Survey of London Monograph 17, County Hall. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1991.
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CHAPTER III. The County Hall Competition
With the passing of the London County Buildings Bill in 1906, the Establishment Committee was free to concentrate on the question of the design. The matter had, in fact, been engaging the attention of both LCC Members and outside commentators since the spring of 1905, when the decision to purchase the South Bank site had been taken.
The choice facing the Progressive administration was awkward: if they erected a fine building, the accusation of extravagance with ratepayers' money would be reinforced, while a plain building would be seen as unworthy to stand alongside not only Guildhall but the many provincial town halls being erected elsewhere in the British Isles. The Radical weekly Truth suggested that the Council should put up the cheapest building possible:
A big furniture depository is the sort of thing I have in mind, with a stock brick interior and cast-iron window frames. Possibly a good deal of the work might be done temporarily in corrugated iron sheds. I would provide in that way a council-room and offices for all the staff, showing that everything had been done on purely utilitarian principles.
The LCC's critics could then be left to complain at its parsimony. (fn. 1)
One of the first Progressive leaders to address the problem publicly was John Burns (1858–1943), who represented Battersea as M.P. (1892–1914) and as LCC Member from 1893 to 1907. One of the most active and colourful figures in the early years of the Council, and a socialist of Liberal sympathies, he had spent his early life employed in various engineering works, including those of Peter Brotherhood in Belvedere Road. He had had a hand in starting up the Works Department, was a great advocate of town planning, and always took an interest in the Council's activities from an artistic as well as a practical point of view. (fn. 2)
In an article in the Pall Mall Magazine for October 1905, (fn. 3) in which he called London 'the Cinderella of the cities in the matter of municipal recognition', Burns drew a sharp distinction between the offices occupied by the Council, and those of other authorities:
Compared with the Hotel de Ville in Paris, Spring Gardens is a slum. Contrasted with those of Berlin, Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham or Liverpool, the London County Council offices are insanitary areas, costly, squalid, inconvenient – a reproach to London, a danger to the staff.
Even the London boroughs were now building themselves new town halls, and Burns suggested that the quality of work done by any organization was directly related to its environment. He contrasted the 'rabbit-warren habitation' of the War Office – 'responsible for the mazy conduct of that department, and the hazy sense of duty it has towards the country' – with the 'bold policy of banks, insurance offices and large commercial houses having prominent sites, adequate space, handsome exteriors and internal attractiveness' which stimulated 'a joy of work in staff, an order in business, and a supreme command of organisation impossible in low, mean and disorderly habitations'.
Turning to the question of style, Burns reviewed the fine parade of riverside buildings in London, and the improvements being carried out on Millbank between the Houses of Parliament and the Tate Gallery. He favoured 'a solid pile, less ornamental than Parliament – a massive building, yet withal fine to look upon – a structure that will fill with dignity and size ... one of the very best sites in South London ... an exalted and improving neighbour to St Thomas's Hospital; a worthy companion to the great Gothic mass that Barry has given to us in Parliament House, and to which the new County Hall in no sense should be an unworthy neighbour'.
Burns's interpretation of the principles of office planning and design was not shared by all Members of the LCC, nor by all Londoners, and many other points of view were expressed in the three years that were to elapse before the final choice of design. However, some of the problems that were to arise over the new County Hall turned out to be as much a matter of personalities and power as of concern for the design of the building.
The Architect to the LCC and his Department
By 1905, the LCC had an Architect's Department of growing experience and increasing self-confidence, headed by W. E. Riley. At a very early stage, Riley put forward the claim of his department to design and plan the new County Hall. He did this through the preparation of a design, based on the planning work for the brief as already carried out by his staff, and through overt lobbying of influential Members of the Council. Though running counter to the prevailing fashion for competitions, the claims of his department deserved to be taken seriously, and indeed in the later phases of the development of County Hall, the Architect's Department took over.
The Metropolitan Board of Works had had little need for an Architect in its early years. Its chief projects, the construction of sewers and embankments, demanded the skills of an engineer, and it was the Engineer who was the important MBW officer. This tradition persisted into the LCC, with the Engineer taking precedence after the Clerk of the Council over the heads of other departments until well into this century. The Clerk and the Engineer were traditionally knighted for their services. Not so the Architect. His work was mainly associated with the Public Control Department, whose responsibilities were those of checking weights and measures, and the licensing of places of entertainment: functions not demanding much from architecture.
Thomas Blashill (1831–1905) was appointed Architect to the MBW in 1887, and subsequently to the LCC. His department also had responsibility for fire-stations, and later designed some smaller jobs for the Works Department, such as the approach arches to the Blackwall Tunnel. But with the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890 empowering the LCC to redevelop slum housing, the Architect's Department was given a great opportunity. The creation of the eponymous Housing of the Working Classes Branch brought a number of high-minded and talented designers into the Architect's Department. Blashill's ability to recruit and organize these young architects was to create a great reputation for the department, and for the LCC, not only in the matter of public housing but in other branches of public architecture. (fn. 4) The Boundary Street Estate in Shoreditch, begun in the early 1890s, was the first project undertaken by the Council under the Act, and was followed in 1896 by the Millbank Estate.
