The Almost-Skyscrapers of Britain, 1829-1944
As another stop-gap before something proper, here's one-half of a talk I delivered next to and about Senate House in December, posted here in ambiguous celebration of the Heron Tower becoming the tallest building in the City of London, and a series of - mostly awful - boom towers reaching recession completion. The original talk goes on to recapitulate my earlier praise of Richard Seifert, who was, let's be honest, the finest designer of tall buildings Britain has ever had (who else? Foster and Rogers have too much pallid recent guff besmirching their record. Basil Spence and the Hungarian Goldfinger are the only ones who come even close). It's all also hugely indebted to London as it Might Have Been by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde, from which most of the images are taken)
When, in 1932, America was vaulting into the future, with the Empire State Building leaping up to 85 storeys, the tallest new office block in London, Shell-Mex House, was considered daring and outré for reaching 12 storeys. This, aside from summing up better than anything else the passing of the baton of most powerful capitalist nation from the UK to the USA, gives credence to an argument made by the English critic Martin Pawley – that Britain has had a uniquely unhappy relationship with tall buildings. In his book Terminal Architecture, published in 1997 before the building boom of the New Labour era, this unrepentant Futurist profiled two symbolic failures from Britain's 1960s dalliance with skyscrapers and tower blocks – the Ronan Point system-built council block, jerry-built by contractors, which partly collapsed after a gas explosion in 1968, and Seifert's Centre Point office block, a speculative scheme which remained unlet for decades. We will return later to Pawley's lament for a vertigo-ridden nation, desperately afraid of the future. First of all, however, we should note that at the moment of its imperial dominance, the UK seemed, at least retrospectively, as likely to develop a series of freakishly tall, dreamlike and technologically extravagant buildings as anywhere else. Let the record show that the first proposal for something which resembles a skyscraper was made in the 1850s. After the decision was made to move the Crystal Palace - the iron and glass exhibition centre which displayed the bounty of imperialism to a previously restive populace - out of its previous location in Hyde Park, some proposals were made for redesigns. The architect C Burton proposed stacking the iron frame upwards to fifty storeys. We have here almost everything that would define the early 20th century skyscraper. Construction based on metal and glass, a stepped form, and an extraordinary height. American historians have been squabbling for years over which building really justifies the description of 'first skyscraper', without noticing that it was quietly, obscurely 'invented' in London thirty years earlier. Yet more precocious was the proposal for a pyramidal skyscraper which would, fittingly enough for the Victorian metropolis, be a tower as necropolis, its 50 or so storeys housing the bodies of as many as 5 million Londoners, slotted into a fittingly protomodernist cellular structure. It was presented before parliament, and passed over for the somewhat less demented Kensal Green cemetery.
The Crystal Palace tower was of course unbuilt and, at the time, unbuildable, but there were attempts at tall buildings which, early on, could hold their own with the Americans, albeit briefly. Victorian towers such as those of the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Cathedral had a clearly aggressive, pugnacious, god-threatening upwards motion, while hotels such as the Hotel Russell, and the mansion blocks which grew up in South Kensington, could reach double figures in their number of floors. One example of these was so widely despised that it helped bring in legislation to stop London from going the way of Manhattan – this was Queen Anne Mansions, a fourteen-storey block of luxury flats in St James', which was designed in 1873 and finished in 1889, fitted with hydraulic lifts. As described by Nikolaus Pevsner in the 1950s, it sounds like a Transatlantic nightmare trampling into Westminster's placidity, what he calls an 'irredeemable horror' with 'rudely bare' architecture. Soon after it was finished, in 1890, a height limit was set so as to ensure that London would not share in the bizarre new skyscapes of New York and Chicago. In a sense, tall buildings in London have never quite recovered from this setback, although after Queen Anne Mansions was demolished in the 1970s, it was replaced by a rather taller tower by Basil Spence.
