Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Austin A40 Light Commercials, 1951

A sales brochure from the Festival Year, 1951 – when British-built vehicles ruled the streets. Brexit roads where Japanese cars were as yet unknown and only the occasional Fiat or VW intruded on an Anglo-Saxon virtual monopoly. Not only that, but in the pre-container era large volumes of British vehicles were hoisted on to merchant ships for distribution across the Commonwealth and Empire. The cover illustration is an unlikely sun-drenched evocation of a typical mid-century city centre (minus the bomb-sites) where sturdy Neo-classical Edwardian buildings tower over streets busy with pedestrians. Post-war optimism unlimited – with a curious absence of street lighting. On the inside pages air-brush artists have been busy creating flawless likenesses of all the new models in their natural habitats. Plus exciting cutaways of advanced technical features. All-steel construction and dependability were key selling points as well as “congenial driving conditions”.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Hoover Building, Western Avenue

It’s indicative of Britain’s hollowed-out industrial base that so many of our best known factories are now carefully preserved relics of a lost age of manufacturing. This example alongside Western Avenue in Perivale, built for Hoover (1932-35) is perhaps the most famous and the most esteemed. Architects Wallis, Gilbert & Partners specialised in designing long, low and deep factory premises for the wave of American manufacturers of consumer goods expanding into the UK in the inter-war years. For American business, advertising and promotion began with the factory facade and a prominent location. Wallis Gilbert & Partners rapidly developed unique expertise in the provision of eye-catching buildings tarted up with newly fashionable Art Deco detailing.

Western Avenue and the Great West Road offered highly visible development sites on newly expanded arterial roads to businesses that saw the future in terms of road transport rather than rail. Internally the new factories embodied all the latest efficiency thinking in production line technology and conformed to contemporary best practice in placing the journey from raw materials to finished product entirely under one roof. The Hoover and Firestone factories (the latter on the Great West Road) became the best known of these dazzling and exuberant facades designed to please and were viewed with affection by the passing public despite the generalised aversion to Modernism in the wider population. After 1980 when the Firestone Building was destroyed in an act of corporate vandalism there was renewed public support for conserving what remained of these time capsules as a result of which the redundant Hoover Building, by now II* listed, was redeveloped in 1993 to accommodate a Tesco supermarket behind a carefully preserved facade.

Joan S Skinner (in her book, Form and Fancy, Factories by Wallis Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939) takes a dim view of the Hoover Building. In her eyes it’s visually incoherent and lacking in unity – an unhappy combination of individually interesting but unrelated forms. She points out the uneasy relationship between Egyptian and Native North American design traditions. Modernist sensibilities were also offended by what they saw as vulgarity and frivolity, an absence of rigour and a regressive aesthetic. In 1951 Pevsner delivered his verdict (in the Buildings of England, Middlesex) – “perhaps the most offensive of the modernist atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories”. Pevsner’s seal of approval was reserved for the purest expressions of Modernist geometry – never to be found on Western Avenue. This is architecture as advertising – a working building with a flashy facade, best seen when floodlit after dark from the windows of passing Armstrong-Siddeleys, Lanchesters and Alvises cruising by en route from Denham Studios, Gerrards Cross or Beaconsfield to the West End.

The present situation has endured for more than 20 years but all is about to change. IDM Properties are preparing to convert the former (and now untenanted) office accommodation inside the Hoover Building into apartments. Planning permission and listed building consent for 66 apartments (zero affordable) was obtained on appeal in February 2016. Assuming the facade is refurbished and protected and there is no plan to provide car parking in front of the building this may be no bad thing, although from a social perspective, the all too familiar provision of zero affordable is deplorable. The external finishes are showing signs of decay so redecoration would be desirable.

Monday, 11 July 2016

India of Inchinnan

One day last June we drove through the rain along the A8 en route for Wemyss Bay and a ferry to Rothesay. On our left hand side, west of Renfrew, this crisply defined and immaculately maintained building shone through the gloom. When completed in 1930 it was known as India of Inchinnan and it began manufacturing tyres to meet increased demand from the rapidly growing band of motorists. It was an early example of a factory in a countryside location on a major road, far from canals or rail connections. The land on which it stands became available when the construction of World War 1 airships on the site came to an end.

The business traded as the India Tyre and Rubber Company and the factory building was designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, famous for the Firestone Factory (1929) and the Hoover Building (1932) in West London. The result was a long and impressive two storey office frontage in reinforced concrete finished in Atlas White cement with a manufacturing block behind. Tyre production ended in 1982 by which time the business was a subsidiary of Dunlop and only the office block survived. 

Almost two decades of neglect followed but after the building was listed Category A by Historic Scotland a restoration project was completed in 2003. The project involved extending the offices at the back and the enlarged premises are now occupied by technology companies. The facade and the entrance lobby are as originally built with the main entrance especially impressive with decorative bands of red, green and black faience applied to the caps and bases of the columns. The main doors are set into a proscenium arch with tiled and faience surround. Geometric Art Deco glazing bars add to the visual drama. It’s an object lesson in the successful reuse and rehabilitation of redundant buildings of special quality.