Hornsey Town Hall

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Hornsey Town Hall.

Hornsey Town Hall is a public building in Crouch End area of Hornsey, London. Completed in 1935, it was the first major UK building to be constructed in the Modernist style. Designed by architect Reginald Uren (1903–1988) in 1933–35, the building shows the influence of Hilversum town hall in the Netherlands and was awarded a bronze medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has Grade II* Listed status.[1] The building was used by Hornsey Borough Council as its headquarters until 1966.

When the former area of the Municipal Borough of Hornsey became part of the London Borough of Haringey most of the administrative functions were re-located at Wood Green. As a result the building has fallen into disrepair, although steps are being taken to find a new use for the building.

It is often used as a location for films and TV.

Local Government before Hornsey Town Hall[edit]

Hornsey became a parish in around 1300. This heavily wooded area contained farms and villas, one of which was Crouch Hall, probably built in 1681 at the crossroads of what came to be known as Crouch End. By 1808 the present Town Hall site housed the non-conformist Broadway Chapel, two cottages, an alley and the long low Lake Villa, the gable end of which faced the Broadway. In 1827 the pond by the roadside was filled in. The buildings in front of Lake Villa gradually became shops.

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act had created 178 corporate boroughs in England and Wales. Corporations were to be elected directly by ratepayers, hold open council meetings and maintain audited accounts. This eventually led to the construction of significant Town Halls in industrial cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. The Metropolis Management Act of 1855 began a process that changed the way London was administered, creating local boards.

Hornsey was a local government district in south east Middlesex from 1867 to 1965.

In 1867 a Local Board was formed for part of the civil parish of Hornsey. The rest of the parish was already under South Hornsey Local Board formed in 1865.

Hornsey Local Board was based at Southwood Lane, Highgate, from 1868 onwards.

The railway was to change Hornsey significantly. Hornsey remained rural until around 1880, probably because of the lack of adequate sewerage. Large parts of Hornsey remained in private ownership, inhibiting development.

Finsbury Park, the first public open space, opened in 1869. By 1887 Hornsey had seven railway stations. Crouch End was to become a prosperous middle-class suburb due to an influx of mainly clerical workers who could easily commute to the city. Public parks were opened at Highgate wood (‘86), Clissold (‘89) and Waterlow (‘91). Crouch End playing fields opened in 1892. A number of new roads and avenues, such as Elder Avenue and Weston Park (‘89) sprang up. Crouch and Topsfield Halls were replaced by Topsfield Parade (‘92) and Broadway Parade (‘95). Ferme Park and the Crouch Hall estate were partly built up by 1894. The council built the Clock Tower in 1895 as a memorial to Henry Reader Williams.

In 1899 London was divided into 28 metropolitan boroughs, funded by grants and loans from central Government. This started an evolution in the role of the local authority - they became town planners, were able to build low-cost houses, were responsible for education and the social welfare of the people and eventually the provision of the basic utilities of life.

By the time Edward VII became king in 1901, 11% of the population of Hornsey were male clerks and there were nearly 8,000 people employed as servants, the vast majority of them women. The middle class, conservative nature of the borough became increasingly established. Hornsey was being compared with Kensington as North London's west end. A large proportion (15%) of the borough was parkland, population density was only 30 people per acre and Hornsey had the lowest death rate of any large town in the London area. Hornsey was incorporated as a Borough in 1903.

By the mid-1930s Crouch End was a solid, middle-class town with a thriving and popular shopping centre that included an Opera House in the middle of Topsfield Parade. In a society where rail, post, telephone, coal and water were government-owned and operated, the local authority had wide-ranging responsibilities, including the provision of electricity to the population by building generating plants. The reach of education now encompassed the libraries that had previously been established by charities. The Town Hall played a significant part in public life.

A brief history of Hornsey Town Hall[edit]

By the end of the First World War Hornsey Borough Council had outgrown their forty-year old offices at the edge of the borough in Highgate. In 1920 and 1923 the council had bought the long, wedge-shaped site of the present Town Hall. It contained Broadway Hall (destroyed by fire in 1923), Lake Villa and some cottages. The Council laid it out as a public park with a playground. By 1929 the Council had a plan to build their offices above the Broadway frontage, subsidised by shops below, but the lack of car parking made it unworkable.

