Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Adelaide House

Architects: John J. Burnet and Thomas Smith Tait, 1921-5

Steel-framed office building by one of the pioneers in Britain of American Modernism, prominently situated alongside London Bridge.

At 148ft (45m), Adelaide House was the tallest commercial structure in London at the time of building, and perhaps one of the most forward-looking in its steel-framed proto-Modern design. Conceived by Scottish architect Sir John James Burnet (whose training at the École des Beaux-Arts led him to produce a plethora of Neo-Baroque buildings in Glasgow) and his partner Thomas Smith Tait, the emphasis on verticality and flatness echoes that of the contemporary Chicago modernists, probably a result of Burnet’s visits to America in the early 1900s.

Standing opposite Henry Roberts’ Greek Revival headquarters for the Fishmongers Livery Company (1831-4), the lack of classical detailing is acute. The large overhanging cornice, whilst reminiscent of the works of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is distinctly Egyptian, a theme that pervades the entire building. Prior to the commission, Burnet sent Tait to Port Tewfik to look at Egyptian architecture, in anticipation of its popularity due to recent archaeological discoveries.

The building is characterised by regular, tightly set mullions that emphasise its height, punctuated by star motifs and fenestration. The heavy-set cornice exaggerates the weight of the building, stopping short of the corners as if to allow the structural cube to emerge above and behind the three main facades. The use of thick black columns (perhaps the only reference to Greek classicism) at the entrance, and darker stone at the lower levels, reinforce this geometric heft. With central ventilation (an early form of air conditioning), an internal post system and a miniature golf course on its roof, the interior world of this Portland stone edifice couldn’t be further removed from the ancient rituals of the institution of the same material, opposite.

Best time to visit: interior not accessible to the general public.

Address: London Bridge, London EC4R 9HA