Survey of London Monograph 17, County Hall. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1991.
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CHAPTER IX. The New County Offices – North and South Blocks
By the early 1930s the LCC was well on the way to completing its headquarters building, but with the expansion of the Council's local government responsibilities its staff was increasing at a rate which outpaced the building programme. In April 1930 the Establishment Committee asked the Clerk, the Architect and the Valuer to report generally on the need for further accommodation after the completion of Section D, and specifically on the possibility of developing the east side of Belvedere Road for this purpose. (fn. 1)
Growth of the Council's Staff
The passing of the Local Government Act of 1929, under which the LCC took over the Poor Law administration (see page 92), had added very considerably to the burden of extra work, and in 1932 new duties in the field of planning were laid on the Council by the passing of the Town and Country Act. As the LCC's responsibilities for public housing increased, so did the staff of the Valuation Estates and Housing Department; while under G. H. Gater's brilliant administration the Education Department had been expanded and was occupying much of Section D.
When County Hall was originally planned a total staff complement of under 3,000 had been anticipated. By 1934, when the Chief Officers reported on the need for additional accommodation, there were 4,112 central office staff, supported by a smaller army of 300 'housekeepers, messengers, male cleaners, engineering operative staff and chainmen, and 175 charwomen'. Of the permanent staff, 3,726 worked in County Hall itself. (fn. 2)
By replanning Section D with offices on both sides of the corridors, and by using parts of the basement and the seventh-floor attic for offices, the Council had been able to accommodate more staff at County Hall than had originally been allowed for. But the building was overcrowded, and an additional 15,000 square feet were required to deal with this problem alone. A further 40,000 square feet would be needed for the Valuer's Department, which still occupied the old Spring Gardens building.
The location of the medical examination rooms was also causing concern. Between 1921 and 1930 the number of schoolchildren examined each year had nearly doubled, from about 12,500 to 23,500, and by the time new space was allocated in Section D, the number of visitors had reached 37,665, or nearly 70,000 if accompanying relations and friends were included. It was hoped that the new extension would provide for, and to a large extent isolate, this function of the Council. (In the end, however, the medical examination rooms were not transferred.) If existing overcrowding was to be alleviated and accommodation provided at County Hall for the 'out-housed' departments, a total of 82,500 square feet of additional space would be required. (fn. 3)
Land on the east side of Belvedere Road
Although the proposed site on the east side of Belvedere Road was already partially in the Council's ownership, its potential was affected by the need to take into account various proposals for road-widening and improvements generally. The most important of these was for a new Charing Cross road bridge, which had been engaging the attention of London town planners and improvers since the beginning of the century. There were variants of this scheme, but in outline it involved the removal of the railway station and the replacement of the rail bridge by a high-level road bridge. This would be part of a magnificent new boulevard extending from Trafalgar Square to the Surrey side of the Thames, which, in the words of the Lutyens Report of 1942, was 'seen as the geographical hub of the Metropolis'. (fn. 4) Though the line of the new road was considerably to the north of County Hall, it affected plans for the whole area as far north as Waterloo Bridge.
One of the objectives of this plan was to relieve Rennie's Waterloo Bridge, which had been proving inadequate for the increased traffic flow through Kingsway. But once the LCC decided in 1932 to provide a four-lane replacement for Waterloo Bridge, (fn. 5) the scheme for a new bridge at Charing Cross fell into abeyance, though it featured in the 1943 County of London Plan. (fn. 6) It was, of course, seen as part of the projected rebuilding of the South Bank, which also had its effect on the LCC's thinking about the extension of County Hall, and was to be a major element in post-war redevelopment.
Another factor to be taken into account was a proposed traffic scheme for Westminster Bridge Road and York Road, for which, by 1932, the Council had already acquired over two acres of land opposite County Hall. (fn. 7) It did not own all the north side of Westminster Bridge Road between York and Belvedere Roads, however, and obtaining possession of the other buildings there presented problems. The caterers J. Lyons & Company had a tea shop at the Belvedere Road corner, and would have to be compensated, probably with another site in the same area. (Isidore Salmon, the firm's Chairman and Managing Director, was still an LCC Member, so the matter needed tactful handling.) The New Inn public house at No. 254 Westminster Bridge Road would probably require similar compensation. Between these two buildings stood a branch of the National Provincial Bank, which had recently bought the freehold of properties on the west corner of Westminster Bridge Road and York Road with the inten tion of rebuilding there. The Bank had also made an agreement with the GPO to sublet part of its new premises as a branch post office.