A design competition was held in October 1933, assessed by a RIBA-appointed architect, C. Cowles Voysey, designer of the much-praised Worthing Town Hall. 1930s architecture was emerging from the Edwardian era of Gothic and Baroque revival, Neo-Georgian, French Beaux-Arts and the Arts and Crafts movement. It was coming under increasing influence from the 1920s European idea that form should follow function. Steel elements were being used; soon followed by reinforced-concrete frames. These modern techniques, deployed without ornament, were seen as ‘honest’. The modern movement was naturally applied to modern uses – garages and factories, health clinics, swimming pools and underground stations.

Modern Town Hall building in the UK had begun in the late Victorian era in the industrial towns of the North and the Midlands. Before the First World War municipal architecture had been based on the classical brick-based style created by Sir Christopher Wren. It was exemplified by Chelsea Town Hall (1885–87) whose designer James Brydon called it Wrenaissance. In London between the First and Second World Wars the majority of metropolitan town halls were built - 26 new complexes over twenty years.

The town hall always contained a chamber on the top floor (for better ventilation and lighting) in which the mayor faced a semicircle (or horseshoe) of council members. It was used for a range of ceremonies with public access and needed to house an increasingly large staff of council workers. As well as a rates collection office, the town hall usually had a drawing office best illuminated by natural light, which the architect often placed around an open space such as an inner courtyard.

As the designs evolved council chambers were put further away from the front of the building to reduce the effects of street noise. Public assembly halls were added as a requirement to town halls built in the 1920 and 1930s, often built at the side or rear to permit future expansion.

At the time of the Hornsey competition the majority of London town halls built thus far fell into three main categories. There was the courtyard plan, sometimes left open, as at Hammersmith and at Beckenham. Examples of the long single range could be found at Dagenham and Friern Barnet. Less common was the group plan, where the elements were separate but linked to one another, as used by Bradshaw, Gas and Hope at Wimbledon in 1928–31.

Scandinavian public architecture was much admired, notably the simplified classical lines of Ragnar Östberg's Stockholm City Hall (1909–32). In the UK it was sometimes mixed with the traditional English approach to produce Swedish-Georgian. The brick-based Town Hall for Hilversum in the Netherlands by Willem Dudok (1928–30) was considered significant enough to earn him a RIBA Gold Medal in 1935.

The architect[edit]

The 218 competitors were asked to submit designs for a council chamber, committee rooms, administrative offices and a multi-purpose hall with seating for 800 to 1,000 people, complete with an upper gallery, for no more than £100,000. The character of the building ‘should be dignified and indicate its purpose’, rather than boast ‘elaborate decoration and detail which is not required’.

In October 1933 the £150 prize and the job of building the Town Hall was awarded to Reginald Harold Uren, a 27 year old ‘modern’ architect who had won the Manchester Trades Exhibition competition earlier that year. He had come to London from his native Christchurch, New Zealand in 1930, to train at the Bartlett. By the time he had completed the Town Hall in 1935, Uren had joined the firm of Slater and Moberly (later Slater & Hodnett, and now the Slater Partnership).

During the 1930s his firm undertook a number of commissions, notably the extension to the Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In 1938 he settled in a house he designed himself in Kerry Avenue, Stanmore and became a strong supporter of the Stanmore Society. Designs for the new town hall in Southall were abandoned because of the war. His design for Ruislip-Northwood was never executed because of the re-organisation of the GLC. In 1968 his firm’s design for the impressive Norfolk County Hall at Norwich was successfully completed. Its careful brick detail, unusual at the time, can perhaps be traced back to Uren’s early experience at Hornsey. Likewise, the concern to integrate architecture and other arts, demonstrated early on at Hornsey, remained a preoccupation in post-war work. Uren was a member of the RIBA standing committee on art, and his interest is illustrated both by his firm’s large building for John Lewis in Oxford Street (1960–66) with exterior sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and by the showrooms for Sandersons nearby in Berners Street (1957–61). He was the first recipient of the New Zealand award of merit for architecture. He returned to New Zealand on his retirement, and lived there until his death on 17 March 1988.

