Charles Holden

A much-respected architect in his day, Holden is probably best remembered for his designs for London Underground. But he did so much more, reports Anna Lewis

Well respected and lauded in his day, English architect Charles Holden is probably best remembered for his designs of London Underground stations.

The designs were the subject of a recent exhibition at the V&A, yet often overlooked is his other work, including the striking University of London Senate House and dozens of sites for the Imperial War Graves Commission.

With ‘fit for purpose’ as a byword, Holden’s ideas were simple, functional and not conforming to a specific style or genre, but rather to what suited the project in hand.

‘I don’t seek for a style, either ancient or modern,’ Holden wrote in an essay, The Kind of Architecture We Want in Britain, published in 1957. ‘I want an architecture which is through and through a good building; a building planned for specific purpose, constructed in the method and use of materials, old or new, most appropriate to the purpose the building has to serve.’

So respected was he for his work that he was twice offered a knighthood, in 1944 and again in 1951, declining on both occasions to be singled out for the honour in his belief that architecture was a collaborative effort.

Born in 1875 in Bolton, he worked first as a store clerk and then as a lab technician, but studied draughtsmanship at evening classes. He considered going into engineering before joining his brother-in-law in his architecture and surveying practice. From there he became articled to EW Leeson, a Manchester architect. During this time Holden attended and became a star student at Manchester School of Art.

Although Holden was clearly a singular talent in terms of innovative design, for most of his career he was a partner of Adams, Holden and Pearson, a commercial practice that closed in the Seventies (he died in 1960).

The practice specialised in the design of hospitals and a number of Holden’s earliest work were Tudor Revival and Arts and Crafts designs for hospitals, including the Belgrave Hospital for Children in Kennington, south London, designed in 1900. It was influenced by the work of Philip Webb and Henry Wilson and features Arts and Crafts signatures including steeply pitched roofs, corner towers and window surrounds in stone.

In 1902, he won the architectural competition to design the Bristol Central Library. Here the Tudor Revival elevations in Bath stone complement the adjacent Abbey Gate of Bristol Cathedral, and the front plays host to oriel windows and sculpture groups featuring figures of Chaucer, Bede and King Alfred, by Charles Pibworth.

For the interiors Holden kept the design classical, and the library was once described by architectural historian Andor Gomme as ‘one of the greatest masterpieces of the early modern movement.’ It was compared to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, and this led to the suggestion that Mackintosh’s designs for the later part of the school were inspired by Holden’s.

Over the next few years, Holden designed many more inspirational buildings, one of which was the Sir Ernest Cassel-funded King Edward VII Sanatorium, built between 1903 and 1906. Here Holden took the needs of the patients in to consideration by creating long wings of south-facing rooms to maximise their exposure to sunlight and fresh air. He also designed the sanatorium’s V-shaped, open-air chapel.

During the First World War, Holden expressed a strong sense of personal duty and service and in 1917 put his architecture on hold and served with the Red Cross as a stretcher-bearer.

Immediately after the war and for 10 years until 1928 he designed 67 war cemeteries and memorials across France and Belgium for the Imperial War Graves Commission, including cemeteries at Louvencourt and Forceville in France, which became prototypes for his further designs.

Holden’s first involvement with London Underground came in 1923 when he was commissioned to design a facade for a side entrance at Westminster Tube station. This led to the designs for seven new stations in south London.

In contrast to his much-liked Underground stations, Holden’s designs for the University of London, built between 1931 and 1937, were met with mixed reviews. In the centre of Bloomsbury and a stone’s throw from the British Museum, the university Holden planned had an enormous single campus building featuring two skyscraper towers and 17 courtyards, all linked by a continuous spine.

Due to a lack of funds the scheme was gradually cut back and only the library and Senate House, one of the two planned towers, were completed. It could have been a blessing in disguise, for Senate House and its surroundings were criticised for being cold and rather intimidating looking, despite Holden’s use of rich materials and decorations inside.

Holden stuck to his guns, saying of the Senate House that he believed the building should have significance in form and take on a character of its own, requiring little in the way of embellishment. Fit for purpose indeed.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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