Factories have often had to fight to be seen as architecture. Perhaps because architecture is so often about a spectacle that transports out of everyday life - the palace, the cathedral - how can the place you go to work every day be an object for aesthetic admiration? Perhaps with their conversion into a new space for the contemplation of art, or for ‘loft living’ they might become acceptable, but what of those factories that are still churning out production? Surely they should just do their jobs quietly and out of sight and then be abandoned when no longer of use?
There’s another view of course, that of the machine aesthetic, where the functionalist forthrightness of the industrial structure incarnates all the principles of modernist honesty and fitness for purpose. The buildings I’m going to write about here mostly fit these parameters. Hard buildings, made out of concrete, none of what Basil Spence called ‘mimsy-pimsy’ architecture. Buildings for manual work and the application of technological rationalism. Factories and industrial buildings occupy a central place in the history of 20th century architecture, and, perhaps surprisingly, you can find pointers as to the connections and contradictions of this history all over Hertfordshire. Here is a Britain caught between Europe and America, unsure which it will favour.
In the interwar years industry began to slowly move out of London, where the proximity to both housing and the corridors of power had started to become rather uncomfortable. This coincided with the building of new arterial roads out of the capital, creating an Americanised space in the home counties. Consumer concerns, usually based on the other side of the Atlantic (Gillette, Firestone, Hoover), built their most famous factories on the roads spilling into Middlesex, where their application of art deco details and bright colours, their use of lighting and logos, created what Adolf Behne christened Reklamarkhitektur
(‘advertising-architecture’). The architect of the most famous of these was Thomas Wallis, who had gone into business with the American concrete construction company Truscon - so was Americanised economically as well as aesthetically - and christened his firm Wallis Gilbert and Partners to make it sound vaguely artistic (‘Gilbert‘ was an invention). In their placing, they recalled Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the ‘factory in the garden’, but in the thunderous roads that ran past them, they embodied the autotopia of 20th century America, factories for the civilization of the open road and the car - always rather incongruous in such a tightly-packed island.
London and the Home Counties are sprinkled with his concrete fantasias, buildings more appropriate to 1930s Miami or LA than the garden of England. The most famous of Wallis’ industrial buildings, such as the Hoover factory in Perivale, have long since been listed, tended and restored. They were a prolific firm, though, and a decidedly less well upkept little factory of theirs clings on in Watford - the Ault and Wiborg factory. Rather than being preserved in aspic, the concrete curves have been coloured cream, and a wilfully crap sign for the current owners is emblazoned across the building’s front. Maybe because it doesn’t make as much fuss about itself as its cousins on the Great West Road, Ault and Wiborg seems forlorn and forgotten - and in fact, it’s currently slated for demolition in a new scheme for the area. Maybe it’s just not in an obvious enough place. Yet the production of shiny new spaces was what Wallis’ aesthetic was all about in the first place.
The more serious, socially concerned Modernists always disdained Wallis’ ‘moderne’ factories, with their fripperies and ‘jazz ornament’. ‘The notoriously vulgar and pretentious factories of the Great West Road’ was how the British Modernist historian J.M Richards dismissed them. Yet their version of the utilitarian building was also fundamentally American. In the 1910s Walter Gropius, the future Bauhaus director, had his notorious wife Alma travel round America collecting pictures of Ford’s factories, and especially the monumental grain silos to be found in places like Buffalo - monumental, stark forms that he compared to the severity and scale of Ancient Egyptian architecture. These were the buildings - the silos catalogued and airbrushed in Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture
, their fierce beauty ignored by the ‘eyes that do not see’ - that gave the continental Modernists the confidence to abandon ornament and historical styles altogether.
For the Americans, of course, they were just sound engineering, nothing more and nothing less. Gillian Darley’s book Factory
points out that the nearest English replication of the monumental silos of Buffalo was actually Welwyn Garden City's Shredded Wheat Factory: concrete, white-rendered, its simple geometries unadorned. Louis de Soissons, the architect of the second garden city, was a neo-Georgian, and perhaps the last person likely to design such a monument to stark technocracy. But design it he did, and it was perhaps the most unashamedly Modern structure in Britain on its completion in 1925. The nearest thing to the cyclopean, windswept, futuristic romance of American industry, ensconced in a semi-pastoral fantasy of old England.
In the same garden city, there is another factory that has connections with this conjunction of Americanism and Modernism. Otto Rudolf Salvisberg was a Swiss architect who had designed some of Berlin’s revolutionary Siedlungen
during the Weimar Republic, uncompromisingly Modern social housing estates set in parkland and countryside. Amid the general exodus from Nazi Germany in the 1930s he could briefly be found working in Britain, on the Roche chemical factory of 1938. Here we have an aesthete’s version of the stern romanticism of American design - clean lines, flat roofs and white render, this time carefully planned and stylish. It was actually this building that J.M Richards was discussing when he took a sideswipe at the fancy factories of Wallis Gilbert, citing it as being planned as a harmonious whole, rather than as a gigantic concrete advert at the front and some sheds out back.
Another figure who bridged the gap between Weimar Modernism and Americanised industry was Owen Williams, the prolific engineer-architect best known for a series of glassy, high-tech buildings in the early 30s - Peckham Health Centre, the Daily Express
buildings in London and Manchester, the Boots ‘Wets’ Factory in Nottingham - and many others, from the original Wembley Stadium and Arena to the bridges that spanned the earliest motorways. Again, he worked with American concrete producers Truscon, and was much admired by the seemingly less worldly theorists of the Modern movement. His position as an engineer most admired for his contributions to architecture is a little paradoxical. Although most of his buildings make their point via their sharp lines and finishes, his most prominent work in Herts is a whimsical puzzle. The Odhams factory in Watford (apparently still in use by the Daily Mirror
) seems mostly a hard, bricky thing, but then features an art deco clock on its tower and at the top, a spire with flying buttresses that evokes German Expressionism more than it does the machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus.
These places are reminders not just of the arguments over the beauty or otherwise of industrial structures, but also of a manufacturing economy that has apparently been superseded by services and speculation; but curiously, all of them are still working. If they were in London itself rather than on its peripheries or on its commuter belt, they would doubtless have been restored as office blocks, art galleries or supermarkets. Instead they still do a job, of a sort. Some are threatened with demolition or redevelopment, but whatever happens to them, they remain fragments of a time when the places where things were made
were found in the most prominent places, whether in architectural debates or on roads and cities. We no longer really know or care where stuff comes from, so it’s appropriate that its built form is disappearing from our sight.