Sunday, 8 February 2015

London's Michelin House - nouveau, deco or neither?

Michelin House stands proudly on the junction of Fulham Road, Pelham Street and Sloane Avenue. This ultra fashionable part of London is home to several top end designers, multi-million pound town houses and stylish 1930's apartment blocks, but nothing matches the style and presence of the Michelin building.

Many people will know the building as the home of the swanky Bibendum restaurant and the Conran shop. However, it started life as the headquarters and tyre depot of the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. which explains the stained glass representations of the Michelin man, Bibendum (hence the name of the restaurant).  Constructed from white tyres he is familiar to all of us who saw him in TV adverts from the 1970's.  The building opened in January 1911 and was designed by Michelin employee Francois Espinasse in a style that defies categorisation. A little too late to be art nouveau, although displaying some features of that style, it is too early to be truly art deco - although again, it displays features of that genre with its stylish motoring adverts, interior chrome bannisters and decorative mosaic features. Little is known about Espinasse other than that he may also have designed the French headquarters of Michelin and that he is thought not to have had formal training in architecture.

Rightly known for its decorative features, Michelin House was also significant for some of its then ultramodern technical features including automatic doors into the entrance hall and a weighing bay in the fitting area allowing customers' cars to be weighed in order to ensure the correct level of tyre pressure. It was also one of London's concrete buildings, constructed using Hennebique's ferro-concrete system. As well as enabling speedy construction the material is also fire resistant which was extremely important due to the large volume of flammable items that were stored there.

But of course, its the decoration that stands out. Approaching from South Kensington station and reaching the crossroads, visitors are met with a stunning visual display - a riot of colour with blues, greens, reds and yellows set against a white tiled background. In addition to the huge stained glass windows the facade features stylised floral designs composed of tiles in different shades of green as well as decorative metal work above the entrance. The tiled panels on the external walls feature cars and drivers from famous long distance road races, including Paris-Vienna in 1902 and a race around Belgium's Ardenne in 1904, presumably using Michelin tyres! There are 34 such panels in total including several in the entrance lobby, now the Oyster bar and restaurant reception.

The building was extended a couple of years after it opened and again in 1922 when it rose to a third floor. In 1927, Michelin opened a factory in Stoke-on-Trent, moving its headquarters there in 1930. I wonder what the employees thought of that? The company retained use of the basement and ground floor  leaving the greater part of the building empty with occasional use as a warehouse and workshops and eventually offices for the Air Ministry. In 1940 the decorative stained glass windows were removed for fear of bomb damage. Three of the windows did not return and reman lost today despite strenuous efforts to locate them.

The facade was given listed status in 1969 but this did not prevent planning permission being granted for almost total demolition, retaining only the front entrance and replacing the rest with a ten storey office block. Thankfully Michelin decided to put their money to better use and this treasure is still with us today - at a time when London is losing many of its iconic and much loved buildings to make way for Cross Link or expensive flats. In recent months we have lost the Earls Court exhibition centre, the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, the Paolozzi murals in Tottenham Court Road Station and may lose the much loved Curzon Soho cinema.

Michelin eventually sold the building in 1985 when it was jointly purchased by Terence Conran and Paul Hamlyn, owner of Octopus Publishers. Permission was secured for an extension extend, whilst significant restoration work was also undertaken. Much of this involved producing replicas of missing features with the assistance of drawings and photographs from the time of construction. The House re-opened in 1987. Octopus moved out in 1990 but Conran's shop and restaurant are still there and it is possible to wander into the lobby/ oyster bar for a good look around as well as to admire the exterior. 

So, is it nouveau or is it deco? It has something of both styles. Perhaps it doesn't matter. The important thing is it is still there, still used and continues to add a big slice of style and glamour to this part of our city. 

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