|Architectural style||Modernist architecture|
|Town or city||Liverpool|
|Design and construction|
Oriel Chambers was one of the world's first buildings (along with the 1849 Jayne Building in Philadelphia) featuring a metal framed glass curtain wall. Designed by architect Peter Ellis and built in 1864, it is located on Water Street near the town hall in Liverpool, England. Due to its outstanding importance, it has been grade I listed.
Ellis won the commission for Oriel Chambers by competition and completed it in 1864 as evidenced by the building's inscription A.D. 1864 in the gable. It comprises 43,000 sq ft (4,000 m2) of floor space set over five storeys. Ellis manages to maximise the influx of light by employing a grid of oriel windows which became the building's defining feature.
The plainest brick warehouse in town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street termed Oriel Chambers. Did we not see this vast abortion – which would be depressing were it not ludicrous – with our own eyes, we should have doubted the possibility of its existence. Where and in what are their beauties supposed to lie?
But the potential of Ellis' design was not lost on all of his contemporaries. John Wellborn Root studied in Liverpool as a teenaged boy, being sent there by his father to be safe from the American Civil War following the Atlanta Campaign (1864). In all likelihood, he studied the then brand new Oriel Chambers and put the lessons learnt to good use when he developed into an important architect of the Chicago School of Architecture, exporting Ellis' ideas across the Atlantic. Long rows of bay windows (of which oriels are a special type) characterise some of Burnham and Root's 1880s American skyscrapers.
More importantly, Oriel Chambers, and Ellis' only other known building at 16 Cook Street, Liverpool, are amongst the precursors of modernist architecture for another reason. In addition to the extensive use of glass on their facades, both boast metal framed glass curtain walls towards the courtyards which makes them two of the world's first buildings to include this feature. Both buildings rely on H-section iron columns at the perimeter, which support the floors and cladding. Ellis's method for cladding was not adopted by Burnham and Root though: their Monadnock Building of 1891 has its distinctive bay windows still set in load-bearing brickwork.
Recognising its modernity, unsurprisingly, the critical assessment of Oriel Chambers was far more favourable in the 20th century. Nikolaus Pevsner called it "one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe" and in his earlier book, Pioneers of Modern Design, describes to thus:
The delicacy of the ironwork in the plate-glass oriel windows and the curtain walling at the back with the vertical supports retracted yet visible from outside is almost unbelievably ahead of its time.
Its membranous windows are almost an expression of the open space of the interior pressing out into the space of the street.
In 2006 it was purchased from DCT Developments by Bruntwood for just over £5 million. Bruntwood was then expected to spend the next two years refurbishing the building at a cost of £750,000.
Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook Street were featured in the first episode of the ITV (Granada / Tyne Tees) television series Grundy's Northern Pride, looking at John Grundy's favourite buildings in the north of England, aired on 9 January 2007.
- Adam Caruso on the impact of Liverpool’s pioneering Ellis Buildings, bdonline, 8 January 2010.
- "History". Oriel Chambers. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
- Quoted after Mike Higginbottom's transcription
- Nikolaus Pevsner, South Lancashire (The Buildings of England), 1969, p. 177.
- Originally published as Pioneers of the Modern Movement in 1936; 2nd edition, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949; revised and partly rewritten, Penguin Books, 1960; here quoted after the 2005 ed., p. 105.
- http://caruso.arch.ethz.ch/archive/references/project/71 Model, sections and plans on the website of Adam Caruso