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Workers' paradise

building study

One of the most distinguished public buildings of the 1950s, Congress House, has been renewed by Hugh Broughton Architects within the framework of its Grade II* listing Congress House, the Trades Union Congress building in Great Russell Street, was the first major public building, apart from the Royal Festival Hall, completed in London after the Second World War. The Festival Hall's prominent riverside site makes it a familiar London landmark. In contrast, the TUC building is located in a side street alongside Georgian houses, Edwardian hotels and Lutyens' prim NeoGeorgian YWCA (now a hotel). Completed in 1958, it addresses this varied scene with politeness and restraint, though its Modernist credentials are never in doubt.

Founded in Manchester in 1868, the TUC had already moved its London headquarters six times when it came to rest in Bloomsbury.

The 1944 Congress resolved that a building be erected as a memorial to union members killed or injured in two world wars. Congress House was conceived not only as offices for the TUC but equally as an 'educational and cultural national centre'. There would be a union training college and a large public hall.

In 1946 a site was found and a year later an open competition (the first since the war) was announced. Sir Percy Thomas, sometime RIBA president, was assessor. There were 181 entries, most of them to some degree 'Modern', though Raymond Erith submitted an inspirational Neo-Classicist scheme (unplaced) and Gollins Melvin a curious Neo-Georgian effort, which was highly commended. In 1948 the winner was declared as David du Rieu Aberdeen (1913-87), a graduate of the Bartlett School.His career, like that of so many others, had been interrupted by the war, during which he worked on ordnance and aircraft factories. On the strength of the TUC job he established a practice with offices in nearby Southampton Place. Of his later works only the Swiss Centre in London's Leicester Square is well-known, though like his market hall in Shrewsbury and the office building (now demolished) in Gresham Street in the City of London, it lacks the distinction of his first major work.

Aberdeen's practice was wound up a year before his death.

Construction started only in 1953 - building permits were hard to secure - and Congress House was finally completed in 1958. By this time it was, James Dunnett has suggested (AJ 11.4.90), 'something of an anachronism'. While the plans had waited in limbo, the Smithsons had completed Hunstanton School and the New Brutalism was launched. The omnipresent influence of Le Corbusier (whom Aberdeen venerated, imitating his style of dress) is apparent. So is that of Alvar Aalto. The playful balconies on the eastern facade, which have no obvious practical use, recall those on the Paimio Sanatorium. Aberdeen's orderly Great Russell Street frontage, clad in grey granite, is strongly contextual, set back slightly from the street line of the YWCA from which it takes its cue in terms of scale. (A maximum height of80 feet (24.4m) was one of the competition conditions. ) There is a vision here of how urban architecture might have evolved in Britain, had there not been a war, of a contextual Modernism with a commitment to the reconstruction of the city. Sadly, Aberdeen's example was not widely taken up by the commercial architects of the 1960s.

The composition of the building to the east (Dyott Street) is far freer, with curves, projections and setbacks and the incorporation of ramps to the underground car park - a then highly innovative provision for London. The glazed staircase down to the Congress Hall is a prominent element on this elevation. The wing to the south, on Bainbridge Street, included the TUC Training College as well as office space always intended for letting. Because of the positioning of the parking ramp, the pavement on Bainbridge Street was raised as an enclosed arcade, an almost Italian device (though it has now been closed in for security reasons).

The 500-seat hall was at the heart of the building, located at lower-ground level, its glazed roof a pioneering space-frame structure forming the surface of the central courtyard where one might have expected a paved or planted square.

Two major works of public sculpture formed an integral part of the building. Initially these were to be chosen by competition but the jury, led by Sir Herbert Read, dismissed most of the entries as 'puerile'.

Subsequently Bernard Meadows was commissioned for the group representing the spirit of the unions on Great Russell Street, while Sir Jacob Epstein (then aged 76) carved the fine war memorial sculpture in situ, from a huge block of stone. It dominates the central court of the building. The original setting of this work, of fine green Ligurian marble, was unfortunately removed some years ago after it began to shear away from its concrete frame, and was replaced by mosaic.

Aberdeen stated that his objectives were efficient circulation, 'an openness and spaciousness in three dimensions', ample provision of natural light and fresh air, and 'to create a building of elegant simplicity, logical and beautiful in expression'. Most critics would judge that he succeeded amply in the latter aspiration. Indeed Congress House has never lacked admirers and in 1988 was one of just 18 post-war buildings (out of 70 suggested by English Heritage) to be given listed-building status.

The listing coincided with substantial refurbishment works. In 1985, Cedric Price, a friend of TUC general secretary Norman Willis, had produced a report on the condition and future of the building. The basic fabric was in extremely sound order, Price reported, thanks to the use of fine quality materials inside and out, but the services required extensive upgrading. The conference facilities, an important source of revenue, also needed improvement. The most conspicuous change to the appearance of the building as a result of works completed in 1989 (with Huckle Tweddell Partnership as executive architects) was the extension of the entrance foyer towards the street to create an improved reception area. An additional, and visually intrusive, layer of glazing was subsequently added on top of the Congress Hall. In fact, it was soon clear that the building needed more thoroughgoing treatment.

