The man who built Britain’s first skyscraper

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

In 2011 Britain’s first skyscraper was finally given Grade I listing. The citation for 55 Broadway — the Gotham City-ish home of Transport for London, which sprouts up from St James’s Park Station — said that the building was important in a number of ways: its architect Charles Holden, the designer of Senate House and a range of breakthrough modernist Tube stations in the 1930s, was increasingly recognised as major. The building’s scale and structure were pioneering for London in 1929. And the sculpture on its otherwise plain façades was by important artists including Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and the young Henry Moore (his first work on a public building and a rare figurative human-in-motion figure).

Most importantly, the whole thing was the outward and visible symbol of the greatest public patron of the modern — modern architecture, art, graphics and design generally — in 20th-century Britain: London Transport. The two people most responsible for this were CEO Frank Pick and his architect Charles Holden.

When Pick met Holden at the Design & Industries Association in 1915, they recognised something in each other — a kind of impatient reforming urge. In 1930, Pick and Holden, these two high-minded provincial non-conformists from very ordinary backgrounds — Spalding and Bolton; both draper’s sons (both declined knighthoods) — went on Frank and Charles’s excellent adventure: a long tour of northern Europe’s fashionable modern architecture. They looked carefully at the newest things in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. The slow-burn influence of what they’d seen showed up in Holden’s early 1930s Piccadilly line Tube stations, like the startlingly new, circular spaceships of Arnos Grove (based on Stockholm’s daring Public Library of 1928) and Southgate, which landed in suburban Metroland in 1932. Even these modern marvels, however, are faced in red brick, the material of the typical Home Counties arts and crafts house.

Charles Holden said later that his architectural style — which had evolved and radically simplified since he’d first come to London to work for the arts and crafts architect Charles Ashbee in 1898 — had placed him in a ‘rather curious position, not quite in the fashion and not quite out of it; not enough of the traditionalist to please traditionalists and not enough of a modernist to please the modernists’.

The young Holden had progressed from gap-filling jobs — railway clerk, lab assistant — in Lancashire, after his father’s business had gone bankrupt, to interning and articling in Bolton and Manchester. Then to art school and technical school and, later, night school at the RA Schools in London. Nothing smart, smooth or assured like London’s upper-middle-class second- and third-generation architects. But as a member of Bolton’s Whitman Society, a club of working and lower-middle-class worshippers of Walt, he combined arts and crafts, Quakerism, vegetarianism and early socialist ideals with the Body Electric. When he moved south in 1906 with his partner Margaret Steadman, Janet Ashbee, the wife of Holden’s former employer, described their house in Harmer Green, near Welwyn as ‘bananas and brown bread on the table; no hot water, plain living and high thinking and strenuous activity for the betterment of the world’.

55 Broadway is plain and powerful: a huge, undecorated cruciform building with lower wings and floors staggered into the central tower to give light and air and terraces at three levels. It’s all clad in severe Portland stone. It’s a particularly British take on everything new around the world in 1929.

Inside the building, there’s the same elegant severity — a combination of travertine marble walls and floors and bronze doors and lifts in the ground-floor public spaces, rather like the Piccadilly Circus underground bookings hall of a year earlier. The simple walnut-panelled corridors to the main spaces have that almost American solidity of, say, a good New York office building of the period. Holden won the RIBA’s London Architecture medal for it later in 1931.

Holden had first worked with Epstein on the 1908 headquarters for the British Medical Association on the Strand (now Zimbabwe House). Epstein shocked Edwardian middlebrow taste. In 1929 a public decency outcry forced a penis reduction on one of the Epstein sculptures on 55 Broadway.

The structure remained the tallest office/institutional building in London until Senate House (the new hub of London University) was finished in 1937. This stocky truncated skyscraper hit a shocking 210ft (64 metres) to Broadway’s 175ft (53 metres) and managed to look both rather American and oddly totalitarian — it was the model for George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. And designed by Holden.

Holden was a shy, careful, private Public Man, garlanded with honours but never remotely a starchitect. He grafted and learnt and evolved without manifestoes or isms. Instead he was constantly simplifying. ‘It was not so much a matter of creating a new style as discarding these incrustations which counted for style — surface embroidery empty of structural significance,’ he said. Holden worked on 69 war cemeteries from 1918 to 1928 as design architect to three Edwardian architectural grandees (Lutyens, Blomfield and Herbert Baker). His designs are remarkably simple — described as ‘almost cruelly severe’.

His last commission — the 1950s English Electric building in Aldwych — was rejected as ‘lifeless’ by his great admirer Pevsner and demolished in 2005. He was largely forgotten by the time he died in 1960, but intensely revived from the late 1970s on.

Transport for London is moving out now. It’s just sold Holden’s 55 Broadway to Integrity, a business owned by Tony Matharu, an engaging man with a track record in central London hotels, an enthusiasm for the period and the architect, and experience of ‘repurposing’ interesting buildings. Someone who talks about using the building for the community of Westminster, pulling together Pimlico, Victoria Street and the Smith Square cluster. Wish him luck.

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