Within his department, Blashill was respected and much loved. He retired in 1899, to be succeeded by William Edward Riley (1852–1937). (fn. 5) Riley was born in Yorkshire and educated at Batley Grammar School, and partly in France and Italy. He joined the office of William Critchley of Wakefield, and after five years in the office of Beck & Lee, moved to the staff of the Director of Engineering and Works of the Admiralty in 1877. There he was in charge of works in, among other places, Bermuda, Malta, Chatham and Devonport. He held the LCC post — the full title of which was Superintending Architect of Metropolitan Buildings and Architect to the London County Council – for twenty years, but because he was given a separate contract for his work on County Hall he was involved with it for a further ten years. A one time Council member of the Royal British and Colonial Society of Artists, and a member of the Royal Society of Artists, he was said to spend most of his spare time painting. (fn. 6)
Andrew Saint has pointed out the problem for the early LCC in reconciling the ambitions of Members who wanted to see London become a worthy 'imperial capital' with the drive towards working-class housing and other schemes of improvement for the London working man espoused by left-wing Members. (fn. 7) The contradiction had to be solved in the Architect's Department as elsewhere in the Council, and Riley proved very good at this. It has often been said that Riley was simply a 'good organizer' and 'brilliant administrator'. His close friend Frederick Hiorns, an architect working at the LCC from 1902 and for a long time Riley's right-hand man on the County Hall project, spoke of 'the almost ruthless force of his administrative control'. Indeed, he went further, saying that, possessed of an unusually forceful personality, it was almost inevitable that Riley should express himself by somewhat autocratic methods. (fn. 8) Yet Riley's artistic associations suggest, as the architectural production of his department demonstrates, that he was an excellent judge and positive advocate of good design. It is somewhat more difficult to assess his own merits as a designer, since, as Architect to the LCC, he headed a large department. After leaving the LCC he went into partnership with E. Glanfield, from 1919 to 1931, and they did some fine work, for example, the North Western Polytechnic, opened in 1929. (fn. 9)
The department Riley inherited was stocked with talented architects. As the housing projects begun in Blashill's time were completed, it was inevitable that Riley should get much of the credit rightly belonging to Blashill. But his department soon had work on a much larger scale than anything Blashill had handled.
1900 saw the beginning of the LCC's first cottage estate, Totterdown Fields in Tooting, and it is interesting that one of the architects most concerned with it was Ernest Stone Collins, later to work on County Hall. (fn. 10) In the same year a programme of fire-station building was begun, for which Riley reorganized his department. The resulting buildings are one of the great achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement. It was Riley who promoted and defended his architects in their efforts to improve the quality of London's streets. In 1915 he set out his views to an RIBA committee enquiring into the architectural work of public authorities, work which the RIBA felt they were incapable of handling in an artistic manner, and which should therefore be left to private architects. Riley told the Editor of the Builder that he challenged this claim absolutely, suggesting that the profession was 'overloaded by a sub-stratum of incompetent private members who could not obtain employment'. He continued, 'The routine through which an official must press his work is of such a character that feeble results ... cannot ensue. If outsiders had to encounter the same searching criticism and a tithe of the obstruction, their fees would only about half cover their requirements'. (fn. 11)
One of the most difficult problems faced by Riley greeted him in his first few years as LCC Architect, and shaped much of his response to later problems in Council service. The Holborn to Strand Improvement the present-day Kingsway and Aldwych had been under discussion for ten years, and was finally given the Parliamentary authority it required in 1899. This was by far the most ambitious improvement scheme undertaken by the LCC up to that time, and the problem of dealing with the elevations of this great street fell to Riley. The LCC Improvements Committee had agreed to a competition for elevations of the Strand-Aldwych part of the site, and Riley acted as assessor together with Richard Norman Shaw, then in retirement, but one of the grand old men of British architecture. It was a job fraught with difficulties since many of the firms rebuilding their premises had engaged architects of their own and designs had been prepared. Shaw proved a valuable friend both to the LCC and to Riley on this occasion, offering his work free of charge, and saving a situation which was potentially very embarrassing for the LCC by his skilful interventions with both architects and committees. (fn. 12)
Amongst Riley's staff were men who were to have an influence on the development and design of the new headquarters. One of these was Hiorns (1876–1961), the son of a Warwickshire man, educated in Plymouth, who joined the LCC in 1902, winning the Godwin Bursary in 1905, making apposite use of it to study 'Modern Town Halls in France'. He was interested in historic architecture, being a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and a member both of the LCC Staff Arts and Crafts Society, and of the Art Workers' Guild. He was in charge of the general section from 1926 till 1935, then senior divisional architect responsible for all constructional work, becoming Architect to the LCC from 1939 to 1941. He was to play an important part as liaison officer between Riley and Knott in the construction of County Hall, and as the designer of the New County Offices in the 1930s (see page 106). A 'kind, quiet and retiring man who shunned publicity of any kind whatsoever', his work for the Council was not ostentatious. It included the South Eastern Technical Institute, the Weights and Measures Office in Euston Square, and major work on the LCC hospitals after 1930. He was to become an important member of Lord Reith's Consultative Panel for the post-war replanning of London. (fn. 13)
The office of Chief Assistant, General Constructional Section, was held by Percy Ginham (1865–1947), Richard Norman Shaw's former principal assistant. Ginham joined the LCC in 1902 at the time when Shaw was no longer taking on enough work to need an assistant, and came with the master's highest recommendations as an architect who knew the planning of buildings. His other referees were Ernest Newton and William Lethaby, both of whom he had known in Shaw's office. Lethaby, by now Professor at the Royal College of Art, had known Ginham for twenty years, and wrote of him:
He is an excellent architectural designer having taste and judgement in a high degree with a preference for refined simplicity .. If his influence could be exerted on public buildings, it would I am certain be to the great advantage of the streets. (fn. 14)
The appointment is an interesting one. The job carried responsibility for all building work done in the department except that for the Fire Brigade and for Working Class Housing, each of which had its own section. General Construction covered buildings from generating stations, park buildings, technical schools and homes for inebriates, to 'Schemes and Sites for the Council's Central Offices'. (fn. 15)
Ginham came into the department, where it was hoped he would be of help in future street improvement schemes, and where he was a direct channel of influence from Shaw to the department. It was Ginham, as head of the General Section, who was responsible for the early planning of the new County Hall, before the competition. The sketch plans which were prepared throughout 1905 and 1906, in order to show the Establishment Committee the possibilities of the site, were almost certainly his. (fn. a) One of these was eventually to accompany the competition regulations, and was a fundamental influence on the way in which the competitors planned their schemes.
