Give my regards to 55, Broadway.

Posted by admin | April 6, 2008 0

Art Deco flourished through the 20s and 30s, popularised by the Paris Exhibition of 1925 and was applied to all forms including architecture. Influences included Cubism (with zigzags and geometricals), Ancient Egypt (following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter and Lord Carnaervon in 1922) and Aztec & Mayan art (from South America and Mexico). It was a machine age style which utilised the innovations of the times such as plastics, chrome and aluminium. At a time of economic depression and the approach of war there was a desire for escapism. People enjoyed the pleasures of life during the ‘Jazz Age’. Speed and streamlining became important especially in the new modes of travel such as the first commercial flights, trains such as the Orient Express and ocean-going liners. It was also a very appropriate style to apply to a transport undertaking such as the London Underground looking to develop a house style and image from the amalgam of private operations which had constructed the original Tube.

There was a fortunate meeting in the 20’s and 30’s in London of a British Arts and Crafts revival, talented immigrants from Eastern Europe and Germany and corporate sponsors of posters, art and design such as the GPO, Shell Oil and last but no means least, London Transport.

55 Broadway – Original Ground Floor layout
55 Broadway – New reception area
Foundation Stone


Charles Holden 1875 – 1960
A leaflet from the Black Country firm of

Rubery, Owen and Co. who did the steelworks.

The photo shows the construction method –

A structural Steel Frame with Portland Stone cladding

When it was completed in 1929, The London Underground’s new headquarters, named after its postal address of 55, Broadway, was London’s tallest office block. A skyscraper of its day, it is now dwarfed by almost every major office building in the city. But that doesn’t stop it from appearing monumental. Inside it houses the headquarters of London Underground, St. James’s Park Station and the small Broadway shopping arcade.

In the 20s and 30s London Transport owed much of its corporate design to Frank Pick especially in his employment of Charles Holden as architect from 1924. In 1931 they went on a tour of Scandanavia and the Netherlands which gave them some inspiration. On his return Holden worked on the Piccadilly line designing stations such as Osterley and Southgate, many occupying corner sites. The distinctive house style was applied to all new stations built in the 1930s including those designed by other architects. The influences from Pick and Holden’s European tour are clearly seen in many station buildings with, for instance, the “totem” on Osterley Station on the Piccadilly Line echoing the “Telegraaf” Amsterdam by Staal and Langhout.

55 Broadway shopping mall

First use of cruciform plan for a London office building
1929 – The tallest office building in London

In 1926 The Underground Group commissioned 55 Broadway, over St James’s Park station, as its new headquarters. It was to replace Electric Railway House, whose offices were too cramped for the growing organisation. The headquarters was to symbolise the company’s vision of public transport being at the heart of London’s social and commercial life. Frank Pick, assistant managing director of the Underground Group, commissioned the architect Charles Holden of the firm Adams Holden and Pearson to design the building. On its completion in 1929, 55 Broadway was the tallest office building in London on one side overlooking the Houses of Parliament and on the other side overlooking Buckingham Palace. The Directors had a clear idea of their place in the world! However, building restrictions prevented the floors above the seventh being used as offices. The modern and assertive design was considered an architectural masterpiece with the cruciform layout enabling natural light and ventilation throughout. It was awarded the London Architectural Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929.

A typing pool on 4th Floor East Wing showing the open plan offices
Monument on the Ground Floor
staircase lobby to Lord Ashfield,
founder of London Transport

The Underground Group’s desire to make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the ideals of the company had been realised. The obsession with clear design and image was continued through to Harry Beck’s famous schematic map, commissioning its own “machine typeface” to make its posters, signage and publications clearer, building instantly recognisable branded station buildings and station fittings and using engaging and innovative advertising in the 30’s. Today London Underground’s trademark roundel is the second most recognised brand worldwide.

Electro Magnetic train frequency “Clocks” in Reception
Holden design sketch for the imposing interior

Holden commissioned some of the most famous sculptors of the day to carve large figurative reliefs, depicting the four winds, directly onto the stonework. These are high up each side of the four wings. The sculptors were Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Aumonier, Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan Wyon and Alfred Gerrard. Holden commissioned Jacob Epstein to create two groups over the entrance fronts called “Day” and “Night”. Their primitive, vital style and the figures’ nudity created a furore. Both Pick and Holden stood by the sculptor, Pick even tendering his resignation in support of Epstein. His resignation was not accepted and the sculptures stayed. However an inch and a half had to be removed from the penis of the figure in ‘Day’, as the original size offended contemporary sensibilities. Epstein’s sculptures were not universally slated. One contemporary commentator wrote, “When one looks at them one hardly likes them, but they make such a powerful impression on the mind that when one has left the building they stand out in the memory and seem vividly to symbolise their subjects”. The same commentator went on to say “one would be happier if all buildings were as good as this.”

Staircase to First Floor
Henry Moore “West Wind”

The other sculptures on the building are also worthy of mention. Eric Gill was put in charge of “The Winds” which adorn the higher walls of the building. He created three himself, the others were by contemporary artists including Henry Moore, whose “West Wind” was his first public commission, and can be seen on the north side of the east wing.

