Fire! Fire!

WALKING ALONG THE ALBERT Embankment upstream from Lambeth Bridge, most people’s eyes will probably be focussed on the River Thames and the lovely views of the Houses of Parliament, Millbank Tower, and the Tate Britain. However, it is worth turning your eyes inland in order not to miss a wonderful example of, in my uninformed opinion, art-deco or, if you are fussy about distinctions, art-moderne architecture, whose decorative façade faces the river. Just in case you were wondering how these styles of architecture from the same time period differ, deco lays emphasis on ‘verticality’ and moderne on ‘horizontality’ (http://theantiquesalmanac.com/chicvssleek.htm). Important as this distinction might be to connoisseurs, the building on Albert Embankment is worth at least a few minutes’ examination.

The building in question is the former London Fire Brigade Headquarters, still a functioning fire station. The structure is built of bands of bricks separated by thin horizontal lines of white stone that form the top and bottom frames of the lines of windows, each consisting of lattices of rectangular windowpanes which are wider than they are tall. These design features help define the building’s horizontal sleekness, which is why it is considered by at least one authority (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1392337)  to be ‘moderne’ rather than ‘deco’.  However, it was not this that first attracted us to the building but its decorative panels at various levels and dramatic doorways at ground level.

The doorways, which are wide enough to admit the passage of vehicles are closed with sets of folding doors, consisting of four panels, each of which has a brass window covering (grille) with a geometric design. Some of the building’s decorative panels depict firefighters at work. These are in bas-relief and made of a white coloured stone. These were made by Nicholas Babb (probably Stanley Nicholson Babb; 1873-1957). Other panels, at a higher level, adorn the central section of the façade. These are also bas-relief in white stone but  have backgrounds formed of gold coloured mosaic tiles.  Created by Gilbert Bayes (1872-1953), who studied alongside Babb at the Royal Academy, their subject matter is borrowed from ancient mythology.

The building itself was designed by EP Wheeler, architect to the London County Council. He was assisted by G Weald. Wheeler also designed the ‘horizontalist’ building on Charing Cross Road in 1939, which was the former home of St Martins School of Art (www.designcurial.com/news/foyles-war-4354398), where my mother worked as a sculptor during the 1960s. The Fire Brigade building was opened by King George VI and his wife on the 21st of July 1937, not a moment too soon, given what was in store for London soon afterwards: the WW2 Blitz, which put great strain on the Fire Brigade.

To the left of the façade, there is a yard in which stands a tall brick tower. This is the so-called ‘drill tower’, used for training firefighters. The building, in addition to having been the Brigade’s headquarters, was also a training centre. The rear of the building, which I have not yet seen, has three layers of balconies, from which members of the public used to be able to observe parades and displays of firefighting skills. Today, the edifice is still used as a fire station but not as the HQ of the Brigade, which is now in Union Street, Southwark.

I enjoy seeing art-deco (and ‘moderne’) architecture. While there are plenty of examples of this in London, which you can spot if you keep your ‘eyes peeled’, the greatest concentration of this style of building that I have seen is in central Bombay in India. Both the Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan in south Bombay are treasure troves for lovers of this style. So, as a lover of this style that broke away from traditional architectural styles in the 1920s and 1930s, I was delighted to have stumbled across the wonderful Brigade building on the Albert Embankment.           

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