Monday, October 26, 2015
Fleet Street, London
Getting your message across
I’m in the process of preparing a course about architectural ornament, and looking through my photographs to find examples of ways in which 20th-century architects turned against the modernist call in the 1920s for architecture that should be functional and devoid, or largely devoid, of the decorative elements that had so preoccupied their predecessors. There are numerous ways in which they made this turn, of course, one of them being the increasing use of ancient Egyptian design as a source: think various cinema facades and factories of the late-1920s and 1930s. To make this point in the past I’ve often used a personal favourite – the old Carreras tobacco factory at Mornington Crescent, with its Egyptian columns and wonderful black cats. Here’s another example, the former Telegraph building in Fleet Street.
The Telegraph building was designed for the newspaper of that name by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait and built in 1927–8. It has a very bold, ultra-imposing facade with a row of giant fluted columns topped by carved Egyptian capitals. Bands of abstract carved ornament run along cornices and over window lintels. The whole thing is designed to make a big mark, to overwhelm the passer-by. And so it does – look at the way it dwarfs the pedestrians in front of it.
Further decorative touches make a big difference. The clock, itself enormous, lends colour to this stony frontage. Its design is full of the diamonds, jagged edges, chevrons, and radiating, sunburst-like motifs that Art Deco artists loved. The relief above the doorway, by, Alfred Oakley, is another such feature. With its sun-rays, compass rose, Britain at the centre of its hemisphere, and the two caduceus-bearing messenger figures racing out across the empire with news, it symbolises the newspaper’s business of communication, and sets it, and Britain, at a pivotal place in the world that would not have seemed inappropriate in 1927. On the bright day I passed by, some rather dramatic shadows were obscuring some of the detail of this carving, but it’s strong enough to make its point without the direct light of the Art Deco lamp above it.*
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*As so often, the excellent Ornamental Passions blog has more about the carving on this building, with more photographs.