Riley's first reaction to the question of designing the new County Hall had been to make a bid for having it carried out by his own department. He himself prepared a perspective of a building on the site (Plate 3c), which was hung in Spring Gardens prior to the Council meeting on 11 April 1905, the week before it was decided to buy the Belvedere Road land.
This was widely published, and although the LCC Architect was careful to insist that the drawing was done merely to suggest the potential of the site, it is evident that he hoped to keep the work in-house, even if he thought it a remote possibility. He was later to say that the drawing was 'not even made from a plan, it was a mere sketch made in my own time at home ... done between Saturday and Monday'. (fn. 16) He claimed it was 'hastily prepared simply as a means of conveying the capabilities of the site in relation to its immediate surroundings in order that the members of the Committee and Council should have this information before them in considering the purchase of the site'. (fn. 17) Nevertheless, he felt not a little proud of his work, and kept the sketch hanging on the wall of his Spring Gardens office for some time. Whether or not he hoped to win over the Committee with his 'sketch', it must represent an effort to persuade them to let his department design the new building. (fn. 18)
The perspective immediately stirred up trouble. The Building News had to point out, a week after giving details of the scheme, that 'it by no means follows, of course, that this particular design ... will be adopted for execution'. But Riley had found his first ally, for the article congratulated the Council 'on the grasp of the possibilities of the site shown by its architect, and the certainty that if it commissions him to design the building, as it is quite justified in doing, it will secure a municipal hall worthy of London and the authority that, in spite of ignorant obscurantists, has done so much to improve and beautify it'. (fn. 19) In May Riley wrote to the Chairman of the Establishment Committee, J. W. Cleland, expressing alarm at the 'many symptoms of pressure being exercised to influence' the design of the new County Hall. His own 'earnest desire' was to obtain the best solution for the Council, over a building which he described as 'one of the most important ones for London which has been produced for the past 50 years or likely to be in the next 50'. He referred to the proposal for a competition, which he felt was an inherently unsatisfactory way of dealing with a building, since it would be necessary for the Council to hand over its authority to an assessor, supporting this view with a reference to other occasions. The Council would be unlikely to find 'the best architectural talent on the elevations and probably less ability still on the plans'. He reminded Cleland of Norman Shaw's 'magnanimous effort' in the initial stages of the Kingsway Improvement to give 'an artistic bent to the improvement'. Though Shaw was prepared to testify to the Committee that in his opinion Riley's office would be perfectly competent to design the new buildings, Riley himself was fearful that, 'where so many interests are involved, his [Shaw's] opinion in this direction would not be convincing to those outsiders who desire to obtain a foot-hold in such a large and remunerative scheme'. Riley ended by suggesting that if the Committee should decide not to entrust him with 'a complete tentative scheme', the best alternative would be for 'the work of construction, planning, and internal arrangement, which could concern no one but the Council and its staff', to be given to his department. Shaw should then be invited to become 'consulting Architect for the purposes of the elevation' – a role that Riley believed that he would undertake for 'a comparatively modest fee'. (fn. 20)
Riley continued to press the Council to choose an inhouse architect, at the same time instructing his own department to prepare plans, presented to the Establishment Committee in February 1906. (fn. 21)
As to L.C.C. I wish it were possible to get a Frenchman but that is impossible. I hardly see any way out: a comp. means the swashbuckler gang and the swashbucklest being taken. Probably the best thing obtainable now wd be the L.C.C. Office with Shaw as Consulting Archt ... The Shaw business wd work probably more or less, because after the main bulks were kept simple (which he wd do in two days) the office cd carry it out. (fn. 22)
The Move towards a Competition
There was a strong external lobby for a competition, mainly among RIBA members, who tended to view public architects as mere incompetent technicians, sheltering in the large offices of public authorities to avoid the competitive realities of the outside world, and, worse still, undercutting independent architects' fees at the taxpayers' expense. They knew that Riley had had Norman Shaw's architectural help on more than one occasion in LCC matters, and they knew too that Shaw disliked competitions almost as much as he disliked the RIBA itself. (fn. 23) As Riley had foreseen, they all wanted a chance at one of the decade's big commissions.
The subject of competitions was a source of much concern to the Institute in the early years of this century, following the peculiar outcome of the Liverpool Cathedral competition in 1903, won by the 24–year-old Giles Gilbert Scott. The youthful and inexperienced winner had been forced to accept G. F. Bodley (1827–1907), a competition assessor, as joint architect. This arrangement was widely criticized and in practice did not work well. The RIBA soon after formed a committee to establish approved guidelines for the setting up and running of future competitions. These 'regulations' were approved in the summer of 1905.
