Reach for the Skies (55 Broadway, London, UK)

Imagine a city without skyscrapers, where a tall building is one with six floors. That was London in the early 20th Century, a gently undulating roofscape of low buildings, rising and falling across streets, with a swell over London’s almost forgotten hills. The only things breaking the horizon would have been the spires of London’s many churches, the chimneys of its factories, Tower Bridge, the Great Fire of London Monument, and the masts of ships on the river. Nothing, in other words, of any bulk.

In 1929, the cityscape was to change forever, because London gained its first skyscraper, all 10 storeys of it plus a clock tower on top. 55 Broadway was the forward edge of an architectural invasion which would change the city forever. The Shard, the Swiss Re building, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie; all are descendants of this illustrious prototype. For conservationists, London has never been the same since, iconic views being lost behind ever taller buildings. For planners and architects, it marked a new stage in the potential for landmark buildings and ever greater urban densification.

And it’s all thanks to public transport.

55 Broadway in 2009. Photo by PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
55 Broadway in 2009. Photo by PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You can find London’s first skyscraper directly above St James’s Park Underground station on what is now the District and Circle Lines. That’s no coincidence. The site above the station had been used by the Metropolitan District Railway for its offices since 1898.

The Metropolitan District’s offices eventually passed into the hands of Underground Electric Railways Company of London Ltd (UERL), the forerunner of today’s London Underground. Desperate for more space for his growing company, UERL’s vice-chairman Frank Pick commissioned the architect with whom he would go on to be inextricably linked, Charles Holden, to design the new offices.

The site above St James’s Park station is thoroughly awkward, an irregular polygon that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a grand building. Pick, a man for whom good design and good business practice were two sides of the same coin (a lesson that keeps being forgotten and then painfully re-learnt by transport operators to this day), wanted offices that would function well, with flexible internal layouts, and good levels of light for the workers within. I’m sure he didn’t spell it out as such, but the thinking is obvious. Staff in an office which is bright and easy to work in, will be more productive, and the business will benefit.

Holden’s solution was elegant and brilliant. He built 55 Broadway on a plan in which two axes bisect the site. The ground floor, and the floor of offices immediately above take up the entire plot, bar a corner which is occupied by 100 Petty France.  From the second floor upwards though, 55 Broadway’s structure is cruciform, its four wings stretching out to the edge of the plot. It’s a much less bulky approach than a building with its walls around the edge of the site and a lightwell in the middle. It’s been aptly described as a “friendly giant” (Glancey, 1999: p46). The four wings are linked by arches at the seventh storey, to buttress them against high winds, but the arches are also a dramatic detail that hints at what Holden might have done if he had ever designed a cathedral.

55 Broadway’s wings reach to the 10th storey, 80ft above the ground, the maximum allowed by the 1894 Building Act which regulated buildings at the time and which kept the 10th storey and the tower unoccupied (Taylor, 2001: p202). The clock tower in the middle is taller, but the Act’s restrictions were waived because it was in the centre of the building and not blocking light to the surrounding buildings. The face of the clock is, naturally, contained within a London Underground roundel.

The offices in the four wings all get plenty of light from the windows on either side. The first floor (second storey) offices have skylights to bring light to workers who are further away from windows than those in the narrower wings of the floors above.

The building steps back at the eighth and 10th storeys, with gardens on the roofs of the 10th storey, over the offices below. It’s an extremely civilised touch. Although Holden was effectively inventing the London skyscraper, sadly this aspect of 55 Broadway’s design wasn’t copied in later skyscrapers in the city. At the very top of the core of the building the clock tower features Classical porticoes, contrasting with the Modernist leanings of the building’s overall shape. 55 Broadway is a building on the cusp of the two styles. It is contemporaneous with Holden’s stations on the Northern Line extension to Morden, which featured similar Classical touches, and like 55 Broadway are faced with Portland Stone. His later works would be more starkly Modernist, using brick and raw concrete rather than Portland Stone as a finish.

55 Broadway is also notable for its public art. Holden commissioned various artists to provide sculptures for the outside of the building. Above the seventh storey, the four wings are decorated with sculptures of the four winds (those same winds the wings are braced against) by artists including Henry Moore and Eric Gill (he of Gill Sans fame). Above the south-east and north-east entrances two more sculptures, Night and Day by Jacob Epstein, did not meet with universal enthusiasm when completed.

Day by Jacob Epstein, on the exterior of 55 Broadway. Photo by Chris Sampson (ST JAMES PARK-11 240710 CPS) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Day by Jacob Epstein, on the exterior of 55 Broadway. Photo by Chris Sampson (ST JAMES PARK-11 240710 CPS) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The most particular offender in this regard was Day. It scandalised public opinion by including the portrayal a naked boy with his penis showing. Pick offered his resignation over the matter (the Board of UERL rejected it) and Epstein eventually agreed to lop half an inch or so (sources disagree on exactly how much) off the offending member, a ludicrous alteration that didn’t materially change what the objectors claimed they were objecting to. However, it seemed to satisfy them. It turned out that in their minds, size really did matter after all.

While all that was going on, the architectural community were also arguing over the sculptures, although in their case it was because they were trying to decide whether public buildings should be a canvas for art, or whether they were artworks in their own right, not needing additional decoration (Glancey, 1999: p46).