The opening of the Town Hall[edit]

The Town Hall was built between 1934 and 35, and opened on 4 November 1935 in a ceremony attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The council had modified the design to retain the grass and trees in front rather than devote the whole space to car parking. Early comments on the building were mixed, with some local journalists comparing its appearance to that of a jam factory. Council officials reported some members of the public as mistaking the building for Turnpike Lane underground station. The Hornsey Journal (November 1935), claimed that ‘the architect deserves thanks for boldly breaking away from the deadly classicism of the Victorian public building’. The Royal Institute of British Architects recognised the quality of the design and awarded the building a bronze medal for the best London building erected during the three years ending in December 1935.

The Town Hall fulfilled its intended function for the next thirty years. The London Government Act created the GLC in 1965, widening the reach of London.

The design of Hornsey Town Hall[edit]

Hornsey Town Hall, designed by RH Uren in 1933, forms the centrepiece of an architectural composition with the Broadway House and Annexe. These three buildings were laid out so as to enclose a public square leading off the main shopping street. The architectural style of the complex projected a statement by a prosperous modern borough seeking to forge a distinctive identity for itself in the capital. The complex is now a monument to a style of local government that has been on the decline since the 1960s. Until the Gas Showrooms was converted into a bank by Barclays, the combination of a Town Hall – a symbol of progressive local government, flanked by the gas and electric utilities, was unique. United by the use of brick and sculptural decoration by A J Ayres, it was a calm and dignified statement of twentieth-century ideals, facing the flurry of the Victorian shopping centre.

Uren had dispensed with the well established symmetric approach hitherto adopted by Town Halls in a notable departure from the tradition of English municipal buildings. Regular compositions with classical porticos were the norm as, for example that of Worthing Town Hall, designed in 1930 by C. Cowles-Voysey. Voysey was the RIBA-appointed assessor of the design competition Uren won in 1933.

Uren took a modern approach. By separating the functional areas and grouping them loosely together, he pioneered an informal planning approach also found at Greenwich Town Hall (1938–39). As Voysey noted at the time, ‘The winning design admirably fits the site and is cleverly designed to make the best of the difficult shape’. Uren had grasped the simple fact ‘that ceremonial areas did not expand but offices did’.

The building is set back as far as possible to give the approach some dignity and to provide essential parking space. The dual function as a public hall and council offices is clearly expressed. The public hall to the north is distinguished by the elongated windows of the foyer, above a generous triple entrance. The ceremonial balcony on the floor above gives the entrance horizontal emphasis. The council offices are approached by a smaller but more decorative footway at the foot of the staircase tower. The council chamber, projecting to the south, is reached by means of a handsome staircase and spacious central corridor, while the offices are arranged compactly around an inner courtyard at the back, to avoid overlooking the neighbouring properties.

The appearance of the exterior with its plain surfaces of specially chosen small bricks, with its dominating tower and elongated windows with pronounced keystones, pays direct homage to the Town Hall at Hilversum (1928–30) by W.M.Dudok, who was awarded a RIBA Gold Medal in 1935. Dudok cited the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. Key aspects of this design were echoed in many buildings of the period, particularly those constructed by Middlesex County Council. Hornsey Town Hall is not simply a replica of Hilversum Town Hall - it was innovative in its own right and also unusual for the quantity of sculpture (by A.J.Ayres, commissioned by Uren). Uren softened the severity of Dudok’s brick style with Ayres’s carved stone lintel and the generous use of ornamental metalwork.

Much attention was also given to the interior finishes, in which plan and function took precedence over design, and ornament was eliminated in favour of a ‘machine aesthetic’ in which the nature of modern materials – glass, concrete, steel – could be honestly expressed. Such influences are strongly apparent in the staircase of Ashton marble and in the main rooms, which are panelled in a variety of fine woods. All survive remarkably complete, even down to the original furniture and drapery (designed by Uren himself and made by Heals) and the cork-tiled floors, thanks to the care taken by the property department and successive facilities managers.

Future plans[edit]

On 26 April 2011, Haringey Council's cabinet approved plans for the refurbishment of the building as premises for Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts by 2014, however a planning application must be submitted and English Heritage approval granted before work may start on the development.[2] The building will be refurbished in a £19 million project and is expected to include two new performance venues.[3]

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Coordinates: 51°34′43″N 0°07′21″W / 51.578619°N 0.122554°W / 51.578619; -0.122554