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.*

As ever, God (or the Devil, if you wish) is in the details. If this gigantic facade does seem over the top, the carving and that jewel-box of a clock give it different accents, and make one pause to look closely. Which is one of the things good architectural ornament can do so well.

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*As so often, the excellent Ornamental Passions blog has more about the carving on this building, with more photographs.


Joe Treasure said...

At some point during my childhood, this style of architecture was put on my personal map by the Hoover Building. Someone must have pointed it out to me on a trip into London along the A40 from Cheltenham (my father, I should think) and I've noticed it ever since -- the building itself and the style it typifies.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Exactly Joe. The Hoover Building is, along with the Carreras, the other great example of this style. And for me the Hoover Building still plays that 'welcome to London', or 'farewell to London' role as I enter or leave the capital on the road from the west.

Stephen Barker said...

I have memories as a student of calling in at the Telegraph building or the Daily Express office to pick an early edition of the newspapers. One had to look out for the vans hurtling out from narrow side streets to take the papers to the railway stations for distribution.

Even if the papers have moved out we are left with some great architecture.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: Yes indeed. I too remember dodging those newspaper vans - and buying early editions of the Sunday papers late on Saturday night.

bazza said...

Although the Telegraph building is the finest on Fleet Street, I have always been impressed by Bush House which, I presume, is in the same category? Not sure when it was built.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’