Hugh Broughton had recently left Troughton McAslan (where he had worked on the Bexhill Pavilion) to establish Hugh Broughton Architects (HBA) when, in 1996, he was contacted by Ian Fellingham of Arup.

Fellingham was project manager for the ongoing refurbishment programme and had consulted the RIBA Client Advisory Service at the suggestion of the TUC.HBA's appointment to develop a substantial refurbishment project was a remarkable breakthrough for a small new practice.

The upgrading work of the '80s notwithstanding, it was clear that the building needed further substantial improvements if it was to pay its way - one alternative was for the TUC to relocate. With union membership much reduced from 1950s' levels - now under seven million - the organisation lacks the solid financial base it once had.

'The conference centre was running at a loss, ' says Broughton. 'It now pulls in a very healthy profit.'

Conference facilities were, in fact, poor.

Meeting rooms lacked proper sound insulation. The main hall was a shabby space where, in the absence of blackout, it was impossible to have audio-visual presentations during daylight hours. Equally significantly, staff amenities (the TUC employs 150 of the 250 people working in the building) were poor.

Given the building's listed status, both architect and client were resigned to consulting English Heritage, as well as Camden planners, on any proposed improvements.

Seven years on in a phased programme, with much achieved but a good deal still to be done, both report a relationship with EH that has been cordial and productive. Kevin Murphy, the EH inspector who has dealt with the project from the beginning, commends the client for appointing one person, TUC director Mike Jones, to deal with the project:

'Mike, Hugh, Ian and myself would meet and come to a conclusion quickly on detailed issues, ' he says. Most importantly, there was an assumption on EH's part that the building should be upgraded further to ensure its continued use by the TUC.

Externally, the changes are minimal. They include the installation of an unobtrusive access ramp alongside the front steps (see Working Detail, p36-37) and some reorganisation of the tiny parking area. To the side and rear of the building, access ramps and basement wells are a problem - the area around Tottenham Court Road has a major drugs problem and these areas are often littered with syringes. HBA and EH are consulting on the least obtrusive way of securing them.

Internally, the project has tackled (at a cost of £5.8 million to date) the main hall and other conference/meeting areas, the principal public and circulation spaces, the upgrading of offices, the creation of a new apartment for the TUC's general secretary and substantial works to services. The refurbishment of the main reception area, with a new desk, screened seating area and improved lighting, sets the tone for the rest.

The Marble Hall beyond the foyer, overlooking the central court, now contains the staff restaurant. The staircase leading down from here to the Congress Hall, a virtuoso design in its own right, has been refurbished and discreetly upgraded (the uprights in the balustrade have been neatly doubled up as a safety measure).

Broughton rightly regarded lightness and transparency as the key to the building's interior character. The opaque glazing installed at the rear of the Congress Hall in the 1980s has been replaced with clear glass, with blinds to provide privacy when required, restoring the views through the building. The hall's new lighting scheme (neatly integrated into the space-frame roof ), its updated ventilation system, reconfigured stage and state-of-the-art audio-visual facilities - which do not require blackout - bring it into line with other frontline London conference spaces. Full disabled access is provided, with glass side-ramps at the rear and front of the hall. The Twentieth Century Society argued that these additions, if needed, should be 'in keeping', taking their cue from existing staircases, but HBA (and EH) took the view that they should be clearly distinguishable from the historic fabric. The original veneered paneling lining the hall was extensively restored. Like the Festival Hall, Congress House embodies much fine craftsmanship, 50 years ago still readily available to architects.

Improving conference facilities was a fundamental element in the project. A new lower-ground-floor conference reception area (there was always a separate entrance to Congress Hall from the street), a wellequipped business centre, completely refitted WCs and conference organisers' office (behind an elegant etched glass screen) have further transformed the perception of the building. Four new interconnecting meeting rooms have been formed in the space vacated by the former canteen.

A series of quite distinct conference facilities is located on the fifth floor. The four timber-panelled meeting rooms along the street front have been restored carefully, with new sound-attenuating partitions replacing the originals (which were acoustically ineffective). The white lacquer finish on these interventions is widely used for new elements in the building. Hugh Broughton is anxious to proceed, when funding is allocated, with a similar restoration of the Council Chamber on this level, removing the suspended ceiling and the wire mesh (a regrettable 1980s' intrusion) which screens the windows, collecting grime and obscuring views out.

Aberdeen provided a flat for the general secretary, but for some reason this was abandoned in the '80s and colonised as offices.

HBA has created a new apartment on the third floor. The general secretary also benefits from a refitted office suite on the fourth floor, furnished and equipped to the standard a CEO in the private sector would expect. Offices throughout the building have been comprehensively upgraded, with cellular space generally converted to open plan.

All this was achieved within the context of Grade II* listing. For the TUC, in fact, the project has been invaluable in generating a management strategy for the building, approved by EH, indicating clearly where listed building consent is or is not required for internal works. So the Congress Hall, foyers, and Council Chamber are among the 'heritage' spaces, while office areas, it is acknowledged, may be subject to periodic change. For owners of distinguished modern buildings, the prospect of listing is often regarded with dread. The Congress House project shows that, given willingness on all sides, conservation and practical and commercial realities can coexist.

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