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Earl's Court Exhibition Centre (1937)
Warwick Road, London SW5, UK
Earl's Court Exhibition Centre (1937)
associated engineer
LG Mouchel & Partners
Oscar Faber
date  1935 - 1st September 1937
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ247706
photo  Mouchel archive
Earl's Court Exhibition Centre (Earl's Court One) is one of the UK's largest indoor arenas and a popular concert venue. Its site has a long association with public entertainment, from Buffalo Bill in the 19th century to the Olympiads of 1948 and 2012. When it was built it was one of the largest reinforced concrete buildings in the world. Construction was complicated by the rail tracks crossing the site, carrying London Underground trains.
The Earl’s Court site is located west of Warwick Road, between Cromwell Road and Old Brompton Road in west London. In the 1860s, it was surplus railway land, crossed in places by four sets of tracks with various sidings. The trains then ran through open cuttings.
In 1887, Colonel William Frederick Cody (1846-1917) brought his show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the site. Queen Victoria reportedly attended two command performances as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. In 1895, a 91m high observation wheel was erected — the forerunner of the London Eye — with 40 timber cabins carrying up to 1,200 passengers. It was demolished in 1907.
The site was used for exhibitions of various kinds up to World War I (1914-18). During the war, part of the site became a Belgian refugee camp. It was then used by the London General Omnibus Company for storing redundant horse-drawn buses — diesel-powered vehicles were gaining popularity.
In 1935, regeneration of the three-sided area east of the north/south railway line began. Earl's Court Ltd, a company with American connections, bought the lease from the freeholder, London Passenger Transport Board. The company hired architect C. Howard Crane (1885-1952) to design the new exhibition building, with S. Gordon Jeeves (1888-1964) acting as his UK representative. Crane had a practice in Detroit, Michigan, and specialised in movie palaces.
Design engineer for the project was L.G. Mouchel & Partners — founded in 1897 by reinforced concrete pioneer Louis Gustave Mouchel (1852-1908). Oscar Faber's (1886-1956) eponymous consultancy, established 1921, handled the exhibition centre's ventilation design.
The 4.5 hectare structure straddles the curving tracks of London Underground's District and Piccadilly Lines — 61m of rail lines in all. No load from the superstructure was allowed to impinge on the tunnels or track works. The large and complex foundations comprise heavily reinforced concrete beams supported on irregularly spaced columns with portal girders spanning the tracks.
One concrete beam, spanning the line to Putney, is 30m long, over 5m wide and 3m deep. It is reinforced with 336 steel bars of 50mm diameter and carries column loads of 2,030 and 2,134 tonnes in addition to its self-weight of 1,016 tonnes.
Earl’s Court is triangular in plan, with entrances at its three corners. It provides 41,800 sq m of column-free exhibition space and was designed to accommodate 23,000 visitors at any one time. The building is constructed in reinforced concrete, topped by steel truss roof of 87m span. Eight ventilation plants were installed on the roof, blowing air downwards, parallel to and 3m above the seating height in the auditorium, with extraction via side ducts and slots in the false ceiling.
The main exhibition hall of Earl's Court hides a swimming pool 60m long and 30m wide beneath its retractable 760 tonne concrete floor. It takes four days to fill or empty the 10 million litres of water required to use the pool, and filling or emptying can only be done at night to prevent overloading local services.
Outside the building's footprint, the train tracks have been enclosed by mass concrete walls and roofed over by steel girders supporting reinforced concrete slabs that carry the roadways. The project was completed at a cost of £1.5m. On 1st September 1937, Earls Court opened its doors to the public for the Chocolate & Confectionary Exhibition.
To the west of the exhibition centre was the former Empress Hall (replaced by the Empress State Building in 1961). As a preamble to the main construction project, the floor of the hall was adapted for ice skating, and new buildings erected for an ice-making plant and a ventilation and heating plant. A pedestrian bridge and roadway were provided, linking Empress Hall to the main site.
The boxing, gymnastics, weightlifting and wrestling events of the 1948 London Olympic Games were held at Earl's Court. It also hosted the Royal Tournament military tattoo every year from 1950 to 1999.
The Olympic Games returned to Earl's Court One in 2012. A purpose-built court was built for the volleyball competition, with temporary seating for 15,000 spectators.
Architect: C. Howard Crane
Project architect: S. Gordon Jeeves
Chief consulting engineer: Robert J. Siddall
Project management: Hegeman-Harris (New York)
Contractor for railway covering: Sir Robert McAlpine
Research: FBA
"Mouchel, A Century of Achievement" published by Mouchel, 1997
"New Earls Court Exhibition Building — 1" by A.E. Wynn
Concrete and Constructional Engineering, July 1936, pp. 377-384

Earl's Court Exhibition Centre (1937)