The RIBA wrote to the LCC on 3 April 1906 with their suggestion that a competition be held and sketching the basic lines they would like to see followed. Certain that 'the only way of securing a really broadly treated and fine work', was to get a 'strongly individualised personality', they were equally sure that the best way of attracting such a personality would be a competition. As Riley was quoting failed competitions at the Establishment Committee, so the RIBA mentioned the successes – among others, the Houses of Parliament and Foreign Office in London, the Opéra in Paris, the Reichstag in Berlin, and the New York Central Library. The Institute's suggestion was for a twostage competition with six well-known architects invited into the second stage. There would be three assessors, one of whom was to be elected by the second-stage competitors, one appointed by the President of the RIBA, and one to be the Council's own Architect. (fn. 24)
When the Committee asked for Riley's opinion he reiterated the earlier arguments, but put forward his own suggestions for a competition. He proposed that 'he prepare plans showing fully the best possible utilization of the site, having regard to the functions of the various Departments, of the Committees, of the Council itself'. These plans 'when fully matured' would form the basis of the competition. He also proposed that the competitors should be told that they would have to work with him, and that he should have discretionary powers concerning internal economy and construction. In commenting on the RIBA proposal, he suggested that two assessors, Shaw and himself, would be enough. He was not happy about the method of choosing the third, though he did finally accept the idea of a third assessor elected by the competitors entered for the second stage. Anticipating criticism, he cited the Liverpool competition as a precedent for his own dual role as assessor and collaborating architect. (fn. 25)
Riley lost his fight to have County Hall designed in his own department, but through the conditions for the competition he was able to retain a considerable influence over the development of the design. In the week following his report, Swinton proposed to the Establishment Committee that a public competition should be held for the design of the new building. (fn. 26) The deliberations of the Committee, together with much of Riley's advice, were presented in a Report to Council on 24 July 1906, setting out the case for a competition, and the most important of the regulations governing it. These were approved the following week, and the Establishment Committee instructed to go ahead with the arrangements. (fn. 27)
Framing the Competition
The main lines of the competition had been set out in the Establishment Committee's Report, though details remained to be clarified. A two-stage competition was proposed, the second stage being limited to no more than twenty-three competitors – the authors of between ten and fifteen designs selected by the assessors in the preliminary round, and up to eight leading architects invited by the Council to submit designs. Norman Shaw and Riley were recommended as assessors, to be joined at the second stage by a third, elected by the finalists. Riley's role in preparing the 'detailed particulars of the accommodation required by the Council' and his collaboration with the successful competitor, fortified by his 'discretionary power in all matters relating to the internal economy and construction of the building', were also clearly set out.
The Establishment Committee agreed to employ Shaw at an assessor's fee of one thousand guineas and instructed Riley to consult him on certain points of detail, among which was the fee to be paid to the third assessor. With typical modesty Shaw said that the third assessor should have a fee equal to his own, in spite of the fact that he would have less than half the work to do. (fn. c) Shaw recommended that some of 'the younger talented architects' might with advantage be included in the list of those invited into the second stage of the competition, a suggestion with which Riley fully concurred. Shaw also thought that some of those involved in the Kingsway Improvement might be invited. (fn. 28) These proposals were in general adopted by the Council on 31 July 1906. (fn. 29) The list finally presented to the Committee on 25 October contained nineteen names, and included all of the eight architects eventually selected – H. T. Hare, W. Flockhart, John Belcher, E. W. Mountford, T. G. Jackson, Ernest George, Sir Charles Nicholson, and Edwin Lutyens – plus those of Leonard Stokes, Aston Webb, J. J. Stevenson, Reginald Blomfield, Robert Lorimer, Horace Field, C. E. Mallows, Gerald Horsley, E. J. May, Mervyn Macartney, and Ernest Newton. (fn. 30) The last four clearly represented Shaw's idea of 'the younger talented architects': all were ex-pupils or assistants of his. Hare, Flockhart, Macartney, Mountford, George, and Blomfield had been involved in the Kingsway competition. Stevenson, at 75, was the oldest by ten years, and Lutyens, who took the competition very seriously, at 37, the youngest of a handful under 45.
Preliminary letters of invitation were sent out on 6 November 1906, and these included the information that the winner would have to collaborate with Riley. The eight invited architects originally selected included Blomfield and Webb, but Blomfield declined, saying he had too much work on. Aston Webb, after a havering correspondence with the Clerk, also turned it down, because of the association of the Council's Architect with the successful competitor, which he felt raised 'several difficult and important points'. Flockhart and Ernest George took their places. (fn. 31) The suggested list was submitted to the Council on 18 December 1906, and approved on 22 January 1907. (fn. 32)
At the same time the Establishment Committee put forward the conditions for the competition, later issued as the Instructions to Competing Architects, which were also approved by Council on 22 January 1907, as were the fees of 1,000 guineas each, payable to Shaw and the third assessor. (fn. 33) (fn. d)
The RIBA Protest
Several of the conditions were unusual and proved to be contentious. The first was the suggested plan discussed below, the second was the invitation to the eight selected architects to join at the second stage, which was felt to be unfair, and was castigated as 'unbusiness-like'. (fn. 34) The third, and most disliked, was Riley's role. He was to be given a separate and personal appointment by the Council as their 'Official Architect', working with the winning architect, and receiving one-tenth of that architect's commission for the building. (fn. 35) In the words of clause 8 of the Instructions, it was laid down that 'Mr W. E. Riley, the official architect, shall have discretionary power in all matters relating to internal economy, building construction, and stability'.
