Art Deco left visible signs in London’s urban landscape during the 1920s and 1930s. Many landmarks are still scattered across the city, conveying a modernist and exhuberant approach to architecture.
Debuted at the grand Paris exhibition of 1925, the Art Deco movement flourished in Europe and the US until World War II. It was a bold and eclectic wave of decorative styles which influenced both design and architecture, promoting exuberant shapes and geometric motifs, bright colours and Ancient Egyptian revival. In London, that period of modernist enthusiasm is often associated with lidos and cinemas, factories and institutional buildings. Both famous and lesser-known landmarks can be included in an Art Deco tour of the UK capital.
This imposing 19-storey building was commissioned in 1932 to provide a new home to the University of London. It remained an unfinished project due to the start of World War II, but even so, it defines the architecture of Bloomsbury to this day. Designed by Charles Holden, its austere exterior style falls somewhere between traditionalism and modernism, while the interiors feature typically Art Deco marble elements and decorations. Senate House inspired George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in his best-known novel ‘1984’.
Senate House, Malet St, WC1E 7HU
Carreras Cigarette Factory
Ancient Egyptian Revival is a recurring theme of Art Deco architecture, and the Carreras Cigarette Factory is one of the most striking examples in London. A bright colonnade, the cat motifs above it, and two black cats guarding the entrance are only some of the Egyptian features found on the facade. The original project also included a solar disc to the Sun-god Ra, covered during the war because of its resemblance to the symbolism of the Third Reich. Turned into offices in 1961, the building lost many of its original details and decorations, some of which were replaced during an extensive renovation in the late 1990s.
Hampstead Rd, NW1 7DF
Not far from Regent’s Park, 66 Portland Place is home to the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has served this purpose since opening in 1934, when it was inaugurated by King George V and Queen Mary. The bas-relief figure above the entrance is titled ‘Architectural Aspiration’, while five more figures decorate the facade on Weymouth Street. Architecture is also celebrated by two more sculptures depicting a man and a woman as creative forces. The interiors feature wide floor-to-ceiling windows, bright spaces, marble, carvings and other decorations. To have a look around, the RIBA library and cafe are open to the public.
66 Portland Pl, W1B 1AD
Daimler Car Hire Garage
The Daimler Hire was a company that hired out chauffeur-driven luxury cars. It had its headquarters at 7 Herbrand Street, a four-storey concrete building with a distinctive horizontal motif contrasted only by a narrow tall window in its central section. To the right is the iconic spiralling ramp that best defines this building, and which served as the main entrance. Particularly remarkable are the continuous windows following the shape of the ramp. The Daimler Hire Car Garage was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, who were also responsible for the Alaska Factory described below.
7 Herbrand St, WC1N 1AF
Dating back to 1869, this former sealskin factory is a curious throwback to Bermondsey’s industrial days. All that remains of the original building is a stone arch decorated with a relief of a seal, while the Art Deco tower standing at the back was added during the 1930s. Unlike much of Bermondsey, the factory survived World War II thanks, in part, to an unexploded bomb, but closed in the 1960s due to the declining popularity of fur coats. The building has been converted into apartments, and the elegant red letters ‘Alaska’ on its facade still command attention from passersby on Grange Road.
61 Grange Rd, SE1 3BA
Also known as Ideal House, this seven-storey office block was erected in 1928-29 as the London headquarters of the National Radiator Company. Ancient Egypt-inspired detailing and polished black granite are the first features to be noticed while looking at the facade, but the building wouldn’t look as chic without the gold and green decorations on the upper floors. Palladium House was declared a Grade II-listed building in 1981, and today it hosts private flats as well as a restaurant on the ground floor.
1-4 Argyll St, W1F 7LD
The Daily Express Building
Once home to the British press, Fleet Street is also famous for its iconic buildings and architecture. The most striking of all is n°120, which housed the Daily Express until 1989. Its black facade features vitriolite and chromium panels, and distinctive rounded corners. An oval staircase and a remarkable pendant lamp stand out in the lobby, which is pure Art Deco joy in the form of plaster reliefs and silver decorations. Founded in 1930, the Daily Express Building remains the most futuristic architecture on Fleet Street.
2be, 120 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BE (closed to the public but may open during Open House London every September)
This nine-storey building has been the headquarters to the BBC since opening in 1932. The impressive curved facade is its most defining feature, made of Portland stone and topped by a large clock. Above the entrance, a statue depicts ‘Prospero and Ariel’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while ‘Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety’ is the theme of another bas-relief to the side of the building. The Art Deco interior was designed by Australian-Irish architect Raymond McGrath. Today, Broadcasting House also comprises a glass-panelled wing completed in 2005 as part of an extensive refurbishment.
Portland Place, W1A 1AA
Cheap drinks are the only good reason one needs to visit a Wetherspoons pub. The patterned carpets are soaked in years of passing feet and beer spills, but it wasn’t always that way at The Coronet on Holloway Road. Originally known as the Savoy, this was one of many cinemas lining this street. But as larger televisions and home cinema units became more affordable, many cinemas, including the Savoy, were forced out of business. It held its last screening in 1983, and briefly turned into a snooker club before falling into disuse. The pub chain restored part of its former glory, making it the booze palace it is today.
338-346 Holloway Rd, N7 6NJ
The 1930s were the golden age of British lidos, and their design was often influenced by the Art Deco aesthetic and modernist architecture. Brockwell Lido is one of the best examples surviving to this day. Its Olympic-sized swimming pool is circled by elegant, horizontal architecture. Located in Herne Hill, South London, the lido opened in 1937 and closed in 1990 due to cost-cutting plans by the council. It re-opened only four years later thanks to a local campaign, and today it’s still a very popular summer spot.
Brockwell Park, Dulwich Rd, SE24 0PA