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How A Carbuncle Became A Landmark

What is arguably London's first modern skyscraper has had its heritage listing upgraded from Grade 2 to Grade 1 reflecting the importance of the building, both architecturally and historically. It wasn't always so however...

55 Broadway, a sprawling Art Deco building that sits above St James tube was designed by Charles Holden of Adams, Holden & Pearson, in 1926 and completed in 1929 after he won the commission from his friend, Frank Pick, who was the joint managing director of London Transport.

The scheme is clad in London Portland stone, a popular building material during that period, and has its four wings step back first of all on the eighth floor, and then again on the tenth floor creating a collection of terraces for staff.

The cruciform drew from similarly designed offices in New York and Chicago that were able to have huge floorplates for the day accessible from a central core with good penetration of natural daylight rather than deep planned office spaces. The top occupiable floor on level 10 is a suite for management to enjoy

At the time, building above a certain height was prohibited in London. Holden came up with a sneaky way to circumvent this height limit by having a series of floors of the central tower raise break it, whilst having the area work as the archive for the London Underground. Fire regulations only prevented from building this high if the building was occupiable, for example as offices or residential accommodation, but not if it was given over to more sparsely inhabited uses.

Holden later pulled this trick off again eight years later with Senate House which has the library located on its upper levels, whilst Milton Cashmore broke the height limit with Shell Mex house by having a huge clock on the top of it. 55 Broadway though was the most controversial of these due to its height and proximity to St James Park with complaints of it intruding in views.

Of importance is the fact that Holden designed and integrated it into a retail arcade with an underground station directly under it with Art Deco touches throughout. This makes it the first such building ever designed in the world and something that is commonplace today.

This wasn't the only controversy that the building ran into. 55 Broadway is also notable for having some of the best public sculpture of its era with seminal works by Jacob Epstein dubbed "Night" and "Day" that at the time outraged polite society, and led to a failed press campaign to get them removed thanks to their nudity. The end result was that Day eventually had a couple of inches shaved off its genitalia.

Elsewhere on the upper levels of 55 Broadway are a series of sculptures inspired by wind that are the works of amongst others, Eric Gill and Henry Moore.

If there is anything to be learned from the saga, and the fact that London got an outstanding Art Deco structure rivaling anything in North America despite howls of protest from conservative critics it is perhaps that with enough time and distance from the construction, even the most controversial of carbuncles can become loved and historically important. The question is which of today's skyscrapers will also have this role in eighty years time?

Article Related buildings:

55 Broadway

55 Broadway
Senate House

Senate House
Shell Mex House

Shell Mex House
55 Broadway, London
55 Broadway, London