Sunday 10 January 2016

More Camden Modernism - a cinema, some offices, flats and a chip shop!

London Borough of Camden is one of our city's most fashionable areas with many clubs, bars, and restaurants as well as leading cultural institutions and the world famous Camden market. It is also home to a very large collection of modernist and art deco buildings, primarily built in the 1930's, many of which have been maintained in excellent condition. I have written before about Hampstead's share of these buildings, here and here. This post looks at some excellent examples of the style in Camden Town itself, Kentish Town and Highgate. All four can be visited on foot taking a leisurely walk of about ninety minutes from Camden Town Underground Station including a short coffee stop en route (and a cheeky tube or bus ride at one point !). 

GIlbey House, Jamestown Road
Jamestown Road is a three minute walk from Camden Town Underground Station. Gilbey House stands at the junction with Oval Road. Built in 1937, it was designed by Serge Chermayeff,  one of the architects responsible for the fabulous De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-sea. Far less ornate than the De La Warr, Gilbey House was originally the head office of Gilbey's wine importers and somewhat fittingly was built on the site of the former Stanhope Arms pub. It originally bore the Gilbey name, horizontally and in stylish lettering at one end of the building, just where that glorious concave element ends. The seven storey block has been renamed as Academic House.

Gilbey House at the junction with Oval Road
From Gilbey House its possible to take a short walk along the side of the Regent's Canal and pass the edge of Camden Lock where the food and craft stalls might tempt you into a short detour, before heading in the direction of Chalk Farm Underground Station. Just before reaching the station you will come to Ferdinand Street and Kent House, a great little apartment block built in 1935 for the St. Pancras Home Improvement Society. The Society was established in 1924, initially with the objective of improving the conditions of working class housing in the Somers Town area between Euston and St. Pancras. It was later renamed the St. Pamcras and Humanist Housing Association and interestingly was founded by Father Basil Jellicoe, a Church of England priest and Irene Barclay the first British woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

Kent House, Ferdinand Street.
Designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas, the white facade has contrasting green window frames and red metal work on the balconies. It consists of two five storey blocks with a shared courtyard between them - hidden from the street and set out nicely with planting and children's play equipment. However, the most interesting thing (for me) is the small retail unit to the side at ground floor level that originally served as a chip shop! How delightful (and very tempting) to have a chip shop built in to your block of flats! Unfortunately the chip shop is no more and instead the space is now occupied by Anise, a gourmet Chinese food outlet - indicative of the upwardly mobile nature of Kentish Town. 

Connell, Ward and Lucas were responsible for a number of modernist buildings in the UK but are most well known for their work on the High and Over in Amersham, Buckinghamshire and the nearby Sun Houses which you can read about here. Connell and Ward were both from New Zealand and related by marriage. Connell was a friend of fellow modernists Chermayeff and Berthold Lubetkin and was influenced by the work of French architects Andre Lurcat and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Less stylish than the Amersham properties which were of course for a different class of clientele, Kent House is none the less a great example of modernist architecture with its clean lines and stylised lettering over the main entrance.

Kent House, front entrance.
Kent House - the former chip shop.
Kent House balconies.
From here it's best to either take a bus or jump on the Northern Line at Chalk Farm, go one stop to Camden Town and then one stop more to Kentish Town in the opposite direction. Turn right on to Highgate Road when leaving the station and within a few minutes you will see the former Forum Cinema, a large art deco building on the opposite side of the road. Completed in 1934, it was designed by architect J. Stanley Beard, whilst W. R. Bennett was responsible for the interior. The Forum could seat 2,175 people in the stalls and on a single balcony. It was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in 1935, eventually adopting the ABC name in 1963 before closing in 1970. It then became a bingo hall followed by an Irish dance centre and finally a concert hall which is its current function. The Forum regained its origin name in 1993 and is now listed with Grade II status.

Former Forum Cinema, Highgate Road.
Central pillars, facade, Forum.
Built in the more ornate art deco style, the facade is dominated by six central pillars at first floor level, interspersed with decorative glazing, and which link to the Roman theme of the building's name and with the original internal decoration. The Forum is only open when there are concerts and as the programme does not feature "my kind of music" I have yet to go inside but it is possible to peep through the doors and see a little of the beautiful mosaic floor in the lobby. Beard and Bennet were also responsible for the Forum cinema in Ealing, also built in 1934 and of which only the facade remains today. The doors from the Ealing Forum were moved to Kentish Town a couple of years ago to replace the lost originals.

West Hill Court, Millfield Lane.
From the Forum, it takes about 20 minutes to walk up Highgate Road until you reach Millfield Lane which branches off the main road and has a view of Hampstead Heath. The walk is uphill but there are several buses that take this route if it's a bit too far on foot, or alternatively there are several cafes to have a break. At the weekend there are often farmer's markets and other events on this side of the Heath, so you might also want to make another slight detour before reaching our final destination - West Hill Court. 

Designed by William Bryce Binnie and built in 1933, this beautiful white apartment block would perhaps be more at home in the sunshine of Melbourne, Tel Aviv or Nice than north London on a grey January day. It is a large block with a roof terrace, balconies for the apartments immediately above the main entrance and what appear to be the original crittall windows. A two bedroom flat was recently offered for sale here at just short of £900,000. For that you would get 971 square feet, porter services and access to a private tennis court, squash court and a "kitchen garden". Keep buying the lottery tickets.

Scottish born architect Binnie was extremely accomplished having studied at the Glagow School of Art where he obtained a gold medal. He worked briefly in New York and was involved in the design of Grand Central Station, before returning to the UK, where his work included the West and East stands of Arsenal football stadium and Addisland Court in Shepherd's Bush. Other overseas commissions included the luxurious Hotel Phoenicia in Malta.

Main entrance, West Hill Court.
West Hill Court is our final stop but if you want to explore more of Camden's art deco and modernist buildings,  you might like these - Picture Post 32 - Lawn Road Flats, Belsize Park - modernist masterpiece, artists and spies, More Hampstead Modernism or 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger in Hampstead.

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