One of the lobbies at 55 Broadway, with splendid period details. Note in particular the wooden doors with bronze fittings, and the decorative coving. Photo by Hornet Arts [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
One of the lobbies at 55 Broadway, with splendid period details. Note in particular the Travertine marble wall and floor finish, wooden doors with bronze fittings, and the decorative coving. Photo by Hornet Arts [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

Within 55 Broadway stairs and lifts runs up through the centre of the building, with lobbies on each floor finished in Travertine marble and featuring a ceiling-mounted clock and marble drinking fountain. The main staircase has a bronze handrail with Egyptian-style floral balusters.

55 Broadway's main staircase at ground level. The building has opened to the public on London Open House weekends, and as you can see is much admired. Photo by zoer [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
55 Broadway’s main staircase at ground level. The building has opened to the public on London Open House weekends, and as you can see is much admired. Photo by zoer [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

The offices themselves are plainer, meeting Pick’s desire for flexible accommodation by allowing them to be arranged and rearranged as circumstances required, without extraneous details getting in the way. Throughout the interior of the building glazed walnut doors and bronze fittings abound. Signage in the building is in the rare serif version of the Underground’s Johnston typeface. On the seventh floor (eighth storey), the boardrooms and connecting corridor are walnut-panelled.

At ground level, 55 Broadway is effectively a public building. Holden designed three Travertine-clad arcades full of shops. The arcades run along natural pedestrian desire lines, allowing walkers to take shortcuts on their routes, and providing the arcades’ shops with significant numbers of passing potential customers. The arcades survive remarkably unaltered, albeit slightly rearranged around the entrance to London Underground’s offices, which is also on the ground floor. Ornamental ventilation grilles, coffered ceilings and wall clocks with a sunburst background ensure the arcades retain their original character, while modern fittings have been designed to look original.

Both 55 Broadway and the Underground station beneath are now Grade I listed, a designation reserved for internationally important buildings. To this day, and because of the presence of the head offices above, St James’s Park Underground station has been impeccably maintained.

It might well have been London’s first skyscraper, but it’s perhaps worth remembering that in the same year 55 Broadway was completed, New York saw several skyscrapers built, all in the region of 40 storeys tall. It’s down to a combination of better ground conditions (New York is built on solid rock, London on a mish-mash of soggy clays and sand patches) and a rather less conservative approach to urban development in America.

It’s entirely apt that 55 Broadway was commissioned to house the offices of London’s biggest public transport network. As New York had already found, and other cities were also to discover, public transport is essential for importing the numbers of people who work in skyscraper offices. Car transport just won’t do; it’s too inefficient in its use of space. You need trains and buses packed full of passengers yet taking up minimal amounts of room.

55 Broadway was built because a public transport operator needed office space. It and its brethren exist only because that same public transport network is the only thing can effectively serve them.

Now, it finds itself at a crossroads. Having eventually passed to London Transport and then Transport for London, 55 Broadway’s involvement in the moving of London looks set to end. London Underground will vacate the building and Transport for London intends to redevelop the building for housing. “The building’s arrangement and listing do not allow the flexible, modern office space that we require,” it says.

I have some degree of sympathy. I used to work in a Victorian county hall and although visitors to used to tell me how lucky I was to work in such a lovely old building, the truth is it was completely unsuited to modern office requirements; freezing in winter, boiling in summer, insufficient power sockets, wires snaking all over the place, diffident plumbing, draughts that couldn’t be plugged or indeed sourced half the time, and the occasional asbestos scare. I would have given anything to work in the sort of modern office building London Underground will move into.

Others want London Underground to stay just where it is, though. The Twentieth Century Society says 55 Broadway’s best use would be to continue as London Underground’s headquarters, and is strongly critical of the plans to convert the building to residential use, which include extensions to the 10th floor, building over the rooftop gardens. It says the proposals are “overly insensitive and a hugely unsympathetic intervention”. TfL counters that the planned conversion, “…respects and enhances the iconic features of the building and improves its position within the local urban environment.”

The proposed residential redevelopment of 55 Broadway promises to retain original fittings, so hopefully this gorgeous bronze lift indicator panel will survive. Photo by Phil Beard [cc BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The proposed residential redevelopment of 55 Broadway promises to retain original fittings, so hopefully this gorgeous bronze lift indicator panel will survive. Photo by Phil Beard [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

It looks like TfL will get its way, because in June this year, the plans were approved by local planning authority Westminster City Council. 55 Broadway has served London Underground for 86 years. Before long, it will simply be served by London Underground.

How to find 55 Broadway

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

Bibliography and further reading

Glancey, Jonathan (1999): Twentieth Century Architecture. Carlton Books: London

Green, Oliver (2013): Frank Pick’s London. V&A Publishing: London

Ovenden, Mark (2013): London Underground by Design. Penguin Books: London

Taylor, Sheila [Editor] (2001): Moving Metropolis, The. Laurence King Publishing: London

Transport for London Corporate Archives Research Guide No 8: 55 Broadway, via TfL’s website, here

TfL’s Broadway redevelopment briefing webpages, here

Twentieth Century Society news story on 55 Broadway redevelopment, 1 May 2015, here

Historic England listing record for 55 Broadway and St James’s Park Underground Station, here

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