The Design of Hornsey Town Hall
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 (1938-9). 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.
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