Exception was taken to this clause by the RIBA. After the Instructions had been published, and in spite of their broad conformity to the Institute's proposals of April 1906, the Institute sent a belated protest to the LCC, both about this condition, and about a report of LCC proceedings which had mentioned the Instructions as 'approved by the RIBA', whereas, in fact, they had 'never been submitted to their consideration'. The latter point was countered by Shaw's claim that the draft had been available in the RIBA library for inspection. (fn. 36)
The Institute interpreted Riley's role as 'official architect' as an appointment as 'joint architect' for the work, and their letter pointed out that there was 'a well established principle of the Royal Institute, binding on all its members, that no Assessor shall accept the appointment or act as Architect to carry out a building, on the design of which he has to adjudicate'. (fn. 37)
This reference to Riley's position led the Clerk, Laurence Gomme, to ask Shaw's advice in the matter. Shaw reiterated his approval of the clauses 8 and 9, setting out Riley's position and emoluments: 'I have always felt that the object of a competition is to get the very best building that can be had, and that any means (short of injustice) towards the attainment of this end is not merely legitimate but desirable'. He cited the Liverpool Cathedral competition, as Riley had done in a report of 1906. (fn. 38)
The climax of the RIBA protest was reached at a special meeting on 28 May 1907, called by several outraged members (including J. S. Gibson, C. E. Mallows, H. V. Lanchester, Herbert Read, R. Falconer MacDonald and Herbert Wills), when a resolution was tabled banning Institute members from taking part in the LCC competition. (fn. 39) It was proposed by Gibson, Chairman of the RIBA's Competitions Committee, who had given evidence in the House of Lords on behalf of Holloway Brothers against the London County Buildings Bill. His chief objection was that the invited architects, six of whom were past or present members of the RIBA Council, had, by accepting the invitation, tacitly consented to the LCC's conditions, thereby breaching the Institute's own regulation prohibiting an assessor of a competition from himself competing or acting as architect for the proposed work. Colcutt replied that the regulation was intended to prevent an assessor being subsequently appointed as the architect, but that this did not apply in the County Hall case, which was an exceptional one. He referred to the by now familiar precedent of the Liverpool Cathedral competition, only for A. W. S. Cross to point out that Sir Aston Webb, then President of the RIBA, had stated on that occasion that such a situation 'would never occur again'. Gibson's comments implied that Riley could not act fairly in the dual role of assessor and joint architect, but practically all of those who spoke at the meeting disputed the insinuation and several members of the older generation begged Gibson to withdraw his resolution, although he stood firm.
Riley was at the meeting, he said only to observe, but now rose to speak. He first pointed out that there had been plenty of time to make this complaint before the conditions for the competition had been finalized, and then denied that he had written them. This was not the entire truth. The Establishment Committee had asked Riley and Shaw together to prepare the Instructions. The implication of Riley's remark is that Shaw prepared the conditions on his own, which is a little hard to believe. Certainly it was Riley who proposed his own association with the competition winner, and even though the RIBA suggested him as an assessor, he did nothing to dissuade the Committee, seconding the Institute's recommendation virtually as soon as it was made. (fn. 40)
Riley may have thought he was acting in the best interests of the LCC and of architecture in general. His impatience with what he saw as the RIBA's narrow selfinterest was evident, but events were to prove that his responsibility for 'internal economy, building construction and structure' was wide enough to hamper the competition winner to a considerable degree. Of his own position as an assessor, he said, somewhat disingenuously, that the Institute Council had not consulted him before suggesting him to the LCC as an assessor. It could be a very barren honour, as he had discovered when he was appointed one of two assessors on the Kingsway competition in 1900, and he thought that any endeavour to ascribe undue importance to his being an assessor on the County Hall competition was insincere. Gibson's resolution was defeated by 50 votes to 29 and the matter stopped there. (fn. 41)
Riley was later to propose to the Establishment Committee that he serve as an assessor without vote, merely as a consultant to the others, but this suggestion was rejected. (fn. 42)
Another condition caused no immediate acrimonious controversy but is equally revealing of contemporary preoccupations. Schedule C of the Instructions dealt with the drawings to be presented – plans of each floor, elevations of the three principal façades and two sections – but at the end there is a specific prohibition against the submission of perspectives in either stage of the competition. This was no doubt one of Shaw's interventions, reflecting his latterday belief that perspectives were drawn in an attempt to make architecture 'more pictorial', appealing to those who understood little of the subject but being not especially useful to those who did.
The idea that perspectives were false and misleading had been developing for some years. In a series of pieces in the Architectural Review about the sorry state of the architecture room at the Royal Academy, Shaw (who had often had the responsibility for hanging that room), Halsey Ricardo, John Belcher, and others tried to establish what architectural drawings were and why the general public, as well as other artists, found them so uninteresting. Belcher was quite clear what the problem was:
The pretty sketch or suggestive drawing dashed off in an hour or so cannot properly represent architecture. It is by the geometrical plans, elevations, and sections, and half-inch details that it can best be understood. It is these which show the real thought bestowed upon the work and the knowledge possessed by the author.