The new offices project was discussed in January 1931 by a group of senior officers – including the Clerk (Sir Montagu Cox), the Valuer (Frank Hunt), and the Architect (G. Topham Forrest) – who had before them an outline plan for the development drawn up by the Architect's Department. (fn. 8)
The suggested development (fig. 48a) consisted of two L-shaped blocks following the Chicheley Street-York Road-Westminster Bridge Road edge of the proposed site, each block having short return ends facing into a new large courtyard or place which addressed the main building across Belvedere Road. Passing between the two blocks, under a linking bridge, was a new entrance to County Hall from York Road. There had been concern for some time about the deleterious effect of the narrow Belvedere Road on the main entrance to County Hall, and it made sense for any extension to combine road widening with civic improvement. Two other bridges, at the north and south ends of Belvedere Road, connected the new building to the old. Although revised, the essential form of the new development as laid down in this early plan was never significantly changed nor seriously challenged. (fn. a)
For the meeting in January 1931 the Architect's Department had ready two versions of the scheme, the second (fig. 48b) showing how the layout might be adapted to a curtailed site excluding the properties along Westminster Bridge Road which the Council did not own. The Valuer pointed out that the frontage here would eventually be rebuilt as part of a road-widening scheme, but this improvement was still some years off and he doubted if anything could be done to bring it forward. He thought the north front of the proposed development should be 'squared up', to align with the north front of Knott's building, and Chicheley Street moved further north as part of the Charing Cross Bridge scheme. It was felt that the northern half of the site would be adequate for the Council's needs, and that the southern half should be developed in such a way that the upper floors could be let out as offices, to be repossessed as the need arose. The whole of the ground-floor front along York Road should be shops. Since no Chief Officers would be housed in the new blocks they were to be plain office buildings. The Council should offer the National Provincial Bank accommodation in the new building in exchange for the freehold of its important corner site. (fn. 10)
It was in these terms that the officers reported to the Establishment Committee the following May, but shortly afterwards all building plans had to be abandoned in the face of the national economic crisis of August 1931. (fn. 11)
The scheme was not formally considered again until 1934, when a report was prepared for the Establishment Committee reviving the 1931 proposals in an amended form. One of the changes was the 'squaring up' of the north end and the re-alignment of Chicheley Street, as previously suggested by the Valuer. It was now proposed that the north and south blocks should be linked together by an 'open architectural screen' embodying two enclosed bridges (one at sixth-floor level), and that the east side of the place or courtyard 'intervening between the new building and the central portion of County Hall' should be laid out as 'a flat elliptical crescent, 460 feet in width'. The point of the crescent-shaped lay-out was to 'ensure a spacious and impressive effect'. Some of the site was set aside for gardens, to be made 'additionally attractive' by the planting of trees. The question of what to do with the problematic frontage along Westminster Bridge Road was left open. (fn. 12) At this time the proposed extension was known officially as the New County Offices, and it was not until after the war that the nomenclature North and South Blocks was adopted.
Choosing an Architect
When the revised scheme was sent to Committee in October 1934 the question was raised whether the new offices should be designed by the Council's Architect or thrown open to a public competition. Hitherto all the planning and design work had been carried out 'in house'. Further consideration of the scheme was therefore adjourned while Gater, who was now the Clerk, reported on the implications of holding a competition. (fn. 13) It was 'undoubtedly desirable', he said, that the merit of the design and layout of the new building should be beyond question, and he thought that a competition (or the appointment of an eminent outsider) would best secure public confidence. But there were some serious practical objections, not least the impossibility of indicating the exact site, since the Council did not own all the land. Furthermore, a competition would certainly delay the start of work on the building, which might lead in turn to problems with the National Provincial Bank, who had given up their corner site on the understanding that the Council would provide them with accommodation as soon as possible. (fn. 14) The solution, hinted at by Gater and adopted by the Council, was to bring in an eminent Consultant Architect to be 'associated with the general planning and design of the building as developed by the Council's architect'. (fn. 15)
The man chosen for this role was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who had already advised the LCC on architectural and town planning matters. Scott's appointment, and his fee of £4,000, were approved by the Council in December 1934. (fn. 16) The fairly narrow limits of his responsibility are made clear in a letter he wrote to the Clerk:
I shall be able to act as consultant, provided I have not got to prepare a design for the elevation ... I have seen the plans prepared by the L.C.C. Architect's Department, and I think it would be possible for me to modify these and get the necessary drawings prepared by the Architect's Department, so as to save my having to do them.
