NZ architect's legacy seeks facelift 12 Jul 2012
The role New Zealanders played in British architecture may see greater recognition with Hornsey Town Hall recently granted initial support by the Heritage Lottery Fund for a restoration proposal. Hornsey Town Hall, England’s first major public commission to be built in a modern style, was designed by Reginald Uren and completed in 1935.
The Heritage Lottery Fund have given Hornsey Town Hall initial support for a £3.7 million bid, including £482,000 development funding. This means that the project has passed the first stage in the bidding process, and those overseeing it have up to two years to submit a fully developed proposal for restoration.
Reginald Uren, who won the commission for Hornsey Town Hall in 1933, grew up in Christchurch. This likely contributed to his role as a proponent of modernism in the UK, seeing architecture with a different eye to those raised locally. Uren moved to London in 1930, at the age of 24, to study at the Bartlett School of Architecture.
The Hornsey Town Hall, in North London, was the first built project to which Uren signed his name. Nonetheless, it had a huge impact, marking the entrance of modernism into British civic architecture.
Hornsey Town Hall is built in an asymmetrical L-shaped plan, with a tall rectangular tower at the junction. External form generally follows function, though relief sculpture by AJ Ayres is included on the facade. Built in brick, Uren’s composition is often linked to Willem Dudok’s influential Hilversum Raadhius in the Netherlands, completed in 1931.
Prior to the Hornsey Town Hall, civic architecture was often symmetrical, composed of stone and in a classical language. This can be seen in looking at the Wimbledon Town Hall, completed in 1931, and the Hackney Town Hall, which opened in 1934, just a year before that of Hornsey.
Uren’s building, however, marked a turning point. This is also clear in looking at subsequent examples of civic architecture. Both the Hammersmith Town Hall, completed in 1938, and the Wembley Municipal Offices, of 1939, are of similar style, pared down and constructed in brick. Greenwich Town Hall, built in the late 1930s, echoes Hornsey’s informal office layout.
This shift can’t entirely be credited to Uren, but the success of his design for the Hornsey Town Hall created a valuable precedent to others considering modern designs for similar projects.
The brief for the competition asked for a design incorporating incorporate a hall seating 800-1000 people, council chambers, committee rooms and administrative offices for a cost of no more than £100,000. Uren’s proposal was chosen from 218 entries.
While some members of the public were dissatisfied, the critical response to Uren’s design was positive. The Hornsey Town Hall won an RIBA bronze medal for buildings erected between December 1932 and 1935. The structure is now Grade II* listed.
Despite its significance, the Hornsey Town Hall has fallen into disuse. Hornsey became part of Haringey in 1966, and use of Uren’s building declined steadily. It is currently used only for occasional events, including small art exhibitions.
Hornsey Town Hall is on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk register. Nonetheless, the building’s listing notes that a great deal of the interiors are preserved intact, including floor surfaces, doors, light fittings, wood-panelled walls and the main staircase with decorative metal balustrade.
Since 2003, the building’s future has been shaky. Haringey Council initially considered selling the building, partially to avoid fines levied by English Heritage, but this plan met with huge opposition from Hornsey residents, 2500 attending a protest.
Hornsey Town Hall isn’t just architecturally significant to its local community, but also serves as an important symbol of local identity in the face of increased governing by larger bodies, such as Haringey itself.
Over 75 years after the building’s completion, it may soon be given another life. After the building’s restoration is complete, it is to be leased to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. It has been stated that the wider community will also use the building, though it’s unclear how this will work in practice. Currently, however, many areas are completely closed to the public.
Some have also expressed worries about proposed changes to the area surrounding the town hall, which may compromise the approach to the building. It is unclear at this point whether these changes, which include the introduction of high density housing on neighbouring sites and new landscaping of the green in front, will go ahead.
Hornsey Town Hall’s position on the street is central to its appeal. Uren also worked on the neighbouring electricity showrooms, completed in 1938, and the gas company showrooms, the buildings other neighbour, were completed in the same style in 1936. Architectural historian Nicolas Pevsner described the ensemble as “the modern town hall as symbol of enlightened local government flanked by the agents of modern comfort”.
Uren worked on a number of other buildings in the United Kingdom, subsequently joining the firm of Slater and Moberly. His other designs include Rayners Lane Underground Station (designed with Charles Holden in 1936), the John Lewis store in Oxford Street (1966) and the Norfolk Country Hall (1968). Uren returned to New Zealand upon retirement, where he remained until his death in 1988.
Anna Blair is a freelance writer and architectural historian studying hotels from the 1920s. She currently divides her time between Paris and East London. Further work can be found at her blog – Dispatches from Europe.
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