There seems to be a tacit assumption here that it is not only the public which is deceived, but also the architect himself. Shaw was less outspoken, as befitted the man who had done so much to generate the problem with the magnificent perspectives of his younger days. He set out a definition of 'what I should call architectural drawings, viz., plans, sections, and elevations (especially sections) drawn to a good scale, with some detail drawn to a larger scale'. This he thought would create 'a good exhibition, pure and simple'. (fn. 43) Shaw's words foreshadow the drawings requirement for the County Hall competition, right down to the phrase 'drawn to a good scale', which translated into sixteenth-scale plans and elevations – a size many of the competitors felt to be excessive. (fn. e)
This new distaste for perspectives invited a more critical analysis of the plan, and, to a lesser extent, the section. The increased importance attached to the plan made Riley's role, particularly concerned as it was with the plan, more significant. That is why some RIBA members could say that whoever won the competition would be reduced 'to the level of a sub-official of the Council under the control of the Superintending Architect', despite that official's claim that his role was merely to assure the rational ordering of the building's internal spaces. The new spirit did not consider this to be a minor item by any means. (fn. 44)
At the same time we find architects less willing to accept the opinion of men who judged their elevations as 'works of art', a matter of taste, rather than as 'good plans', a matter of rational determination. An Architectural Review article of 1906 shows how these attitudes were blended and how the problem of perspectives was seen to affect the outcome of competitions:
Even supposing the really best design to gain the premium (which again is not always the case) it becomes a question whether the plan should be considered of the first importance or the elevations .. and as the best plan does not postulate the best elevation, and vice versa, the door is open for comparative failure in one or other direction. (fn. 45)
Architects in later years were to attempt a solution by giving greater importance to the plan, which Shaw and others thought the area least susceptible to deceitful presentation. It is interesting that many of the entrants in the County Hall competition, particularly those experienced in competitions, prepared showy perspectives to amplify their plans and sections, (fn. 46) and the moment the competition was decided the first thing the Members of the Council wanted was a nice perspective to show what the building would look like. (fn. 47)
The competition had been tarnished at its outset by the RIBA's objection to Riley's appointment as Official Architect. Moreover, Riley's misgivings about this method of choosing an architect were being confirmed. He was later to claim that the RIBA's involvement and the resulting competition delayed progress on the County Hall for nearly two-and-a-half years, and that the total competition expenses amounted to over £8,000. (fn. 48)
He had foreseen these problems in 1905. In the same year he had tried to turn the RIBA's arguments against themselves, pointing out to the Establishment Committee that in March 1899, the Council of the RIBA had recommended to the LCC that Shaw should be consulted 'as to the architectural treatment of Vauxhall Bridge', and that in the following September, the RIBA's Standing Committee for Art had congratulated the LCC on the design of Embankment Gardens Generating Station. (fn. 49)
Convinced that a competition was unnecessary, Riley had fought hard to have Shaw selected, and failed. The two thought they had 'saved' the Kingsway competition, and may have felt that competitions in general were bound to fail without their intervention, and that they could not allow this one, once decided upon, to proceed without them. Convinced from the outset that the idea was misconceived, they were not perhaps the best people to ensure its successful execution.
The Terms of the Competition
The competition was first advertised in The Times and a selection of British professional and technical journals at the end of February 1907. Advertisements were also placed in three Continental Journals – one French, one German and one Italian – the competition being open to architects of any nationality despite an attempt by some Members to restrict it to British citizens. (fn. 50) (fn. f) Competitors were given six months to produce their designs, which had to be with the LCC by 27 August 1907.
Much of the information given in the Instructions was necessarily conventional – schedules of accommodation, drawings required of the competitors, as well as a budget for construction, in this case £850,000. In addition, a plan for the guidance of competitors was issued, drawn up by Ginham on Riley's instructions. From the time when they began considering the project in 1905, Riley's department had never stopped working on plans, at sixteenth-scale. (fn. 51) By February 1906 a plan, symmetrical on the river front, had been developed with many features that were incorporated in the Instructions. Chief of these were a first floor reserved for the use of Members and department heads, with public access rooms on the ground floor, and the vertical stacking of departments. This plan (fig. 4) emerged in the Instructions as 'a sketch plan ... which shows a suggested arrangement of the accommodation ... to be regarded as merely a suggestion which competitors may modify in any way they desire'. Despite this, many competitors may have felt a certain inhibition about altering the general plan drawn up by an assessor, particularly as that assessor was to be responsible for the internal arrangements of the building.
The Instructions and the plan together defined the site for competitors. This was curtailed by a 50–foot set-back on the west side of Belvedere Road, but extended by a proposed embankment to be built out into the Thames, raised some 18 feet above datum, the face of which was to be clad in granite to the architect's design.
The building was to comply with the London Building Acts, but little else was stipulated about construction or materials. Services were to include central-heating radiators and a system of mechanical ventilation, though fireplaces were to be provided in the principal rooms.
The LCC's main requirements for the building were quite specific in certain areas, but left a number of other matters unclear. For instance, no detailed instructions were given about vehicular access for Members, or indeed for 'cart access' to parts of the basement. In his special volume on the competition published in 1908, the Swiss architect Alexander Koch, himself an unsuccessful competitor, commented that the first thing that any architect did upon entering for a competition, was to look out in the programme what principal rooms were wanted, so that he might express them in the elevations. He complained that in the County Hall conditions, 'while, so to say, every little corner required for a broom-stick was enumerated in the programme, the representative rooms were put under one head:- "Suitable accommodation, amounting ... to 16,000 square feet, for the general use of the members'". Thus the Members' Terrace which appeared in all the designs was not even mentioned, and was only taken by all the competitors from the suggested design of the Council Architect. (fn. 52)
The L.C.C. I feel sick of – bruised with. One was so in the dark as to what was wanted. The site so lovely, the conditions so difficult. (fn. 53)
Most attention was paid to the first floor, which was to be for the use of Members, with offices for the heads of departments where possible. (fn. g) Schedules of accommodation were provided for the floor: there was to be a Council Chamber of 4000 square feet, two lobbies, a public gallery for 150 persons with direct access from outside, and a gallery with separate circulation for the press. There was also to be an Assembly or Public Hall to accommodate 800, complying with the LCC Theatre Regulations, and a library 'as conveniently situated to the Council Chamber as possible', with accommodation for a librarian and twelve staff. Muniment and record rooms, strong room and storage were to be provided in the basement. The description of the areas intended for Members seems particularly vague in comparison with that requested for Council staff; the brief called for 'suitable accommodation' for some 200 Members, together with facilities easily accessible from the Council Chamber and lobbies, including an 'ample cloak room', fitted with lockers and telephones. Also called for were a Members' reading-room, restaurants, a possible smoking-room for gentlemen, and a cloakroom for ladies. These provisions, not dissimilar from those provided in the Houses of Parliament, reflected the same view of the Council's position which led it to model its Standing Orders on Erskine May rather than on the usual standing orders for local councils. (fn. h) In addition, some twelve committee rooms, varying in size from 600 to 1,200 square feet, were to be provided, the way in which they were specified betraying that they had been taken off the sketch plan (fig. 4).
