Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The City of London has many surprises waiting to be discovered in its streets, and there are few more delightful than this truly astonishing building of 1914-16 by Dutch Art Nouveau architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage, designer of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, at 1-4 and 32 Bury Street.
Appearing initially as a solid screen when viewed from afar, Holland House’s facade only opens up as you approach, its chunky, closely-set piers ensuring that the windows are hidden from acute angles. It’s an intelligent response to the problem of placing an office block in confined city streets, providing richness for the observer’s eye but a degree of privacy for the occupier. Erno Goldfinger practised a similar deception decades later with the sign for his French Government Tourist Office in Piccadilly, and it’s also the kind of clever optical illusion which Berlage’s countryman M.C. Escher might have appreciated.
Faced in glossy green faience, Holland House was built for Dutch shipping firm W.H. Muller, and reflects both continental and American influences. The latter is clear in the extreme vertical emphasis given to the facades. The piers, set more closely together than was the norm for the period in Britain and projecting beyond the floor panels like ribs, immediately catch the eye and take it straight up to the cornice, coming to rest on a decorative perforated screen, also of faience. This approach makes the building appear much taller and more impressive than it actually is, a particularly effective approach for a head office sited in a narrow street. Chamfering on the lower and reducing to a triangular section on the upper floors alludes to the non-structural nature of the piers.
The continental, Art Nouveau influence is reflected in the plastic handling of the faience – the almost tactile recessed bosses on the floor spandrels, the morphing of the piers’ shape already mentioned and the organic manner in which they rise out of the flamed black granite plinth at ground floor level. Emerging triumphantly from the same plinth is a magnificent low-relief carving of a ship, ploughing head-on through the waves with steam spewing from its funnel. Executed by J. Mendes da Costa, it both looks back to Art Nouveau and anticipates Art Deco in its stylisation and intimate relationship with its host building.
Impressive and unusual though all this is, it’s the interiors of Holland House that are the real surprise.
The ground and first storeys each have as their central feature a large lobby richly decorated with mosaic floors and ceilings in geometric, near-Islamic patterns, delicate octagonal light fittings and leaded windows. This work is by Bart van der Leck and supervised, after Berlage fell out with the client, by Henri van der Velde, a noted architect and designer in his own right of buildings including the Belgian pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition. Walls are clad with two colours of Royal Delft tiles; a thin course of fretted orange tiling separates them, replaced with orange-tinted glass blocks above the doors for light transmission. Stepped mouldings hug the corners.
The walls of the more austere lower ground floor lobby have a few courses of beige tiles just below the ceiling but then vivid deep blue tiles covering the remaining surfaces, whilst the basement walls are finished entirely in blue, wittily highlighting the maritime theme. Exposed, heavily-riveted steel beams and steel bulkhead doors extend the nautical motif throughout the building.
This is an opulent display of crafts, very much in keeping with the art patronage practised by the clients, the Kroller-Mullers, for whom Berlage worked exclusively for six years.
Lying at the heart of Holland House and accessed via the lobbies is a large, bright, airy light well which starts on the lower ground floor and rises the full height of the building. Much more carefully considered than the functional, pipe-strewn equivalent found in other buildings, with carved stone window sills and clutter-free walls entirely covered in glazed white tiles, it has strongly-projecting piers between the windows in a clear mirroring of the exterior. Peter Palumbo has described this as possibly the first atrium in Britain, and it is now used as a peaceful garden for tenants. Its presence perhaps reflects another American influence, that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin building in Buffalo, New York, erected ten years previously.
Although its facade tricks no longer surprise quite so much now that 30 St Mary Axe has opened-up the street plan, Holland House remains a bold continental cuckoo in the English nest, and it was to be some time before its effect was fully recognised.
Posted 30 October 2010
Exteriors, basement interior and ground floor plan (basement from unrecorded website; plan, Matthews & Goodman)