There were other instances of the urge to skyscrape being defeated for reasons financial and aesthetic, the history of cancellations and speculative follies that define the histor of London's tall buildings. The most fantastical and most banal of these must be the Wembley Tower, proposed by the railway magnate Sir Edward Watkin. To cut a long story short, this entailed a skyscraping edifice to rival the Eiffel Tower, which got as far as the first few storeys, by which time investors got cold feet. The unfinished framework lay rusting for years before Wembley Stadium eventually replaced it. It was unlucky enough to have been demolished in 1907, during the Edwardian era when, as Pevnser put it, there was displayed 'the sad spectacle of England throwing off her heritage of originality and retiring to a barren style of period imitation'. Yet the Wembley Tower was itself an imitation, of the Eiffel Tower, whose form it apes very precisely. Meanwhile, it is extremely debatable whether a tower like this counts as a skyscraper at all – though it may scrape or rather prick upwards, it is fundamentally uninhabited, so technically speaking belongs in a separate category along with the Telecommunications towers of the Cold War era. What makes it relevant here, other than its ultimate defeat, is the competition that accompanied the announcement of the scheme in 1889, where many of the proposals imagined an occupied, mixed-use monolith rather than a mere Eiffel-style ornament. Some of these were straightforward stackings of historicist motifs – an 'upright Tower of Pisa', a Gothic spire, and more interestingly, an iron & glass 'tower of babel' recalling the etchings of Athanasius Kircher and pointing forward to Vladimir Tatlin. Many of the proposals appeared as apparitions of Constructivism or the futurism of 80 years later, such as a concrete 'tree', a series of stacked iron domes up a central core, and several ethereal, light metal structures, along with some spectacularly Jules Verne-esque proposals, such as a globe on a spike, which contained within itself several exhibition floors. In the perhaps unlikely event that any of these were buildable, they were a potential index of possibilities for distinctive, non-derivative tall buildings. Such a design may have been more difficult to dismiss than a mere duplicate of the Eiffel Tower – something which would be done in Blackpool instead, with the 518ft tower that was built there in 1894.
To concentrate on the British capital would give an inaccurately bleak picture of the British tall building, however. In fact, an argument could be made that Glasgow, Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Manchester, were far more confident in their modernity than the increasingly retardataire capital. Glasgow, which was for a time in the early 20th century the fourth largest city in the world, after London, New York and Berlin, had all the obvious components of Manhattanism – a speculative building boom, a grid-planned centre, an aggressively mercantile capitalist class and imaginative, independent local architects. The buildings of the 1890s, such as the Central Station hotel, or Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow Herald Building, show a love of dominating height which paralleled and often surpassed the mansions and hotels of Victorian London. It's at the start the century that Glasgow appeared on the verge of developing a skyscraper language as distinctive as that of Chicago. The architect James Salmon designed the two Glasgow office blocks which seem most keen to make this leap. Salmon's buildings are as sachlich in their technical display as anything by the Chicago School, who were, incidentally, themselves inspired by Glasgow architects like Alexander Thomson. Salmon's rather hard to photograph 1899-1902 'Hat-Rack' building uses large expanses of glass, in an unashamedly modern manner, its gaunt symmetry and hat of sharp foliage veritably slicing upwards, while its bays seem to predict the concrete towers of Auguste Perret. Even more interesting is his 1907 Lion Chambers, a deeply peculiar and fascinating building. Constructed using the then cutting-edge Hennebique Concrete system, it was so experimental that its owners have claimed it is impossible to restore, although it is in fact structurally sound. It is currently held up with string so that it won't completely fall apart, is derelict and noticeably crumbling. A combined office block and chambers for solicitors, it includes some very dubious looking concrete judges on the façade. The block seems to mash several different buildings together, with one part seeming like a glass and concrete Chicago skyscraper with curved protomodernist windows, another side is all Scottish baronial, while the front is a bizarre composite. This freakishly original building was surely the potential point of take-off for the Scottish skyscraper that never occurred, but nonetheless throughout the 1910s and 1920s noticeably Chicago-inspired buildings would spring up in the Glasgow grid, though none of them ever managed to transcend ten storeys.