The specifications for 'Rooms for Heads of Departments' on the first floor, which with waiting rooms varied from 350 to 500 square feet, were supplemented by detailed schedules of respective accommodation for their departments elsewhere. The special requirements of each branch pay eloquent tribute to the care with which the Clerk and his colleagues had drawn up their lists. Some departments, like Housing and Asylums, needed to be accessible to the public, and 'on one floor if possible', a request echoed by the Local Government and Statistical Department, for which 'a quiet portion of site' was essential. The Public Health Department needed room for a bacteriological laboratory on the top floor, and also two bedrooms and sitting-rooms for medical officers' use 'during epidemics'. The Chemical and Gas Department also required laboratory space, while Public Control needed to test gas meters. The newly joined Educational Department was very precise in its requirements: 'Essential qualifications – Good light, quiet, easily accessible to the public, 100 of whom are seen daily for weeks at a time'. (fn. 54)
The Effect of the Municipal Reform Victory in 1907
Less than a month after the competition was first advertised, the Progressives were defeated and the Municipal Reformers took office as the majority party on the LCC. The new administration at first tried to cancel the competition but soon decided to leave things as they stood. This meant that competing architects were designing a County Hall for a body which, while still answering to the name of LCC, had a quite different character from the client that had sponsored the competition.
A major overhaul of the Moderate political machine had been a key element in the victory. A few months before the election, the Conservative London Municipal Society, formed in 1894, had persuaded the Moderates to change their somewhat uninspiring name to that of Municipal Reformers. During this election, said to have been 'contested with a vigour and violence of emotion unmatched in the history of the Council', the Moderates – never themselves in power at the LCC – used their campaign to pillory the ruling party as 'the Wastrels'. It was perhaps this which did most damage, combined with a brilliant series of cartoons and posters designed by E. Huskinson. These were works of political satire far more potent than any which had appeared in earlier elections. There is little evidence that the County Hall project, expensive as it was to be, was cited in the campaign, though the subject appears as a makeweight in some cartoons. The main targets were the tramways and the accident-prone steamboat services, but of course, the Municipal Reform platform was built on economy and value for money.
The Progressives were furious at what they regarded as the hijacking of a name to which they had a historic claim as direct political descendants of the London Municipal Reform League. In addition, they found themselves embarrassed at having to defend an eighteen-year period of government which had seen much reform and improvement, but which had also seen rates rise from 1s. 9¼d. in 1889 to 3s. 0d. in 1906, against a party which seemed to be laying claim to a kind of radicalism. The municipal debt had gone from £18 million in 1893 to £23 million in 1903, and, after central government had moved the London School Board and its debt to the LCC, to £48 million in 1907. (fn. 55)
The previous year's parliamentary election was doubtless another factor. Progressives and Moderates had long been affiliated with the national political parties, but the election in 1906 to the House of Commons of no less than thirty LCC Progressives as members of the Liberal parliamentary majority brought this fact clearly before the public eye. It was not lost sight of by campaigning Municipal Reformers, who averred that the Progressives were using the LCC to subvert Parliament. (fn. 56)
Immediately after the 1907 local government elections the Municipal Reformers put their policies of economy into practice, cutting the steamboat service and winding down the Works Department. They also called into question the new County Hall, a project which the Progressives hoped they had taken too far for reversal, and in spite of the fact that the need for a new headquarters was recognized by all parties.
