Saturday, November 17, 2007

Greater London House, London

For decades, London took its wonderful Art Deco factories of the 1920s and 1930s for granted. Then from the 1950s to the 1970s they became the victims of makeover merchants and snooty design gurus who despised them as the cinematic fripperies of a past age, irrelevantly ornamented with details from an age still older: what had the ancient Egyptians, for goodness sake, done for us? And so the sunbursts and bright flashes of colour – and sometimes the entire buildings that bore them – began to disappear.

From the 1980s onwards, though, people started to realise that the world was a duller place for the loss of these exuberant buildings. Changing fashions and the rise of postmodernism with its penchant for outré ornament helped. So did the realization that the 20th century had contributed more to design than hair-shirt glass-and-steel modernism. So, of course, did amenity groups like the Twentieth Century Society. As a result there have been some dazzling successes of preservation and restoration.
By the approaching millennium, the old Carreras cigarette factory in Mornington Crescent had been shorn of many of its decorative details. The front of the 1926 building, designed by M.E. and O.H. Collins, had been the epitome of Carreras’ Black Cat cigarette brand, with cat-head roundels repeated across the façade and two eight-foot high seated cats, inspired by the Egyptian feline goddess Bastet, guarding the entrance. Triumphantly, the cats were brought back for the millennium, and the whole frontage – cat heads with wiry whiskers, stylish Art Deco lettering, colourful Egyptian capitals – was restored. This corner of North London is all the better for it.


Peter Ashley said...

Ooh I like this one. Apparently Hitler had his eye on it for Nazi headquarters, should he have made it into London. Apocryphal stories abound of buildings Adolf had his eye on, one unlikely candidate being the Grand Hotel in Scarborough. Third Reich-on-Sea.

Hels said...

Nice choice of words: "despised them as the cinematic fripperies of a past age" :) Since cinemas were such an important display space for Art Deco taste, tearing down Deco cinemas has been an ongoing battle in Britain, Australia and probably every other part of the Commonwealth.

I have mixed feelings about The Grosvenor Cinema 1936, Rayners Lane London. Sad that it has been converted into a religious centre; pleased that the architecture was largely saved.

Art and Architecture, mainly

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Thanks for your comment about my prose!

I know what you mean about the Grosvenor Cinema - it;s abuilding I mean to do a post about one day, after one of my occasional visits to West London. This balance between saving the architecture and finding a use is so often a difficult one.