Friday, July 27, 2012

Letchworth, Hertfordshire

Postcards from England: 1. Old and new

In five years of blogging I've visited and passed by many buildings, and shared a good number of them with my readers. But there are lots, including many that I visited in the distant past, of which I have no photographs in my digital archive to share with my readers. I do, however, have a small collection of old postcards of some of these buildings so, to vary further the architectural menu, I'm presenting some of these in an occasional series called Postcards from England. This is the first. 

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My postcard shows part of the Spirella corset factory, built among lawns and trees in the garden city of Letchworth between 1912 and 1920. The tall, hipped-roofed parts of the building shown in the picture reveal a strong Arts and Crafts influence in the design – white window frames and brick walls that would almost fit in in Bedford Park, and grids of square glass that seem to hint at more modern architecture. In fact the factory's architect, Cecil Hignett, who had earlier worked alongside garden-city planners Parker and Unwin, was at once sensitive to the Arts and Crafts heritage of Letchworth and alert to the possibilities of the new – behind the brick walls is a structure of reinforced concrete.

Inside were light, airy workspaces in which Spirella's employees cut and sewed in comfort. William Wallace Kincaid, boss of the company, wanted to give his corsetières the best of working environments, because he was convinced that if they were happy they would also be efficient. "The Factory of Beauty", he called the building – implying both that it was a beautiful place and that his workers were producing garments that would enhance the beauty of their owners-to-be. Old-fashioned paternalistic values and an old-fashioned view of beauty, perhaps, but producing architecture that is worthy of more than a passing glance.

Although the factory is no longer used for its intended purpose, the building has survived. Since a restoration in the 1990s it houses office space and public facilities such as a café and a gym. Whatever one's views of corsetry (and I know enough about my readers to realise that their views will be very diverse indeed), one can only be thankful that this wonderful building is still standing, and looking as beautiful as it did when the photograph in my postcard* was taken.

*Don't forget that you can enlarge the picture by clicking on it.

1 comment:

bazza said...

I love old postcards of this type. I have spent ages at boot fairs slowing working through hundreds of them (but rarely buying). I am also intrigued by Victorian copper-plate invoices!
Letchworth is a pleasant place to live. I think it was the original 'garden city'.
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