The place where finally the skyscraper was unleashed on the British Isles was Liverpool, perhaps aptly given Oriel Chambers' precedence in the history of glass office buildings. Two buildings by the architect Walter Aubrey Thomas feature concrete and steel frameworks which were used not as a convenient, cheap structural system but in order to give a feeling of height and ambition – Tower Buildings of 1908 was the first draft, its 10 storeys encased in a medievalist cladding, but the more famous was the Royal Liver Building, which was opened in 1911. It was far higher than any office building east of New York, but added elements to the skyscraper vocabulary – the clocktower, the bizarre series of globes, birds and other delirious ornaments which topped its various peaks – which would make their way back to New York and Chicago, and from there to the Gothick Stalinist skyscrapers of Moscow and Warsaw. Due to its length and its several towers, it created a skyline all by itself, in so doing becoming what Charles Jencks calls a 'skycity' rather than a skyscraper. Although a form of (more classicist, more sober) Americanist architecture would continue in Liverpool through the 1920s and '30s, nothing truly comparable would be built in the UK between the completion of the Liver Building and Senate House nearly 30 years later, leaving it feeling like a precipitate jump which was subsequently considered rather embarrassing, a breach of decorum. This was not for occasional want of trying - in the 1930s Lee House, a proposed skyscraper in Manchester, got as far as its first eight storeys before it was abruptly truncated.
The failure, or lack of interest from, the English in developing a rival to the mythic, fantastical new Transatlantic landscapes did not lack for moments where it looked as if a serious British skyscraper language might have been developed. Another such instance is the proposal for Dominion House, by the architect A Randall Wells, for a site in Aldwych at the start of the new, slum-clearing boulevard of Kingsway. Like any Edwardian architect, Wells has his historical points of reference, here a faintly Tudor style of gridded window. Yet that point of reference has been marshalled for a very different purpose than that of the many mock Tudor houses which were then sprawling out of the big cities – instead, it becomes a module for a concrete office building every bit as tersely modern as anything being proposed in Berlin or Chicago. The building's site was eventually filled by Bush House, a mid-rise neoclassical building dedicated transatlantically to 'the friendship of the English speaking peoples'. It was designed by an American architect, in an example of the perfidy of Americans designing in England, where their residual classicism was brought out in an overbearing act of respect for their former imperial overlords. Similarly, Daniel Burnham, architect of the Monadnock Block in Chicago, was partly responsible for the design of Selfridges, where a steel frame was encased in gigantic columns. Americans seemed to agree with English conservatives that the city was somehow unsuitable for skyscraping.
Appropriately, then, one of the most convincing of the 'halfscrapers' that marked the interwar period's more daring moments, the 9-11 storey towers which were the more daring side of the dying imperial metropolis, was designed not by Americans, but by two Glaswegians, J.J Burnet and Thomas Tait. Adelaide House, built in 1921-25, sits on London Bridge Approach, and hence of a size that can only truly be appreciated from the other side of the river rather than from the bridgeside entrance, shows the incursion of a Gotham City aesthetic into the City of London. Opposite it is the Guardian Assurance Building, a minor dalliance with the Liver Building's congested, dramatic stylisms. Adelaide House is more original, showcasing a determinedly vertical series of strips, decorated in dystopian, dionysian neo-Egyptian style and guarded by a fittingly imposing modernistic goddess. Like the multipurpose Manhattanist buildings hymned by Rem Koolhaas, it is more than one building combined, with a warehouse at one end for goods coming from the river, and slick offices at the other end. Needless to say, it has few successors in the city. A couple of years before, fellow Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh put a concrete, high-rise block of flats and artists' studios in for planning in Chelsea. Needless to say it was not built, and when in the 1920s the exiled Mackintosh was asked to contribute to a book on Modern English architecture, he refused to do so because, as he put it, 'it does not exist'. Another possible built exception in the '20s, arguably the most conservative decade in British architectural history, was a more fearless American import, 1928's 'Ideal House', a small but decidedly delirious block in Soho, based on a design by the most lurid of skyscraper architects, Raymond Hood, again in a vaguely Egyptian, urban and darkly commercial vein incurring the horrified wrath of Pevsner, as an example of Reklamarchitektur.
Hood's work in Soho is perhaps the only example of Americans in London not betraying their Americanism. Perhaps the most depressing example of this tendency is the Devonshire House competition of 1923, the most spectacular instance of the American tendency to patronise staid old London. This project for a site vacated by a stately home in Belgravia was initially the spur for some spectacular skyscraper projects. The image below showcases a stepped design which seems akin to the Babylonian megacities of Hugh Ferriss, this time with a crumbling aesthetic which seems to point to the skyscraper as ruin, perhaps uniquely so. The other proposal here for the site, above, is by the arts & crafts architect CFA Voysey. Voysey was, for a Hegelian like Pevsner, an examplar of the disappointing nature of the English, someone whose unassumingly original country houses of around 1905 were as modern as anything else in the world by that point, but who had refused to continue keeping up with the international zeitgeist. Rather tellingly, his proposal for a series of 30 storey skyscrapers on the site drew on the turrets of the Tower of London, and that other forced marriage between technology and medievalism, Tower Bridge. Even this genuflection towards heritage grandeur was not enough for the judges, but once again the victor was an American, this time the architect of the New York Public Library, who created another stone and steel frame neoclassical edifice which remains justly obscure, fundamentally lost to history. In the early 1930s this cowardice would let up, albeit slightly, in the form of two massive buildings on the Victoria Embankment, two monsters – Shell-Mex and the Adelphi.
