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Looking underneath the Art Deco label


Form and Fancy: Factories and Factory Buildings by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939 by Joan Skinner. Liverpool University Press, 1997. 318pp. £16.95

With the current distaste for concrete, here is a publication to cherish. Wallis, Gilbert & Partners is always regarded as the Art Deco practice of the inter-war years - and it was all achieved with concrete. But, as Joan Skinner argues in this absorbing study, applying that stylistic label is both restricting and erroneous.

When Tesco acquired the former Hoover Factory and encased it in scaffolding to carry out vital work on the frame, I was the Twentieth Century Society's casework officer. The 'phone was never so hot as when people feared that Hoover was being demolished. They were ringing from Heathrow before leaving the country in case it wouldn't be there on their return. 'All that to suck up shit,' George Melly once remarked; but Hoover consistently comes out high on the list of people's favourite twentieth-century buildings.

Surprisingly, this is the first major study of the practice to date. Largely ignored by the profession, the Art Deco label has come to haunt Wallis, Gilbert & Partners in its suggestion of frivolity, and the acceptable face it gave modern architecture when commerce was still a suspect client. Although it worked on a wide range of building types - houses, coach stations, garages, car showrooms - Skinner concentrates on its most ubiquitous, the factory, of which it designed more than a hundred.

This book is a wonderful achievement, not merely in its thorough cataloguing of the practice's output between 1916 and 1939, but in providing a detailed consideration of the building type and attitudes towards it. Wallis, Gilbert & Partners (Gilbert, incidentally, never existed, but the name sounded good) was careful to relate the specific production processes and nature of its clients' business to the design of the factories. What may look like a standard formula is in fact far more responsive and considered. The practice moved factories out of grimy back streets and into the sunlit upland of suburbia; it employed American construction methods and management techniques, extending the notion of Taylorism and 'efficiency engineering' to the well-being of the workforce. The public fronts reflected the fact that factories were now selling direct to retailers and so required an expansion in white-collar jobs, separately housed from the production processes, in order to compete in this new world.

Unfortunately the book is sparingly illustrated, with only 42 pictures when over 100 buildings are mentioned. Given that the subject matter is so popular and photogenic, this seems short-sighted on the part of the publisher. Those that are illustrated are usually by way of archive photographs, in stark contrast to their neglect today. Confounding the myth that they were all stretched along London's Great West Road and Home Counties by- passes, most of us live near, or regularly pass by, one of their factories, though - like the India of Inchinnan rubber factory en route to Glasgow airport - it may now be no more than sad remains. Julian Holder is an architecturalhistorian

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