Jacob Epstein “Day”

“Buildings of Britain” by Nicholas Pevsner and Bridget Cherry, 1973. noted;

“Broadway architecturally means No.55, the headquarters building of LONDON TRANSPORT, by Charles Holden, 1927-9, a bold building for London and its date, even if in some ways still keeping a retreat open to the broad Georgian road. The composition in blocks and their stepping back high up in is entirely of the 20th Century. Functionally it is ingenious. The building had to combine the necessities of an underground station with a large number of offices. So a large part of the area is one storeyed. The centre tower is 175 feet high, containing lifts, staircases, lavatories etc. It has a square, gradually diminishing top. From the tower extend four spurs. What there is of sculptural decoration is of extreme interest, two large groups by Epstein, ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ (East side of North and South wings). E. Aumonier (West and North Wing), A.Wyon (West and North Wing), A. H. Garrard (West Side, South Wing), and F. Rabinovitch (South Side, East Wing). They are considered revolutionary at the time, and Dr Holden had to use all his persuasion to have them accepted. Architectural detail is curiously undecided. The ground floor has granite columns; they are circular piers rather than columns, it is true, and have plain blocks as capitals, but they appear as columns all the same. The windows are upright and have glazing bars reminiscent of Georgian sash window, and the spurs are connected by diagonal arches high up and close to the junction of the tower.”

1st Floor Central Lobby and entrance to East Wing –
The texture of the Travertine Marble was to give
the impression of movement

55, Broadway has also been a direct contributor the design of clear modern typefaces. A sans-serif typeface was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the London Electric Railway Company (also known as “The Underground Group”), as part of his plan to strengthen the company’s corporate identity. In 1933, The Underground Group become a major part of London Transport and the typeface was adopted for the complete network.

Edward Johnston’s machine typeface commissioned for the
Boardroom 7th Floor
The listed oak lined corridor on the 7th Floor
leading to the Boardroom and Chairman’s office

The font family was originally called “Underground”, it became known as “Johnston’s Railway Type”, and later simply “Johnston”. It comes with 2 weights, Heavy and Ordinary. Heavy contains only capital letters. Johnston’s former student Eric Gill also worked on the development of the typeface and the design was later to influence his Gill Sans typeface, produced 1928–1932. Frank Pick later commissioned Percy Delf Smith (another former pupil) to draw up a ‘petit-serif’ adaptation of the typeface, originally for the headquarters building at 55 Broadway, SW1.

55, Broadway was a pioneering building in a number of ways. It very cleverly uses an irregular shaped site by using a cruciform plan with the arms being different lengths but giving a visually symmetrical appearance when seen on its corner elevation from Toothill Street. By using a cruciform arrangement (Which Holden and other architects were using for hospitals, such as St. Luke’s in Malta, which he designed) the light wells were brought out from the centre of the building to make maximum use of available light with lifts and services placed centrally, reducing corridor lengths. Following American practice, offices were open plan, permitting the spread of light and making their layout easy to alter.

The American Cutler mail handling system which
delivered letters directly to the basement mail room

There were other innovations such as a central mail handling system whereby it could be “posted” on each floor and go directly down a chute to the mailroom in the basement. The plan also allowed natural ventilation throughout so the building does not need energy greedy aircon to this day.

Former Chairman’s Office – 7th Floor

Despite its Portland Stone appearance the construction was entirely modern utilising a structural steel frame so the stone cladding is just that. It was built on 700 piles on airspace above St James Park Station and is the prototype for the many similar developments throughout London built over the “cut and cover” sections of the Underground which to this day make a substantial contribution to improving the railway. In one pile was placed a “time capsule” with notes about the building and the Underground and containing photographs of the site, a railway car and a bus. The building was set back above the seventh, ninth and tenth floors in line with the London Building Acts requirements. These helped to delineate the hierarchy with the Directors offices on the 7th Floor where the East Wing still contains the original oak clad boardroom and Chairman’s offices whose interiors are listed.

In the 1980s the ground floor of the building was redesigned to create a new, improved reception area and a shopping mall. 55 Broadway is now a Grade II listed building.

10th Floor restaurant – Originally
the Director’s Dining Room

One of the four 10th Floor Roof Gardens

The builders of 55, Broadway saw good design as good for business. By the example it set under Frank Pick the Underground was gradually able to change the public’s attitude to railway stations which had been seen as shabby and inhospitable places. Sir Nicholas Pevsner wrote that Pick saw in every detail a “visual propaganda” and he used this not only to improve the Underground but the environment as a whole. Charles Holden brought the Underground station to the forefront of modern architecture: This achievement is unequalled by any other transport company before or since.

St. James Park Station entrance

The apex of his achievement for the Underground and the building which proclaims its sense of purpose and commitment to the people of London is 55, Broadway. As the Blitz and the 2005 London Tube bombings more recently have shown this is not any ordinary transport undertaking but a publicly owned company synonymous with a public duty to the city where it runs the world’s largest metro system. With property values in London becoming more unreal due to Non Doms. and the like, no doubt some wide boys (Generally called “consultants” or “rising stars”) will look at the possibility of asset stripping this unique listed building and creating a “new culture” in some god forsaken rented cubicle factory. No doubt this will promote co-operative working by having an atrium with some poor imitation of a Calder mobile representing a tube train and a statue of an ordinary tube worker looking up at it saying “this costs a fortune and we’ll never own it!” The same wide boy asset strippers would never think it is sensible to sell their own house and move into a trailer park.

Nope, the Underground doesn’t need this ersatz corporate culture for it has a real mission of a World Class Tube for a World Class City. And in 55, Broadway it has the real deal, an award winning, iconic, paid for, fit for purpose building over a tube station whose purpose and intent is captured on the poster issued when it opened “London’s Underground – Always at Your Service.”

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Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove Station on the Piccadilly Line
Extension illustrating how the Underground embraced Art Deco and Moderne to revolutionise railway architecture

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