Building Fleet Street: The Golden Age of Newspapers

Building Fleet Street: The Golden Age of Newspapers


Architecture is an expression of the culture we live in and the cultures that our predecessors have lived in. The newspapers are the flimsiest, the most ephemeral, of media you know, they’re here today and gone tomorrow. Architecture is the most permanent and the slowest by far of all of media. In a way, the newspapers wanted to compensate for the ephemerality of their product and to build a kind of presence into the city. It was a very interesting moment when around the world the newspapers started building for themselves because it came roughly between the First and Second World Wars, the 1920s and the 1930s and that was when virtually every household bought a newspaper it had never been like that before, never been like that since. For that brief moment newspapers had a sense of association, they felt like they expressed the nature of the city. Fleet Street has become synonymous with the newspaper industry. So, when we talk about newspapers, we talk about Fleet Street, and their printing presses were here as well. Underground was a whole subterranean world from which the newspapers emerged late at night. One of the finest newspaper buildings in Fleet Street is Number 85 and it’s the former home of the Press Association and Reuters. It was built in 1935 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was the architect of the establishment. At the same time that he was designing this building here, he was designing the government buildings in New Delhi, and he’d just finished building the war memorials across continental Europe to the massacres of the First World War. He had a very particular, sombre, quite classical style. This is a good example of that. It’s a kind of architecture of Empire, the way a British industry might like to see itself Dignified, authoritative, urbane. Modern enough, so clearly 19th century not Victorian, a little bit stripped down, a little bit kind of functional — but very elegant. It has this tripartite structure, so every part has a base which is rusticated with this kind of rough-looking stonework and it has a central section, then it has a more delicate top with curves and a more feminine sculpted attic What we think of a Classicism tends to have columns and porticos. So, if we look at Somerset House, which is nearby, you can see classical Roman columns, domes, the kind of huge courtyard. But you also see some of the rustication, which is the rough stonework you see on the first floor of the building, which will appear in a Lutyens building. This is a restrained Classicism, with the details stripped down it’s the British reassessing themselves after the massacres of the First World War, being a little more modest and trying to make a dignified presence in the City. The Telegraph has always been a conservative newspaper, it’s been solid, kind of middle-class. And you would expect it, then, to build itself a classical conservative building. But actually, when you look at it, it’s a dazzling piece of Art Deco. It was built in 1927, and the architects were Elcock & Sutcliffe and Burnet Tait. They were the architects of their era. The front of the Telegraph building is a composite, it’s part Classical, part Art Deco. You see over the front door there are these two kinds of stylised figures of two Mercurys delivering extremely fast the newsprint that’s going to go to every corner of the country. It has that sense of a dependable, classical architecture that we saw in Lutyens but it has a completely different glamour applied to it. Art Deco was the architecture that emerged between the wars, in the 1920s It was the architecture of the movie industry, of the big musicals of the 1930s so this idea of a kind of glamorous Hollywood architecture was very much in the air, and the Telegraph succumbed. The dynamism of the industry, an industry which sees itself as, in a way, as cool as responsive and as glamorous as the movies, is embodied in its architecture. At number 120, we I have I think one of the most intriguing and elegant interwar building in the city the headquarters of the Daily Express from 1932. It marked a real change in architecture, and what was so radical about it was that there was none of the classical detail there was none of the columns, none of the stonework absolutely kind of stripped back to the minimum building. The Daily Express building was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook who was bust building the Daily Express into the biggest mass-circulation newspaper in the world. Ellis and Clarke, the architects, worked with an engineer called Owen Williams, and he welcomed the opportunity to create something very new here, using a material called Vitrolite which was glass that’s black all the way through. So, it looks a little like marble, but it can do things that marble can’t. It can be cut very thin, it can curve around corners. It was also the first curtain-walled building in the city. And what that means is that the structure was set behind the façade and the façade is just a skin of glass laid around like a curtain drawn around the edge of the building, and the corners in a way a bit of an echo of the glamorous transatlantic liners that were the kind of zenith of avant-garde, luxury of the 1930s. When you go inside, the modernism kind of dissipates a little bit and you are kind of back to the Art Deco another one of the incredibly glamorous movie-palace Art Deco type interiors with colour with dripping ceilings, with geometric patterns, so I think it was a kind of jewel box effect. I think you could argue that the 1920s and 30s, when these buildings were built was the kind of golden age of newspapers. The buildings are still here, but the newspapers aren’t. Newspapers began to move out in the 80s and extraordinarily within about a decade they were all gone. They were built to embody an era, to embody a set of values that newspapers believed they exuded of practicality, dignity, the lasting feel of elegance. Elegance lasts.

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