Building Fleet Street: The Golden Age of Newspapers

Edwin Heathcote

Newspapers are the flimsiest, most ephemeral of media; here today, gone tomorrow. By contrast, architecture is the most steadfast of all media. In the inter-war period, reading a daily newspaper was one of the defining customs of British life. In a bid to cement their influence in the fabric of the city, press agencies commissioned lavish headquarters. Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote considers how the grand Art Deco buildings of Fleet Street reflected the aspirations of the industry.

The printed newspaper form may be going out of fashion, but the buildings which housed them have stood the test of time.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

Architecture is an expression of the culture we live in and the cultures that our predecessors have lived in. The newspapers are the flimsiest, the most ephemeral, of media, you know, they’re here today and gone tomorrow. Architecture is the most permanent and the slowest by far of all of media.

In a way, the newspapers wanted to compensate for the ephemerality of their product and to build a kind of presence into the city. It was a very interesting moment when around the world the newspapers started building for themselves because it came roughly between the First and Second World Wars, the 1920s and the 1930s, and that was when virtually every household bought a newspaper – it had never been like that before, never been like that since. For that brief moment newspapers had a sense of association, they felt like they expressed the nature of the city.

Fleet Street has become synonymous with the newspaper industry. So, when we talk about newspapers, we talk about Fleet Street, and their printing presses were here as well. Underground was a whole subterranean world from which the newspapers emerged late at night. The finest newspaper building in Fleet Street is Number 85, and it’s the former home of the Press Association and Reuters. It was built in 1935 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was the architect of the establishment. At the same time that he was designing this building here, he was designing the government buildings in New Delhi, and he’d just finished building the war memorials across continental Europe to the massacres of the First World War.

He had a very particular, sombre, quite classical style. This is a good example of that. It’s a kind of architecture of Empire, the way a British industry might like to see itself: dignified, authoritative, obeying. Modern enough, so clearly 19th century, not Victorian — a little bit stripped down, a little bit kind of functional — but very elegant.

It has this tripartite structure, so every part has a base, which is rusticated with this kind of rough-looking stonework, and it has a central section, then it has a more delicate top with curves and a more feminine sculpted attic. What we think of a Classicism tends to have columns and porticos. So, if we look at Somerset House, which is nearby, you can see classical Roman columns, domes, the kind of huge courtyard. But you also see some of the rustication, which is the rough stonework you see on the first floor of the building, which will appear in a Lutyens building.

This is a restrained Classicism, with the details stripped down, so it’s the British reassessing themselves after the massacres of the First World War, being a little more modest and trying to make a dignified presence in the City.

The Telegraph has always been a conservative newspaper, it’s been solid, kind of middle-class. And you would expect it, then, to build itself a classical conservative building.  But actually, when you look at it, it’s a dazzling piece of Art Deco. It was built in 1927, and the architects were Elcock & Sutcliffe and Burnet Tait. They were the architects of their era. The front of the Telegraph building is a composite, it’s part Classical, part Art Deco. You see over the front door there are these two kinds of stylised figures of two Mercury’s, delivering extremely fast the newsprint that’s going to go to every corner of the country. It has that sense of a dependable, classical architecture that we saw in Lutyens, but it has a completely different glamour applied to it.

Art Deco was the architecture that emerged between the wars, in the 1920s. It was the architecture of the movie industry, of the big musicals of the 1930s, so this idea of a kind of glamorous Hollywood architecture was very much in the air, and the Telegraph succumbed.

The dynamism of the industry, an industry which sees itself as, in a way, as cool, as responsive and as glamorous as the movies, is embodied in its architecture. At number 120, we I have I think one of the most intriguing and elegant interwar building in the city – the headquarters of the Daily Express from 1932. It marked a real change in architecture, and what was so radical about it was that there was none of the classical detail, there was none of the columns, none of the stonework, absolutely kind of stripped back to the minimum building.

The Daily Express building was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook, who was bust building the Daily Express into the biggest mass-circulation newspaper in the world. Ellis and Clarke, the architects, worked with an engineer called Owen Williams, and he welcomed the opportunity to create something very new here, using a material called Vitrolite, which was glass that’s black all the way through. So, it looks a little like marble, but it can do things that marble can’t. It can be cut very thin, it can curve around corners.

It was also the first curtain-walled building in the city. And what that means is that the structure was set behind the façade and the façade is just a skin of glass laid around, like a curtain drawn around the edge of the building, and the corners in a way a bit of an echo of the glamorous transatlantic liners that were the kind of zenith of avant-garde, luxury of the 1930s.

[Archival footage voiceover:] ‘At such a time, mere living is a delight…’

When you go inside, the modernism kind of dissipates a little bit and you are kind of back to the Art Deco, another one of the incredibly glamorous movie-palace Art Deco type interiors you know, with colour, with dripping ceilings, with geometric patterns, so I think it was a kind of jewel box effect.

I think you could argue that the 1920s and 30s, when these buildings were built, was the kind of golden age of newspapers. The buildings are still here, but the newspapers aren’t. Newspapers began to move out in the 80s and extraordinarily within about a decade they were all gone. They were built to embody an era, to embody a set of values that newspapers believed they exuded – of practicality, dignity, the lasting feel of elegance. Elegance lasts.

 

With thanks to

Goldman Sachs

Somerset House

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Dutch National Archives

FSALE

Getty

Internet Archive Book Images

National Portrait Gallery

Pond5

Shutterstock

 

 

Music

Audionetwork

9 Lives Music

Original composition

 

Full list of images shown:

Sir Edwin Lutyens

Plate from p.5 of House and Gardens by E.L. Lutyens [Ed.] Lawrence Weaver, 1921

Internet Archive Book Images

 

Rashtrapati Bhavan

Unknown photographer, 2012

 

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Sir Edwin Lutyens, 1932

Photo: © FSALE 2018, n.d.

 

Adelaide House by Burnet and Tait

Grant Smith, 2010

VIEW Pictures Ltd via Alamy Stock Photo

 

Hollywood Boulevard, California, USA

Andrew Parker, 2011

Alamy Stock Photo

 

Sunset Tower hotel on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles

Robert Landau, 2012

Alamy Stock Photo

 

Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook

Yousuf Karsh, 1943

Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlandsch Fotobureau via

Dutch National Archives

 

Sir Evan Owen Williams

Sims & Co, 1932

NPG P565

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

News staff as work in the sub editors room at the Daily Mirror offices in Gerladine House

Photographer Unknown, 1927

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix via Alamy Stock Photo

 

Daily Mirror Offices, Holborn, London, 1961

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix via Alamy Stock Photo

 

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral

James Valentine, c.1890

 

Fleet Street views c.1955

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix via Alamy Stock Photo

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light 13:02 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

A portrait of pioneering architectural artist Brian Clarke.

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future 12:53 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Hans Ulrich Obrist traces how Zaha Hadid’s futuristic architecture evolved from ‘superfluid’ sketches.

Cézanne: ‘The Father of Modern Art’

Cézanne: ‘The Father of Modern Art’ 14:15 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Jacky Klein discusses how a recluse from the French countryside became the first Modern painter.