Only two 1906 Establishment Committee members were re-appointed to the 1907 Committee: Edward Smith and Captain George Swinton. Richard Robinson (1857– 1923), a previous member from 1896 to 1904, replaced Cleland as Chairman. Within a fortnight of the election Robinson had asked Riley what the LCC's liability would be if the architectural competition for the design of the new County Hall were to be abandoned. The Finance Committee met to establish the consequences of giving up the site altogether and the Engineer, Architect and Valuer were instructed to look again into alternative sites in the Westminster Improvement Area and Kingsway. (fn. 57)
The Establishment Committee's report on the County Hall situation, twice deferred, was presented to the Council on 18 June 1907. After summarizing the Council's commitments to the Belvedere Road site and the architectural competition, the Committee reported that there was only one possible alternative site, the Westminster Improvement Area, of which the cost per acre was 50 per cent higher than the Belvedere Road site. The report concluded:
having regard to the stage which has been reached in the acquisition of the site and to the large sum of money which would be lost if the Council did not proceed, and also to the fact that the competition ... has been in progress for ten weeks, the best course .. is to go on with the scheme with all possible dispatch in order that the staff may be housed in the new building at the earliest moment. (fn. 58)
Calling off the project altogether would have cost the Council £200,000. Once this was known Members stopped agitating to have the scheme cancelled and turned their attention towards hastening its completion and making substantial economies. In some respects the two aims were contradictory. Speeding the works along meant having to buy up the leases of the premises fronting Westminster Bridge Road, which the Council had intended to let run until their expiry in 1923–4, foregoing the rents. These tenancies were acquired in 1910–11. (fn. 59)
On the other hand there was still a hope of getting out of the agreement to take over Holloways' property at the north end of the site. The Establishment Committee consulted Riley about the possibility of using the Belvedere Road site without Holloways' holding. Riley estimated that it would accommodate some 450 people, and that to fit the extra number on the reduced site was not practical, particularly since the Council now planned to house a further 500 staff in the new building, making a total of 2,738. (fn. 60) A suggestion that the London School Board offices on the Victoria Embankment be kept, to reduce the necessary size of the new building, brought the comment from the Clerk, that to do this 're-creates a difficulty that New County Hall was meant to remove'. (fn. 61)
It was soon recognized that the purchase of the northern part of the site was inevitable, not least because the Council had served a notice to treat. However, the Council decided to defer development on this part of the site until 1914 at the earliest, leasing it back to Holloways immediately for 21 years with break clauses at 7, 10 and 14 years. (fn. 62)
The Result of the Competition
Despite its contentious Instructions and austere requirements for large plain geometrical drawings, the first stage of the competition attracted 99 designs. The competitors numbered 152, eight of them, the assessors noted, of foreign birth, and, individually or jointly, they produced a total of 1,199 drawings. Within a month of the closing date, 27 August 1907, fifteen designs had been selected for the final stage (see Appendix II, page 127). (fn. 63) Together with the eight invited architects, the first-stage winners elected Aston Webb to join Shaw and Riley as third Assessor (Plate 3d). After three weeks' scrutiny of the final 23 schemes – 346 drawings – the Assessors presented their Report to the Establishment Committee on 30 January 1908. (fn. 64)
This brief and laconic document was doubtless meant to reassure all parties concerned. But its few paragraphs hedge the Assessors' decision to a great extent, and render unsurprising the long process of change and interference that was to follow. As they observed, the competitors' schemes were at this moment little more than sketch designs, and some modifications were inevitable:
Under these circumstances, we have selected the design which, in our opinion, shows the greatest promise of a worthy result, and best deals with the problem set.
We find, unanimously, that design No. 106 is, on the whole, the best, and we therefore recommend it for acceptance and execution.
It is a forcible and artistic suggestion which conveys to us the purpose for which it is to be erected, and is almost entirely without costly and unnecessary features: moreover, we are of opinion that the estimated cost is a fair one, and that the building could probably be erected within the sum named in instruction No. 34 ... There are other points in the plan that require modification, but the brilliant qualities of the design far outweigh, in our opinion, these and other comparatively unimportant defects.
This report was accepted by the Council on 4 February 1908, despite some fierce criticism of the design from the Rev. Frank Hastings, the Progressive Member for East St Pancras. (fn. 65)
The Winning Design (figs 5, 13, 14, 16, 17a)
The design chosen by the assessors was that submitted by Ralph Knott (1878–1929), a 29–year-old assistant in Aston Webb's office. No stranger to the world of the public building competition, Knott, jointly with his friend and future partner Ernest Stone Collins (1878–1942), had previously entered the Bristol Reference Library and Malvern Free Library competitions of 1902 and 1904, coming second in both, and the Lambeth Municipal Buildings Competition of 1905. Although not premiated, their Lambeth entry was commended by the assessor, H. T. Hare, but others found its generally restrained mixture of baroque and mannerist styles 'probably rather too severe for a building of this nature'. (fn. 66) At the time of winning the County Hall competition, however, Knott had designed very little that was actually built – the Building News credited him with 'some good country domestic buildings, principally in Sussex'. (fn. 67)
Born in Chelsea, the eighth child of a prosperous tailor in Pont Street, (fn. 68) Knott had been educated at the City of London School, and had served his articles in the architectural practice of Woodd & Ainslie. About 1900 he had joined Aston Webb's office, where he worked on the Admiralty Arch and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1901 he was placed second in the Tite Prize, with a design for a gateway in which elements of County Hall can be recognized (fig. 6). (fn. 69)
Though some critics thought the winning design to be one of the duller entries – 'cold, grim and soulless' was the Rev. Frank Hastings's description – it was in fact a workmanlike and impressive scheme, which fulfilled the demands of a difficult brief. Innocent of the domes and baroque grandeur which were a feature of so many competitors' designs, it nevertheless dominated the site and made full use of the riverside. The main element of the river front was a square portico with double columns projecting on to the embankment. Office wings on either side were cleverly handled, with rusticated ground and first floors and two attic floors in a mansard to conceal the sheer bulk of the building. Central features punctuated the Westminster Bridge Road and Belvedere Road fronts, a subsidiary entrance on the former and an ingenious circular Public Hall set in a deep recess on the latter. Pavilions at each corner of the building were intended to contain baroque sculpture groups, and decorative carved and moulded architectural features enriched pediments over doors and windows. Tall chimneys increased the domestic impression given by the double rows of dormer windows, and enlivened the skyline, together with a flèche topped by a weathervane bearing a ship in full sail.
Considerable re-working of the design was to take place over the next three years, and though Knott suffered in the process, as other young and inexperienced designers have done on similar occasions, much of the change was beneficial. For Riley the experience of judging the designs had been nearly as distressing as the Kingsway competition. Shortly after the result was known he wrote to Belcher:
In the progress of the work, as each scheme went out of further consideration, I am bound to say that I experienced the deepest feeling of sympathy with those whose efforts and hopes were alike disappointed by the decision though of course this was inevitable. I am not used to the experience and I hope I shall not be called upon again to go through such an ordeal. I am henceforth an advocate of selection in works of such magnitude. (fn. 70)