Hoover Building 14.05.14

42-19734082 rt

The neo-Egyptian facade of the building (image: Construction Photography/Corbis)

A factory designed to produce vacuum cleaners challenged the nation's preconceptions about industrial architecture and, in 1980, was the inspiration behind an Elvis Costello song

One of the first things JB Priestley noticed when he travelled out of London in 1933 to compose his English Journey were the factories of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. For Priestley, a Bradfordian, there was something not right about them. Factories were soot-blackened, eight-storey brick masses with tall chimneys, not these peculiar, snow-white edifices, "all glass and concrete and chromium plate". There was something odd about what was made in them, too – cosmetics, plastics and consumer durables such as vacuum cleaners, rather than proper manly stuff. These places had escaped from California to take their place on the arterial roads out of London, visions of industry and production that were clean, consumerist and glamorous. The most famous – or, for Nikolaus Pevsner, the worst of these "modernistic atrocities" – was the Hoover Factory, on Western Avenue in Perivale, west London.

Sculpted from gleaming "snowcrete", inset with green, blue, red and black tiles and entered through black steel sunburst gates, the frontage's enfilade of neo-Egyptian columns is industrial, but hardly functionalist. Next to it, the canteen block is even more dramatic, with its huge, curved Crittall windows, in a symmetrical design one part Temple of Luxor, one part Erich Mendelsohn department store. It's pure facade architecture – a decorated shed and a perfect example of what critic Adolf Behne called the "Reklamarchitektur", or "advertising architecture", of the 1920s and 1930s. Like a billboard, it was to be seen at speed from a main road. What people referred to when they talked about the "Hoover factory" was the canteen and office block – not the actual industrial plant, which was just behind, in some less decorated sheds. Bertolt Brecht once wrote that "a photograph of a factory tells us nothing about the relations inside that factory", and here, that point could be extended to the factory's architecture. It's no surprise that "real" modernists such as Pevsner were appalled.

But to the generations of Londoners who drove or took buses past the building, the Hoover factory was an extraordinary
piece of architecture, dropped in somewhere so unprepossessing as Perivale, dedicated to the noble task of producing vacuum cleaners. Wallis, Gilbert and Partners churned these out on an architectural production line – outside of the dozens on the outskirts of London, there are others examples in Glasgow, Birmingham and elsewhere – but it was, like the consumer goods made inside, a production line of the individuated and the brightly attractive.

Not long after completion, the factory was turned over to war production. My grandmother, who grew up on the other side of Western Avenue, worked there making munitions. It went back to the production of vacuum cleaners for another few decades until its closure in the 1980s. In 1989, it became, in a typical production-to-consumption switch, a branch of Tesco. There's scant trace of the original interiors, but they were hardly the point. The supermarket's car park uses the cleared space where the original shop floor was. Its style was revived for supermarkets at the hands of sundry postmodernists, but its appeal was captured rather better in Elvis Costello's Hoover Factory, recorded in 1980 when the factory was derelict, and one of the few records made about looking at a factory rather than working in one. "Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue, must have been a wonder when it was brand new. Talking about the splendour of the Hoover factory, I know that you'd agree if you'd seen it too ... Past scrolls and inscriptions like those of the Egyptian age, one of these days the Hoover factory is going to be all the rage in those fashionable pages."

 

 

 

Words

Owen Hatherley

quotes story

Sculpted from gleaming "snowcrete", inset with green, blue, red and black tiles and entered through black steel sunburst gates, the frontage's enfilade of neo-Egyptian columns is industrial, but hardly functionalist

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