As part of London's Open House Weekend, I visited the Daily Express Building on Fleet Street. No longer occupied by the Express, the building stands as a shining example of what Fleet Street was - a mythologised version of English journalism; a mythologised version of the intellectual life of a city, and a country. I took many photographs - here's a selection (click the thumbnails for large versions) - and there's some further historical context (taken from a handout on the day - sorry, don't know the author), my brief reflections on the design of the building and notes on some 'imaginations' of the building.
The Express Building is a close neighbour of the outlandish old Daily Telegraph office, opposite the recently-departed Reuters building, but far more elegant than anything else on the street.
"Described on its opening as 'Britain's most modern building for Britain's most modern newspaper', Sir Owen Williams Grade 2 listed Daily Express Building was for almost 60 years fleet Street's most glamorous landmark and the physical embodiment of its long association with the newspaper industry. Completed in 1932, it remains in every way a classic of Thirties design: its glossy black sheath in glass and vitriolite was London's first experiment in curtain walling, while its pioneering concrete structure virtually doubled the width of floor plans obtainable from the steel frame alternative. Serge Chermayeff described it as 'frankly elegant in tight-fitting dress of good cut which tells with frankness and without prudery of the well-made figure wearing it."
Whilst the outside is almost pure modernism (steel, glass, geometry), the interior is an absolutely astonishing paean to art deco. Sumptuous metal everywhere, lovely battered gold and silver flowing sinuously over exploding geometric shapes (the textures reminded me of both zinc counters in continental bars and the inside of a well preserved Swiss watch). Lord Beaverbrook, the Express's owner who commissioned the building, was actually Canadian hence the maple leaves inset under the Daily Express logo behind reception.
"(The) marvellously evocative interior (was) designed not by Williams but by Robert Atkinson (1883-1953), one of the most versatile designers of the inter-war years who took his inspriation from art deco American cinema and New York skyscraper lobbies. Clearly drawing on this cinema experience, Atikinson provided the Express with a Hollywood-style reception space complete with a starburst ceiling in glod and silver, travertine walls, rosewood dado, deep black marble plinth, bright metail fittings and a wave pattern of blue and black rubber outlined by narrow green strips."
As with the ceiling's waves of silver, the polished floor features a sea-like pattern. The floor did feature a Daily Express logo inlaid at some point (as witnessed in the film I mention below), now gone. Maybe the current owners (Goldman Sachs, I believe) can live with only so many signs of the previous occupant. The floor flows up over some steps to an elevator, under the fabulous clock above, and ultimately towards a curling spiral staircase:
The two giant murals are unintentionally hilariously jingoistic representations of 'Empire', facing each other across the foyer, with the floor and ceiling representing a sea separating England from its empire. (OK, "hilarious" the empire wasn't, but these murals are so overblown). Horrendously anachronistic they may be, although the scenes 'glorifying' industry are still quite stirring:
The handout revealed a couple more interesting details on the design:
"An engineer by training rather than an architect, Williams (1890-1969) was a typically inspired choice on the part of Lord Beaverbrook, the Express's proprietor. Originally an aircraft designer, he made his name with the concrete structures for the Wembley Exhibition of 1924, and later went on to build the Dorchester Hotel, the great Boots factory at Nottinghamd and the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre in south London. One of his last major works was the design of the M1 motorway in the late 1950s."
"His task here was to provide the widest possible uninterrupted spaces for the basement printing presses within a huge reinforced concrete box 'holding back a 40ft head of water'. The rest of the design logically and brilliantly flowed from this single basic civil engineering requirement to produce one of London's best known buildings of the inter-war period. As Beaverbrook guessed, black glass sheathing would prove particularly effective at night, the blazing lights proclaiming to all the world that his journalists were at work on the next day's Express"
Coupla things there: the structure of the engineering (the seams of the building, and the functionality of the building) driving the exterior visuals - this I find very interesting. The form of the building, beautiful as it is, is essentially a manifestation of its underlying function as container/platform for printing presses; at night, making the publishing transparent to the city . Secondly, the role of the multidisciplinary designer as exemplified by Sir Owen Williams - how great to be able to design this building, aircrafts, and the M1 in one's career! Does only Marc Newson get to do this kind of thing these days? Even he hasn't done a motorway yet. Slacker.
The building features in The Day The Earth Caught Fire  (which I've mentioned previously), which also romanticises the role of the journalist (and the Daily Express in particular). I love this film - not least for this sense of mythology. The film employed a set for the interior of the newsroom, though a perfect replica, and then films the intro/outro in the deserted foyer of the actual Express building as the earth spins towards environmental disaster ...
I'm also reading Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the classic satire on modern journalism. It's lost little of its bite since its 1938 publication, and is based in no small part (allegedly) around Beaverbrook's empire. The paper in Scoop is called the Daily Beast; the proprieter was originally going to be called Lord Ottercreek (geddit?), but Waugh settled on Lord Copper. Waugh knew the foyer in its prime, and the building appears obliquely, as the Megalopolitan Building, or Copper House, refracted through Waugh's suspicious English anti-urban, anti-modern prism but also an acid distaste for self-aggrandisement:
"The Megalopolitan Building, numbers 700-853 Fleet Street was disconcerting. At first William thought that the taxi-driver, spotting a bumpkin, had driven him to the wrong address ... He had once seen in Taunton a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York where neurotic men in shirt sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape machines, insulting and betraying one another in surroundings of unredeemed squalor. From these memories he had a confused expectation that was rudely shocked by the Byzantine vestibule and the Sassanian lounge of Copper House. He thought at first that he must have arrived at some new and less exlusive rival of the R.A.C. Six lifts seemed to be in perpetual motion; with dazzling frequency their doors flew open to reveal now left, now right, now two or three at a time, like driven game, a series of girls in Caucasian uniforms. 'Going up,' they cried in Punch-and-Judy accents and, before anyone could enter, snapped their doors and disappeared from view. A hundred or so men and women of all ranks and ages passed before William's eyes. The sole stationary objects were a chryselephantine effigy of Lord Copper in coronation robes, rising above the throng, on a polygonal malachite pedestal, and a concierge, also more than life size, who sat in a plate-glass enclosure, like a fish in an aquarium, and gazed at the agitated multitude with fishy, supercilious eyes. Under his immediate care were a dozen page boys in sky-blue uniforms, who between errands pinched one another furtively on a long bench. Medals of more battles than were ever fought by human arms or on earthly fields glittered on his porter's chest. William discovered a small vent in his tank and addressed him diffidently, 'Is his Lordship at home?'"
Ah, imagine that!
[Waugh's allusion to the 'exoticism' of New York journalism also reminds me of another superb film, The Sweet Smell Of Success , on the American brand of journomythology.]
The photos you can click on above are the real thing - what's left of the building, perfectly restored and preserved, but journalism has long since departed Fleet Street, moving on to London Docklands, and its soul has shifted elsewhere altogether. But the spirit of the building, and the spirit of the city at that point, is captured in your imagination and in those imagined Daily Express Buildings in The Day The Earth Caught Fire and Scoop, for better or worse.