My supervision will naturally have to extend to the detail drawings, even down to the full size sections of mouldings, but it will be more in the nature of amending than creating.
Scott's duties as President of the RIBA prevented him from assuming more than the usual obligations of a consultant architect; he would not, therefore, be doing as much as he had at Battersea Power Station, where he 'redesigned and detailed the whole of the exterior'. (fn. 17) Subsequently, however, he agreed that he and the Council's Architect were to have joint design responsibility for the exterior of the buildings. As regards planning, Scott's role was that of a consultant only, and he had no responsibility for the construction. (fn. 18)
Within the LCC's Architect's Department the development, planning and designing of the new offices was largely in the hands of Frederick Hiorns (1876–1961), a former senior assistant under Riley who had risen to the rank of assistant architect. Neither Topham Forrest, nor his successor as Architect to the Council in 1935, E. P. Wheeler, appear to have had more than nominal responsibility for the work. (fn. b) Hiorns himself had been in charge of the design and construction of buildings for the Council since 1926, and in evidence to the House of Commons in 1935 he defended the layout and plan of the new offices in a way that clearly indicates him as their author. (fn. 20) Over twenty years later, at the age of eighty-two, Hiorns was to recall the origins of the designs in a letter to the Architects' Journal, intended in part to counter the then prevailing impression that the elevations had been largely the work of Scott:
When the London County Council acquired the York Road Site, I was invited to a small, 'all-party', meeting of three Leaders (with Sir George Gater, the Clerk) and was asked if I would personally undertake the design and carrying-out of an extension building, corresponding in length with the County Hall itself. This I was glad to agree to do ... Later – in the working drawing stage – a confirmatory opinion was obtained from Sir Giles Scott, with some modifications of detail that were valuable. But the general design was not altered. (fn. 21)
This meeting must have taken place sometime between Gater's promotion to Clerk in 1933, and Scott's appointment in December 1934.
At the end of May 1935 a report went before the Establishment Committee which incorporated Scott's main recommendations. These were, firstly, the addition of curved two-storey wings connecting the central and end blocks of the building on the Belvedere Road side and occupying the space which had been provisionally allotted for gardens; secondly, the omission of the open architectural screen or colonnade between the two blocks, and with it the proposed high-level bridge; and, thirdly, the replacement of Hiorns's roof, with its two storeys of attics above the main cornice, by a roof containing only a single storey. (fn. 22) The only one accepted by the Committee was the omission of the screen and high-level bridge. (fn. 23) There is an undated drawing for the screen and the bridge among Scott's papers (Plate 39a) suggesting that he did at least attempt to find a satisfactory treatment for this feature before recommending its total excision. (fn. 24)
Scott also advised that the LCC should take the opportunity provided by the building of the new offices to improve traffic circulation near County Hall:
I fully appreciate that it is important to avoid delay with the new building, but the lay-out of roads in the vicinity is faulty, and future road improvements should not be made impossible by building work being done now...
Westminster Bridge Road is a main thoroughfare, and it is crossed twice within 100 yards by York Road and Belvedere Road, necessitating two traffic policemen and frequent hold-ups. Motor buses are sent on a detour round St. Thomas's Mansions in an attempt to relieve the congestion.
