Daily Express, London
Fleet Street, London EC4
Sir Owen Williams
1929 - 1931
photo Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc
This, one of the first examples of 'glass box' architecture in Britain, was also one of three similar buildings Owen William's worked on for Beaverbrook Associated Newspapers — preceding those in Manchester and Glasgow. Originally designed by architects H.O. Ellis & Clarke, who continued to be retained by the client, the scheme that was built was a Williams redesign.
Ellis & Clarke had proposed a steel frame building, in a stripped-back classically proportioned style, clad in Portland stone. This the client accepted and work on site began. However, the site has a very resricted frontage of only 24m and a depth of only 35m, and the steel frame grid severely restricted usable floor space, particularly critical for the press hall with its large machinery.
Williams proposed an alternative using long span concrete construction to provide column-free space for the three parallel printing presses. This the client agreed to adopt, even though work had begun. They retained the services of Ellis & Clarke.
The presses were located in the basement, where a clear height of 8.84m was provided. A row of columns flanks each side of the machinery area, leaving some 17m clear width. The columns are set in 7m bays. These column positions are repeated on upper floors, though expressed as a series of stacked concrete portal frames rather than column and slab construction.
The pairs of portal frame columns are distinctively shaped, their V profiles providing extra width at the upper joints, where the bending moment of the portal is at its greatest.
The basement is some 8.8m deep and includes a mezzanine. To provide as much height for the machinery as possible, the ground floor is raised a metre above pavement level. The building has seven storeys above the basement.
The exterior walls are supported by cantilevered tapered extensions from the structural portal frames, with the exception of the first floor on the Shoe Lane side of the building, where the slab is cut back to the outside line of columns. This allowed wider street level access for vehicle loading — and the overhanging upper levels provided shelter for the operation.
The fifth and sixth floors step back progressively in accordance with the then current London City Council height restrictions. The step-back was achieved by reducing the length, and adjusting the taper, of the cantilevered beams.
This upper-floor step-back became a feature of the Beaverbrook buildings, as did the use of 'Vitrolite' (black glass) curtain walling. In this case, the black glass was used to make horizontal bands corresponding to each floor level. Vitrolite was also used for the balconies of the top two floors and to clad the rooftop plant room. The curtain wall frame cappings are made from refletive metal strip, giving a reversed optical effect of light framework and dark glass. Curved corners, produced by curving the curtain wall transoms (horizontal members) and moulding the glass, were used first here and then in Manchester and Glasgow.
The reception area was decorated in an extravagant Art Deco style and includes a dramatic oval staircase, all the to the design of Robert Atkinson (1883-1953). Polished metal wall panels, sculpted ceilings, serpentine handrails and contrasting bright reflective and black finishes all combined to replicate the exuberant style of an American skyscraper lobby.
Williams was comfortable with American influences, having worked for the UK offices of American ferro-concrete companies, and his client Lord Beaverbrook was of Canadian descent.
This building was completely different from the other newspaper buildings in Fleet Street, which were of classically proportioned conservative design. Ellis & Clarke's design would have fitted right in. Williams may have usurped them all but his work still reflected the importance and vibrancy of the industry with a building that was spectacular by day or night.
Architect: H.O. Ellis & Clarke
Interior design: Robert Atkinson