Spin me Right Round (Red Hill filling station, Leicestershire, UK)

In March 2012, at the same time as the filling station at Markham Moor was given official protection, English Heritage (the official body which lists and protects significant buildings in England) listed another filling station, this one on the A6 Loughborough Road at Red Hill, Leicestershire.

Red Hill filling station is the spiritual twin of the one at Markham Moor. Though it looks completely different, it shares with the other the belief that such facilities can enhance the built environment and the human experience of those using them. Today’s preferred design for filling stations tends to comprise of depressing  slab-like canopies of no aesthetic merit whatsoever, lit at night by harsh orange downlights. Red Hill filling station proves it is quite possible to design something as effective as a big rectangular canopy, which also looks attractive. Why the idea of attractive filling stations should be so out of favour at the moment I have no idea, except for the fact that it is becoming disturbingly common for new transport infrastructure to be plain and uninspiring at best, soulless and actively depressing at worst, especially when delivered away from obvious “flagship” schemes. But still, put a smile on your face with this:

Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)
Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)

Red Hill filling station’s canopy comprises six overlapping circular parasols, each supported by a single slender column, which also deals with the rainwater collection and drainage. Each of the six steel-framed parasols is clad with 28 segments, meeting at a ring in the middle, which forms the junction between parasol and column. The plain edge of the parasols allows for the application of branding for the petrol company which runs the filling station, in this case BP’s corporate green with yellow highlights.

Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)
Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)

Near the top of the columns are pairs of rectangular boxes which house uplighters:

Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)
Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)

These illuminate the underside of the canopy at night, and create a diffuse light for users of the pumps (there is a super photo of the filling station at night, here, in which the parasols look like UFOs hovering over the forecourt). Unfortunately, some ugly non-original downlighters have been clumsily added, their wiring tacked on to the columns, to provide some typical filling station harsh lighting (come on, we can do better than this…).

I should probably note here that English Heritage’s listing record for Red Hill filling station is keen to point out that the listing applies only to the canopy and its supports, not to the pumps underneath or the forecourt building.

The canopy was designed by American Eliot Noyes (1910-1977). Having encountered Modernist pioneer Le Corbusier (1887-1965) when studying architecture at Harvard, Noyes became a committed modernist architect as well as a corporate identity designer. Soon after graduating, he became the director of industrial design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He later worked on product design and corporate identity at IBM, and was commissioned by oil company Mobil in the mid 1960s to design an all-new corporate identity. The key element of that new corporate identity was the circular parasol canopies at its filling stations. They were modular, so could be put together in whatever configuration suited a site, and could go as small as a single parasol for small sites. While Mobil was the operator of Red Hill filling station at the time the parasols were installed, it has changed hands several times since then. When it was listed by English Heritage it was operated by Esso (as you can see on the photo included in the press release marking the event), and subsequently BP has become its operator, with its green branding rather suiting the design.

Many sources suggest that Noyes was inspired by Arne Jacobsen’s 1937 design for a filling station at Skovshoved in Denmark. See what you think:

By Christian Lylloff (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Skovshoved filling station, Denmark. Designed in 1937 by Arne Jacobsen (1902-1971). By Christian Lylloff (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s lovely, and some of the details are arguably more delicate than Noyes’ canopies. But Noyes’ particular genius was to produce a similar aesthetic which could be easily and affordably manufactured for replication and installation across a multitude of sites, all over the world.

Skovshoved filling station is described as Functionalist, with Noyes generally regarded as a Modernist, but also sometimes as a Functional Modernist. So Functional Modernist seems a good classification for the Red Hill filling station canopy, as it is both functional and modern, drawing its beauty from form rather than adornment.

As far as anyone seems to know, this is the only remaining Noyes parasol canopy in the UK (English Heritage does hedge its bets slightly by saying it is “thought to be”). This rarity, along with its inherent quality and its intact survival, is why it has been listed at Grade II. Here’s a final view of the parasols doing what parasols do best, casting a bit of shade on a hot summer’s day:

Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)
Red Hill filling station, August 2013. ©Paul Wright (reproduced with permission)

Noyes’ parasol canopies are a vision of the future, as conceived of in the 1960s. Red Hill filling station is one of those select few buildings, along with such worthies as Markham Moor filling station, the terminal building at Glasgow Renfrew Airport, and the TWA Flight Center, that conveys the feeling that a fantastic future has arrived, and that you are a lucky part of it. Passenger Transport Magazine’s Andrew Garnett (if you’ll forgive the name-dropping) once memorably described Renfrew Airport terminal as a building which is, “saying, ‘You’re not actually jumping on a BEA Vanguard for a quick hop down to London Airport, you’re actually boarding Tintin’s atomic space ship to the moon.'” Quite so. And Red Hill filling station is where you’d fill up Tintin’s atomic space ship, and buy a space food sachet for the journey, if only atomic space ships ran on petrol or diesel, rather than uranium.

How to find Red Hill filling station

References

English Heritage’s listing record for Red Hill, here

English Heritage press release covering the listing of Red Hill and Markham Moor filling stations, here

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