These problems could be solved by turning Belvedere Road into a private road where it passed between County Hall and the new buildings, and by making a 'traffic circus' at the junction of Westminster Bridge and York Roads. (fn. 25) Both suggestions were adopted after the war, the closing of Belvedere Road in 1948, and the traffic roundabout as part of the Island Block development in 1970. (fn. 26)
Acquisition of the Site
The proposed extension covered three-and-three-quarter acres, of which more than half was already in the Council's possession. The National Provincial Bank had agreed to sell their recently acquired site on the corner of Westminster Bridge and York Roads to the LCC on condition that it was allowed to lease back part of the new offices. Thus the Council was able to extend the first phase of building round the south-east corner of the site, as it was unable to do at the corresponding northern end. Under an Act passed in June 1935, the Council obtained compulsory purchase powers, together with authority to stop up parts of Belvedere Road and Guildford Street, and to move Chicheley Street further north. (fn. 27) Some properties were acquired under existing Council powers such as slumclearance and highway-improvement. (fn. 28) The difficulty of obtaining actual possession of all the land immediately was the reason why the scheme could not be completed under a single contract, and was only partially finished at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Final Design
The Council approved the scheme in July 1935, although the elevations had still to be finalized. The Establishment Committee reported only that they would be 'on generally plain lines expressed in Portland stone with a red tiled roof'. (fn. 29) A detailed adjustable model was, however, available showing not only the recommended scheme but also Scott's preferred version, which included features already rejected by the Committee, chiefly the curved quadrant wings (Plate 39b). (fn. 30)
The new offices were planned as eight-storey blocks, two floors being fitted into the mansard behind a parapet, with additionally one basement floor for dry storage. At fourteen feet the ground storey was rather higher than the others in order to accommodate the Bank and retail uses. The internal planning, which dispensed with light-wells, was 'double-banked', that is, the offices were arranged on both sides of a central corridor (fig. 49). (fn. 31) Hiorns had recommended this arrangement as providing the 'maximum of effective office area for the minimum of occupied land' while ensuring the 'maximum amenity outlook and access of sunshine' that seemed possible in the circumstances. (fn. 32)
In December 1935 the working drawings for the superstructure were sent to Scott, who had been making sketches for the elevations in November and now suggested improvements. (fn. 33) Scott's principal modification to the design was to repeat the grand architectural order of the two pavilions at the return ends of the two blocks, which faced each other along Belvedere Road, on the two central pavilions flanking the new entrance from York Road. Scott not only repeated this element but, as the Architect's Report said, wished to add further modifications 'to this now monumentally embellished ensemble ... i.e., one-storey projecting pavilions, breaks, rusticated corners and applied pylon motifs at the 6th floor corner returns'. (fn. 34) He also suggested replacing the two-storey curved wings which had already been rejected by the Council with one-storey wings of identical form. Since the Committee had objected to two-storey wings on the grounds of expense and obstruction of the space needed for access to an underground car park, Hiorns advised against the single-storey wings. This apart, he recommended approval of the drawings as modified by Scott. As working drawings progressed throughout the following year, Scott continued to make suggestions. All concerned matters of detail, and chiefly involved tinkerings of the sort which many architects of 'refined classicism' at that time found difficult to resist. (fn. c) The changes to the elevational treatment were finally approved by the Council in July 1936. (fn. 36)
Because of the uncertainties over the site, the original construction contract was only for the central portion of the new offices either side of the new entrance from York Road – northwards as far as the old line of Chicheley Street, southwards up to and including the corner with Westminster Bridge Road (see fig. 50). The building programme was split into three contracts, in a similar way to the original County Hall programme. Foundations, steel framing and superstructure were designed separately to allow work to start while the details of the elevations were still under consideration by the architects. The contract was nominally under the direction of the Council's Architect, E. P. Wheeler, but in recognition of Hiorns's role in developing the plan and the design he was named as the 'associated architect'. Engineering work was handled by the Council's Chief Engineer, T. Peirson Frank, two assistants in his department, H. Firth and F. M. Fuller, being apparently responsible for design work on the foundations. (fn. 37)
The foundations were begun in the spring of 1936 and the superstructure in the summer of 1937. Both were built by Higgs & Hill and cost £31,600 and £436,000 respectively. The steel frame, which cost £46,500, was executed by Redpath Brown. (fn. 38) The external walls were faced with Portland stone, above a granite plinth, and the roofs covered with reddish Italian tiles – the same combination of materials as Knott had used. Some of the granite salvaged from old Waterloo Bridge was incorporated in the piers of the triple-arched bridge connecting the two blocks – a sentimental gesture in no way compensating for the Council's controversial demolition of Rennie's masterpiece.
