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Congress House :  An Overlooked Modernist Masterpiece…

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

p1140932Without doubt one London’s finest modern sculptural masterpieces is perversely, also one of the most difficult to find, hidden away as it is in a beautiful green mosaic tiled (originally Carrera marble) and glass enclosed courtyard at the heart of one of London’s least known modern architectural gems.

The sculpture is easily one of Jacob Epstein’s most powerful works: A mother stands cradling her dead son, staring forlornly up into the sky, the look of pain and anguish clearly etched upon her face. The building is Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC, a building conceived in 1945, but not completed until 1957, and the story of these two modern masterpieces makes for quite an interesting read.

Congress House on Great Russell Street, just opposite the British Museum, was the result of a 1948 open competition, one of the first and largest post-war architectural competitions to be organised, and at a time when the likelihood of such a large, totally new structure being completed were severely limited by the restrictions and rationing of building materials.

The brief for the project, developed by the TUC over a number of years, had to address two key objectives: Firstly it was to provide a fitting memorial to those Trade Union members who had laid down their lives during the two World Wars, and secondly it was to provide high quality conference, education and meeting room facilities suitable for the progressive aspirations of the Union.

With over 170 entries submitted, choosing an outright winner was always going to be a challenge. All entries were put on public display, and though it’s not clear if the public had a say in the final choice (unlikely I would suggest in 1948), the eventual winner was announced by the RIBA as the (still) little known 35 year old English architect, David Du Rieu Aberdeen.

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Du Rieu Aberdeen’s scheme had as its focus a large open courtyard surrounded on three sides by the offices, library and committee rooms that were key to the new building. The fourth side, against which the proposed memorial sculpture would stand, was the existing end wall of Sir Edwin Lutyens YWCA building, and which was protected by local building regulations.  The floor of the courtyard was finished in a large, hexagonal segmented glazed structure, which also formed the ceiling of the below ground conference center and allowed light to flood into the subterranean spaces. Wherever possible materials were sourced (and often donated) from other trade unions and overseas labour organisations and included marble, polished granite and cedar, all of which added to the quality of the building and kept the costs within budget.

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Getting the project started proved to be difficult. Narrow streets, height restrictions imposed by the historic nature of the site (previously a brewery and a warren of alleyways known as “The Rookery”), the protection afforded the adjacent Lutyens building and an understandably rather chaotic post war approach to redevelopment, resulted in a 5 year delay between Du Aberdeen’s appointment and works beginning on site. On the positive side, the delays did allow Du Rieu Aberdeen to work comprehensively through the scheme in detail, giving due consideration to all aspects of its design, especially key elements such as the feature main staircase, the glazed conference center roof and the composition of the external elevations.

The style of the building took its cues from a number of sources. The curving plan forms, pilotis (columns) and ribbon like exteriors of Le Corbusier’s modernism being the obvious one, but there are also hints of the more naturalistic interwar Scandinavian modernism of architects such as Gunnar Apsland and Alvo Aalto.

It’s no coincidence I might suggest, that the building shares similarities with the Royal Festival Hall, conceived as they were around the same time, 1947/48, and in a Post War atmosphere of optimism that allowed the younger members of the architectural profession opportunities to show what Modernism might begin to offer.

It is also undoubtedly true that the huge political will driving the success of the Festival of Britain, qresulted in the Royal Festival Hall being completed on time in 1951, i.e. some seven years before Congress House was officially opened, a success that arguably stole its limelight in the eyes of the public, forever relegating it to relative obscurity.

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Jacob Epstein’s commission for the memorial sculpture came around 1955, two years after construction on the building had finally begun and is a masterful display of carving. The composition is loosely based on Michelangelo’s extraordinary Pietà at St. Peters Basilica in Rome, and with a scale (it stands almost 6 meters high on its pedestal) that leaves you in awe of the memorials presence. Epstein’s ability to manipulate solid stone to express human emotion and fragility almost leaves you speechless, creating a a wholly fitting and moving tribute to the sacrifice of the Unionist soldiers of the two wars.

In acknowledgement of the success of the project, in 1959 the RIBA awarded Du Rieu Aberdeen its prestigious Bronze Medal London Architecture Award and in March 1988 the building received Grade II Listed status securing it and Epstein’s wonderful sculpture for future generations to enjoy, describing it in the Listing as “as one of the most important institutional buildings erected in London, and one of the most significant 1950s buildings in Britain”.

Well worth a visit next time Open House comes around….

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This post is an edited version of one that first appeared in issue 22 of The Shrieking Violet from 2014.

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