Both of them are too squat, too wide to really count as skyscrapers as such, but they represent an interestingly odd cul-de-sac in London architecture, a closed-off path which 1980s postmodernists attempted to re-open with similarly bombastic results – it's oddly congruous that they now sit next to Terry Farrell's lumbering hulk of a pomo office block, which itself squats over Charing Cross Station, and its successors can be found in Farrell's Mi6 Building or Alban Gate. The earliest of these buildings, Shell-Mex House, was designed for the oil company by the firm of Joseph, and is roughly the height of the Liver Building, although its position on the embankment means that it has much more of an effect on the south bank of the Thames, onto which it faces, than the north bank which it is built on. It's an example of a modernised classicism, monumental yet free in details, that usually gets subsumed under the meaningless retrospective coinage 'art deco', and perhaps also of London architects' attempt to create a kind of skyscraper which doesn't create a skyline (let's not get in the way of those views of St Paul's). As a piece of architecture, it is in some sort of perceptible lineage with Hugh Ferriss and the peculiar architectural consequences of the New York building code, linking up the accidental ziggurats of '30s Manhattan with the stepped temples of ancient power – this impression is reinforced by the peculiar figures who flank the clock tower, hat-wearing men, heads bowed and with pointy beards, who seem if anything Assyrian in their appearance. One of the elements in Shell-Mex House that got the press excited at the time was the clock, because it had neither roman numerals or Arabic numbers on. A contemporary cartoon shows two baffled city workers in conversation – 'what time is it?' 'errrm...dash to dash?' The New Adelphi, by Colcutt and Hamp, finished in 1938, is a mish-mash of 1930s cliches, with perceptible influence from the Rationalism of the Mussolini era, something particularly clear in the colonnade to the embankment itself and the dead-eyed, smooth neoclassical figures who form part of the false columns; in the strips of window, the skyscraper styles developed by Raymond Hood and William Van Alen in New York, and in the massive bulk, an attempt to emulate the gigantism of Shell-Mex-House.
The tendency to low, merely tall-ish hulks and the integration of public sculpture seen on the two Victoria Embankment blocks is perhaps indebted to 55 Broadway, Charles Holden's first draft of a distinctively London skyscraper style – situated just across from the 14-storey Queen Anne Mansions mentioned earlier. These offices for London Transport, finished in 1928, are best known for their sculptures, by Henry Moore, Eric Gill and most famously Jacob Epstein, whose work was described by the press in frequently anti-semitic manner as 'asiatic' and 'bestial'. The building itself received relatively little attention, which perhaps indicates its failure as a skyscraper. Nonetheless, it takes the rationalised classical language of inter-war conservatism as far as it can go without breaking up into modernism, both in the formal details – columns abstracted but still perceptible as columns, Georgian windows expanded but not abandoned – and, more interestingly, in the plan, which is an off-centre cross, stepped upwards to a clocktower. While Shell-Mex and the Adelphi seem to partake of the irrationalism of the '30s, with a air of barbarism and domination in their aggressive, hierarchical stylisms, 55 Broadway appears as an example of the expanding bureaucracies of monopoly capitalism, in a rather benign, almost welcoming manner – there is a through-route that goes inside the building, and at its base is a similarly opulent tube station, part of a works programme which was then extending out into Morden in a similar style. If Shell-Mex shows the corporation as an overlord, 55 Broadway depicts it as benevolent watchful uncle.
