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Adaptability and durability

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David H Kennett lectures in sociology at Stratford-uponAvon College. He has been interested in the brickwork of the 1930s for more than 30 years and is currently working on two books about 1930s Britain.

His interest in the physical, historical and socio-economic aspects of construction are informed by degrees in archaeology, in construction management and economics, and in technology and society.

An indefatigable force in the British Brick Society, he is visits coordinator and editor of BBS Information

Between 1930 and 1939, not only were more houses built in Britain than in any other decade, but during the decade brick production rose steadily, reaching an all time high of 8,429 million bricks in 1939. And it was not just in housing that there was a ready market for the material. Even a steel-framed, stone-clad building such as Luton Town Hall (1930-36) used no fewer than seven million bricks.

My historical research leads me to see brick as the favoured building material of the decade, not least because of its durability. From the standpoint of the 21st century we now applaud 1930s brick for its adaptability.

Many accounts of the creation of the built environment in the decade assume that the use of the more traditional materials, especially brick, can be disregarded. These accounts concentrate on the idea of using concrete, glass and steel. This, I feel, does a grave injustice to the historical reality.

Architects positively enjoyed using exposed brick as the facing material for their work, particularly in prestigious buildings such as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (1928-32), by Elizabeth Whitworth Scott, and the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (1933-39) by Herbert J Rowse, since sensitively refurbished by Brock, Carmichael & Partners.

Adapting to the age Travelling round England, as I do, I have come across many other brick buildings of the 1930s given an extra lease of life through adaptation to new uses. On the south-eastern outskirts of Oxford, the yellow brick St Luke's church, Cowley, by H S Rogers (193738), was declared redundant but has been transformed into premises for the Oxfordshire Record Office. The original terminal building of Speke Airport, Liverpool (1933-37), by R Arthur Landstein of Liverpool City Surveyor's Department, has been incorporated into a new hotel.

In Liverpool city centre is the central closed horseshoe of flats at St Andrew's Gardens, designed by John Hughes working under the city's director of housing, Lancelot Keay.

Completed in 1935, the scheme has rusticated brickwork to the exterior which was matched in the position of the glazing bars in the original work.

At the principal entry to the complex is a parabolic arch of brick in multiple soldier courses. A 1950s refurbishment replaced the windows with plain sheet glass, but more recent work to turn the complex into student housing has reinstated the glazing bars, thus enhancing the building's appearance.

To match the mass housing schemes, there were buildings for mass entertainment - almost all cinemas have brick exteriors. Including the suburbs, Oxford had five, all of which were brick-faced; three survive as cinemas, but two - in Headington and on Cowley Road - are now used as bingo halls, a common fate of 1930s cinemas.

Large cinemas in Derby and Chesterfield have become nightclubs.

Other than for entertainment, the cinema has a multiplicity of reuses, such as a sail loft in Harwich, Essex, and a pine furniture showroom in Springfield, Birmingham. The Plaza Cinema, Rhyl, Flintshire, by S Colwyn Foulkes (1935-37) has been internally gutted but the exceptional brick exterior now houses a shopping arcade.

The red brick Zonita Cinema on Bedford Street, Ampthill, of 1937 became a fashion showroom in 1960.

Durability in action Of course, there are many 1930s brick buildings still serving the function for which they were built. Approximately 200 new Anglican churches were built in the 1930s. One of the best-known is St Nicholas Church, Burnage, in south Manchester, by Welch, CachemailleDay and Lander. Antony Grimshaw of Wigan has affected alterations in keeping including extending the west end, although the brick used is darker than the original.

Of the 100 town halls designed during the decade, almost all are faced in brick - yellow brick at Cambridge, a dull red brick at Norwich, and buff brick at Derby. With two town halls in outer Manchester we see the real value of brick as the best material. In 1935, the new borough of Stretford commissioned J R Adamson of the Bolton practice Bradshaw, Gass and Hope to design a red brick town hall with the central tower on Talbot Road having a fancy top. When the new metropolitan borough of Trafford needed extra premises, a new 1970s building in an identical red brick was erected, a pleasing way to enlarge.

In contrast, the 1935-37 town hall at Swinton by Percy Thomas and Ernest Prestwich is now in far less propitious surroundings. This buff brick neoGeorgian building with its tall tower is now set in front of an ungainly concrete-grid office building while across the street are library and hall buildings in hammer-finished concrete.

The brick-clad finance office, the newest structure on the site, is far more attractive to my eye, and with good maintenance will last much longer.

With all buildings maintenance is the key to good service. With brick the demands are modest. The well-kept public library on Temple Road, Cowley, was built in an attractive red brick and even in the rain looks as good as the day it was opened in 1940. On the day I saw the public library in Worksop, painters were at work on the original metal window frames. Long, thin red bricks were used in the brickwork, which now needs repointing. However, with that done, the building could well survive another 70 years.

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