Thursday 12 July 2018

London - Modernist Magnet and Art Deco Destination

London has many Art Deco and modernist buildings. The cinemas, theatres and tube stations are well known but represent only a small proportion of the city's inter-war architecture, examples of which can be found right across London, often in unexpected places. Many of these buildings deserve to be better known, including those featured in this article. 

Ibex House is possibly one of London's best kept architectural secrets and a superb example of  streamline modernism. Tucked away in the East End, near Tower Hill, it was built in 1937 and was designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who also designed Blenstock House, the famous Bonham's art auctioneers' showrooms in the more fashionable West End.

Ibex House, Fuller, Hall and Houlsham, 1937.
Inspired by Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken Department Store in Berlin, Ibex House was built on a steel frame and rises to 11 storeys including a basement. It is clad in striking black and beige faience and has the longest strip windows in London. It also has some beautifully curved elements, recessed upper levels and dramatic glazed "thermometer" stairwells on one side of the building. The original stylised lettering displaying the building's name has been retained as have the wonderful curved glass windows of the ground floor Italian cafe. 

It is a huge building and with 200,000 square feet of office space it is London's largest remaining office block of the 1930's. In 1937, space was offered here for a rental of six shillings per square foot, inclusive of cleaning. I am sure that today's rate is significantly more! As with many buildings in this city, Ibex House has a story attached to it. It is said that Hitler wanted it for his command headquarters should he have been successful in invading the UK and therefore ordered that this area not be bombed. I am unable to verify the truth of this but have heard a similar story about Senate House and the University of London. Given that the Nazis were generally disdainful of all things modernist it seems unlikely, but nonetheless is a good yarn. The building received Grade II  listed status in 1982, protecting it from the fate of several of its former neighbours, demolished to make way for new office blocks. 

4 Valencia Road, Douglas Wood, 1934.
Stanmore in North-West London is one of several places that were developed due to the extension of the Underground system in the 1930's. The extended network brought many former villages on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Many more affluent families chose to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment as well as rapid transport to their place of work. 

Stanmore Underground Station opened in December 1932 and the previous year permission was given for a residential development on the land around it. As part of this development, architect Douglas Wood designed numbers 2, 4, 6 and 8 in Valencia Road, all of them in art deco style. Now a private road, it has been included in one of the local authority's conservation areas. In 2015 number 4 was restored under the supervision of English Heritage before being offered for sale at a cool £1.75 million. It has five bedrooms, five bathrooms and a variety of other spaces designed over three floors. There are two roof terraces and a spectacular staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The original Crittal windows have survived but have been double glazed to cope with the English winter. 

The house was completed in 1934 and was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926, fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in the Kings Cross area where he established a restaurant and then two more in other parts of the city. According to the Azzali family legend he brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932. He fell in love with the area which would still have been rural then and so purchased one of the four houses being built by the Douglas Wood Partnership. The family retained the house until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

Kingsley House, Peter Caspari, 1934.
Still in North London, Willesden Green is home to another magnificent modernist building. Kingsley Court is surrounded by large, slightly forbidding Victorian houses common across this part of London. Architect Peter Caspari designed the building for Davis Estates. Construction commenced in 1933 and was completed the following year. There are 54 flats over six storeys designed on a z-shaped plan in part due to the very narrow site at the junction of two roads and adjacent to railway tracks. Caspari worked creatively within these restrictions, producing a design with undulating and recessed features, a tower on the curved corner and a white banded facade on the main road. The main entrance is set in a curved protruding lobby, topped with fenestration and leading to a recessed central stairwell. The glazing is divided by four white bands echoing the thicker rendering on the main facade. Kingsley Court was granted Grade ll listed status in 2000.

The architect was a German Jewish refugee who had been an active member of an anti-Nazi organisation. He fled Germany in 1933 after being tipped off by his chauffeur that he was to be arrested, first going to Switzerland before coming to London. He quickly learned English in order to secure work and Kingsley Court was one of his first commissions. It has been described as the first Expressionist building in the UK which should come as no surprise since Caspari had previously worked with Erich Mendelsohn as well as having had contact with Walter Gropius and Mies van Der Rohe. He would design one more apartment block in London before emigrating to Canada after the War, where he was responsible for several buildings in Toronto and Calgary.

Cholmley Lodge, Guy Morgan, 1935.
Cholmley Lodge in Highgate was built in 1935 and was the work of Guy Morgan. Morgan also designed the more well known Florin Court in the City of London which has featured in a number of episodes of the TV series "Poirot". The Lodge has about 50 flats and has an unusual and striking facade with a deep scooped recess. It was constructed with yellow bricks and cast stone with steel horizontal bar casement windows. There are four entrances with fluted surrounds and a curved canopy, each bearing the name of the block in stylised lettering. Boldly projecting, squared off balconies on every floor enhance the overall impact. Each section has a staircase tower leading to a flat roof designed as a sun deck and which must offer spectacular views across the city. Reflecting both the modernity and class divisions of the 1930's, the design included a series of lifts for residents and separate staircases for tradesmen - the latter at the rear of the building. It received Grade ll listed status in 2003 for both architectural and historical interest.

If things had gone as planned, Cholmeley Lodge would never have been built in London. It was originally intended for Bournemouth but was rejected by the local planners as they found the ultra-modern design too stark and demanded that the elevation be softened with Tudor style timber work. Thankfully, the architect refused to comply and Bournemouth's loss became Highgate's gain. The apartments are considered to be very desirable and in 2016 one sold for £1.3 million.

I suspect few people would put Whitechapel on a list of places to look for London's best Art Deco or modernist buildings. However the area has a number of impressive examples of the style, including Gwynne House which is tucked away in a side street behind the Royal London Hospital. Completed in 1938 it is one of three remaining modernist buildings in the East End that were designed by Hume Victor Kerr. Built on a reinforced concrete frame, its neat walkways and striking tower are reminiscent of some elements of Bauhaus architecture and provide a sharp contrast to the older houses that surround it. The tower was built to house a lift and stairs to each level and originally contained a telephone kiosk for the use of residents. Each flat had two bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The design also made provision for heat conservation and the walls were insulated with cork.

Gwynne House, Hume Victor Kerr, 1938
The twenty flats were intended to attract students, social workers and professionals who would not only benefit from the modern design but also from the services of a caretaker who was housed in an additional flat on the roof. Over the years a number of tenants worked at or were otherwise connected with the Royal London which for some years provided subsidised accommodation here for nurses and trainee doctors. In 2012 the building was sold to developers who undertook renovation and then offered the flats for sale. The metal fence at ground floor level is thought to be original but the porthole doors are not and were added during the renovation, presumably to enhance the nautical references. Although Whitechapel remains one of the cheaper areas of London in which to buy property, a flat in Gwynne House could set you back about £0.5 million.

These are just a few examples of London's large and impressive collection of Art Deco and modernist buildings which as well as apartment blocks and offices include a recently restored swimming pool, a former laundry and even a car park. The city should be on the list of must visit places for all deco devotees.

This article will appear in a forthcoming edition of Spirit of Progress, the quarterly magazine of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia. The Society organises walks, talks and other events across Australia but the membership is drawn from all over the world. You can see their Facebook page here.


  1. Well done for creating a link with Spirit of Progress, the quarterly magazine of our Art Deco and Modernism Society. A great Deco institution!

    I grew up in a house that reminds me very much of Valencia Road, Douglas Wood. Your photo still looks beautiful now.

  2. Super article! Look forward to showing you Maputo + our fabulous Art Deco buildings!

    1. Thanks Jane. I'm looking forward to being there too!