It was on the strength of 55 Broadway that Holden was hired to design Senate House, the peculiar absence and presence of which is our principal reason for being here. As is so often the case for London towers, the complex was truncated to the point where only a round a quarter of the proposed scheme was built, and earlier images show the way in which, in Rockefeller Centre manner, it becomes an entire city block in and of itself. Senate House is described differently according to politics. For those on the left it looks Fascist, for those on the right it is Stalinist, but for all concerned it is clearly totalitarian. Aside from the resemblance with Albert Speer palpable in the foyers, the tower itself has some similarities with the icy classicism of the Italian Rationalists - but its stepped form is an impeccable example of Manhattanism, as is its congested, multifunctional nature, whether as Ministry of Information, War Office, London University headquarters or, in Michael Radford's 1984 film, a block of apartments for the Inner Party. Senate House is also largely a masonry structure, meaning that the first London building that could be called a skyscraper without it seeming absurd didn't even have a steel frame, as Holden regarded it as an untested technology, and intended the tower to last as long as a thousand-year Reich. Although the tower is now rich with particular historical associations, its cold blast bracing amidst the smugness of Bloomsbury, it was poorly received at the time by Modernist critics, who had entertained hopes that Holden might have been with them.
If Le Corbusier's phrase 'the Cartesian skyscraper' didn't have a quite specific meaning, it would be tempting to ascribe it to Senate House, as it appears as pure and ethereal as any of his glass towers, particularly when its stone catches the winter light. Yet perhaps what is at the heart of the scorn heaped on the tower by modernists like Siegfried Giedion is disappointment, as Holden elsewhere gave tentative sketches of what a Modernist London tower might have looked like. Out of his many tube stations, Southgate has on top of it a collection of far from classical light fittings and baubles, surmounting a circular station, giving an impression of movement rather than eternal solidity. Osterley, meanwhile, has a tower very unlike that of Senate House, a stick of light which he had borrowed lock stock and barrel from a Dutch department store, on top of a brick tower. While all of them, even Osterley, are low-rise, Holden's tube stations, for all their order and vestigial classicism, are suggestive of an entirely new and frankly commercial architectural language, where the glittering lights and machines necessitated by 20th century technologies could potentially become architectural objects themselves, rather than being hidden away in the ducting. If there was a tower which fulfils this potential in the UK it was the 300ft steel tower designed in 1938 for the Glasgow Expo, by Burnet and Tait. This entirely functionless structure was a conjunction of Constructivist devices and angles, a million miles away from the classicism of Bloomsbury, coloured artificially, uninterested in any truth to Portland Stone and Granite. It's nearest to the various fins and advertising protrusions that formed part of many Odeon cinemas in the '30s, here leaving the buildings of which they were a component and becoming a completely independent architectural object. However, the tower was demolished a year later, and the real pointer to what would happen next occurred in north London in 1934 – the actual Constructivist Berthold Lubetkin's block of flats, Highpoint, which in its cruciform plan and its impeccably smooth, hygienically white form had not a hint of delirum about it. It was described by Corbusier himself as the 'vertical garden city', and there are few things further from the vision of apocalyptic super-urbanism displayed by 1930s Manhattan than Hampstead Garden Suburb. This was the first of what would be several Cartesian skyscrapers, which would instead be known as high-rises or towerblocks depending on their level of prestige, that would spread across London after 1945.
There are two unbuilt schemes devised during the war which imply other possibilities, both of which might also be considered somewhat ill-advised. Above is a sketch for what would, finally, be an unambiguous skyscraper, proposed by the Corporation of London for a site near the Guildhall, suggested in 1944 and subsequently forgotten. It seems entirely speculative, and the drawing does not credit an architect, but it is most notable in being a sudden return to the style of the Woolworth Building, contemporary with similar retro-Gothic-futurist plans in Moscow and Warsaw. If any tall building proposed for London has ever really been Stalinist then this is it, but it will have been the privations and distaste for display that characterised the Attlee government that would have prevented it becoming anything other than a fantasy of the Palace of the Soviets-On-Thames. More interesting because more unprecedented, was the proposal at the top of this post for the redesign of Tower Bridge, received by one W Holden, no relation to Charles. What makes it so worthwhile is its total reversal of this postcard image of an English eccentric, passeist sheathing of technology in favour of a Futurist floating fortress. Stripping off all the neo-Gothic ornament, it replaces it with two streamlined glass towers, the most transparent possible statement of the end of empire and the birth out of it of a more confident, less hidebound architectural culture. Even so, a glass bridge was not, in the midst of V2 raids, an easy sell, and so this has been consigned into the category of noble and/or eccentric failures which has been the fate of so many of London's tall buildings.