a listing was due to come into force.
A long white Art Deco front, with big windows separated by white piers topped with colourful capitals; a central doorway with ornate surround in blue tiles; the company name emblazoned across the top in large letters that were illuminated in red neon at night – the factory was a stunner, worthy to be compared with two others that have survived, the Hoover building on Western Avenue and the Carreras tobacco factory at Mornington Crescent. And on a summer weekend in 1980, it all disappeared, save for these gate piers and gates, elegant and very Art Deco reminders of the building and its sad fate.
If every cloud has a silver lining, the consolation here is that the factory's demolition galvanised campaigners and architects to look out for other vulnerable 20th-century structures. The Thirties Society (now the Twentieth Century Society) had been founded in 1979 to protect buildings of what was then an under-appreciated period in British architecture. News of the Firestone demolition focussed public opinion, led to the listing of many important 20th-century buildings, and helped 1930s enthusiasts convince people of the merits of such structures as lidos, 1930s underground stations, and telephone boxes. The Firestone gate piers are a reminder of what it took make people realise what they could be missing.