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Pilkington Brothers’ Headquarters, St. Helens (1955-65)

Despite a series of important commissions on home soil, Fry and Drew’s post-war work in Britain is often sidelined due to a historical narrative focused on the second generation of MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group modernists. A forthcoming article examining Maxwell Fry’s scheme for the glass manufacturers Pilkington Brothers’ new headquarters in St. Helens, seeks to shed light on Fry and Drew’s post-war projects.

The Pilkington commission was Fry and Drew’s first ‘prestige’ building for corporate clients in Britain (although they had built several overseas for BP, Shell and the Co-operative Bank). In the wake of the Pilkington project, offices for Gulf Oil Company, Dow Agro Chemicals and Rolls Royce quickly followed, thus enabling Fry, Drew & Partners to establish itself as an expert in modern, corporate architecture.

13.2.27 PB HQ

The project’s sizeable budget and enlightened clients – who saw themselves as patrons to the British art and design scene – allowed Fry to assemble a sixteen-strong collective of artists to design twenty-four artworks. Including work by Victor Pasmore, Edward Bawden, John Hutton, Robert Goodden, Humphrey Spender, and Avinash Chandra, the headquarters house an outstanding collection of post-war applied art – a secular counterpart to Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral.

The new headquarters opened for business on 31st  August 1965, providing 1,500 employees with the latest in modern working conditions. Extensive social and welfare facilities for staff included a canteen, a medical centre (including a dentist, an optician and a chiropodist), a hairdresser, a library, and a museum, telling the history of glassmaking. The landscaped grounds with the ‘works water’ reservoir – complete with a pair of swans – was intended for use by both the Pilkington staff and St. Helens community.

13.2.27 PB canteen

The complex was sold off around ten years ago, although some 200 Pilkington staff remain with independent companies leasing the remaining office space. The canteen building (above and shown in this previous post), is currently unoccupied and in a bad state, but is apparently now being stripped of its asbestos linings for future re-use.

Did you work for Pilkington Brothers at the new offices on Prescot Road? Do you remember when the building opened? Did you help build the new headquarters? We’d love to hear from anyone with connections to the company and learn more about its significance for the people of St. Helens.

The article ‘A Monument to Humanism: Pilkington Brothers’ Headquarters (1955-65) by Fry, Drew & Partners’, by Jessica Holland and Iain Jackson, will be published in this year’s Architectural History journal.

‘Fire’, Avinash Chandra

At the Pilkington Brothers’ Headquarters in St. Helens (1955-65), designed by Maxwell Fry, sixteen contemporary artists were commissioned to create artwork that demonstrated the range of traditional and innovative techniques used in glass manufacture.

The Indian artist Avinash Chandra (1931-91) created a representation of fire, ‘which lies at the heart of glassmaking’. Measuring thirty-seven feet by nine feet (11.2m x 2.7m) the mural comprises laminates of coloured, clear and wired glass, and plastic, in fluid circular forms. It is back-lit with over one hundred light-bulbs. ‘Fire’ is surprisingly three-dimensional – you don’t really get a good sense of it in the image here – the crackled spheres burst out of their setting, giving a suggestion of the extreme heat and light of a glass furnace.

13.2.27 Chandra detail

The piece is amongst a series of large-scale, coloured glass murals undertaken by Chandra for corporate clients during the 1960s; he also created a mural for the Indian High Commission in Lagos (1962) and a Fibreglass mural for the Indian Tea Centre, Oxford Street, London (1964).

‘Fire’ still hangs in its original setting, over the main entrance to the Pilkington tower block (more on this later). For an image of a dapper Chandra in front of his work, see the excellent VADS collection.

‘The Conflict of Man with the Tides and the Sands’, Peter Lanyon

Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry used artwork in their buildings wherever possible. At the University of Liverpool’s Civil Engineering Building (1960), Fry commissioned the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon (1918-64) to design a mural of enamelled tiles. Lanyon created a visualisation of the research into loose-boundary hydraulics, including the movement of rivers, the mechanism of waves and the behaviour of solids suspended in water. He spent months researching hydraulics before attempting to create the image, which is intended to represent the interaction of forces.

13.2.13 lanyon2

Maxwell Fry suggested the use of enamelled tiles as a method of creating a hard-wearing surface that might be applied to a wall of the reception area, immediately opposite the main entrance. The mural consists of 750 standard, 6-inch white tiles that Lanyon painted and then fired in a kiln. This process has ensured that the texture of each brushstroke is discernable on close inspection, giving added movement to the work. In some cases Lanyon adheres to the lines of each tile, while other sweeping strokes break up this rectilinear pattern:

13.2.13 lanyon detail

Much of this information was taken from a write-up on Lanyon’s work situated next to the mural. Visit it if you can – the pictures don’t do it justice!

Images © Jessica Holland.

‘Memories of African sculpture’

Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew developed the use of perforated screens in their West African ‘tropical architecture’. Designed to provide a sun-break whilst encouraging much-needed cross-ventilation in the hot and humid environment, the brise-soleil also provided an opportunity to add decorative forms to otherwise basic structures.

African influences – described in rather general terms by Fry and Drew as strong forms and colours – were used to bring regionalism to their imported modern ideas. Variants of sculptural ‘African’ forms are used in each of their school, university and hospital projects to provide an instantly recognizable Fry and Drew motif. Over the coming weeks images of these buildings will be posted.

13.2.4 ArchRev

Jane Drew said of their attempts to bring regional character to the modernist buildings:

‘The particular architectural character comes not only from the mono-pitch roof and long low blocks … but from the sunbreakers, grilles and other shading but breeze-permitting devices. … the sunshine and moisture and heavy overcast sky and feeling of oppressive lethargy seem to call forth moulded forms which are rhythmical and strong, not spiky and elegant, but bold and sculptural.’

Below, Gordon Cullen’s sketch of bold forms and strong shadows emphasizes Drew’s words. These images are taken from an article on Fry and Drew’s ‘African Experiment’ published by Architectural Review in May 1953 and show the perforated balustrade designed for the Adisadel College extension at Cape Coast, Ghana.

13.2.4 Cullen