The new offices were 'completed' in 1939, being occupied during the course of the year, but an opening ceremony planned for July, seems to have been abandoned. (fn. 39) The final costs were £287,113 for the acquisition of land, and for buildings £537,176. An additional and grim extra was £18,348, spent on wartime provisions, such as blackout and the equipment of air raid shelters for the whole County Hall complex. (fn. 40)
Architectural Description and Comment
The LCC's own opinion of its new offices is revealed in the text of a press release drafted in September 1938. The buildings had been designed to accord harmoniously with Knott's work, but no attempt had been made to copy it. While 'generally following tradition', the new offices had 'a definitely modern flavour'. (fn. 41) To Nikolaus Pevsner, writing in 1952, they showed the 'typical later approach of the epigones of Edwardian Imperial glories: no change of heart, but under a willy-nilly influence of the coming Modern Movement a reduction in moulding and ornaments, and a more straightforward emphasis on verticals and horizontals' (Plates 40–41). (fn. 42)
The 1938 press release drew attention to certain points of interest in the design:
The offices and communication corridors are treated internally with extreme severity, but an attempt is made to give a special character and interest to the vestibules of the various entrances, the external doors of which latter will be of bronze. These and other features, where decorative treatment is involved, are intended to show the high quality still possible in the traditional handicrafts of this country. (fn. 43)
This is not just lip service to the ideals of Swinton and other early Members: the suave yet severely detailed entrance vestibules still look well after half a century of use (Plate 41c, d). Very characteristic of the period are the 'moderne' staircase balustrades and the light-fittings, the decorative plasterwork of the ceilings, and the treatment of the walls, which are lined with travertine marble and Ancaster stone in light and dark shades of brown. The floors are paved in 'Perrycot' Portland stone. Each vestibule has two stone panels carved in low relief by J. B. Spiro with Thames-side scenes and some rather sinister birds (Plate 41b).
Externally the decoration was concentrated on the two pavilions facing Knott's building and around the entrances. Scott was particularly concerned with the detailing of the pavilions and it was he who designed the large ornamental bronze windows with their elaborate swan-neck pediment feature (Plate 39c). These, together with the bronze doorways in York Road (Plate 41a), and the heavy curved boundary railings on the west side of the building, were made by J. Starkie Gardner Limited. E. J. and A. T. Bradford and F. P. Morton carved the four stone panels set in the single-storey projections at the base of the pavilions. These show heraldic devices and various wide-ranging allusions to London and the Empire, and to the work of the Council (Plate 40b, c).
Another sculptor, A. J. Oakley, designed and carved the capitals of leaping fish for the ten free-standing columns of Portland stone which guard the entrances from York Road. The columns are fourteen feet high and carry bronze lanterns (Plates 40a, d, 41a).
The axis of the layout was originally emphasized by a Portland stone plinth and a flagstaff in the centre of the courtyard. The upper surface of the plinth was fitted with floodlighting for ceremonial occasions (Plate 39d). (fn. 44) Both the plinth and the island on which it stood were demolished as part of a post-war 'traffic rationalization'. (fn. 45)
In 1966 Pevsner's unfavourable view of the HiornsScott buildings was echoed by Ian Nairn, who dismissed them as 'fawning, curry-favour extensions'. (fn. 46) Nearly a quarter of a century later, however, their cool neo-Georgian classicism and architectural good manners are held in somewhat higher esteem. The central portion of the building, with its imposing and carefully detailed pavilions, is a handsome composition, but the necessary symmetry of the ensemble has been seriously compromised by the LCC's unfortunate post-war decision not to complete the buildings in accordance with the original Hiorns-Scott designs. Under recent proposals for the development of County Hall (see pages 121–2) these buildings would not survive.