The story behind Fleet Street’s boldest art deco façade: The Express Building
Along Fleet Street is a bold Art Deco building, which stands out amongst its more muted, grey neighbours. No. 120-129 is a Modernist remainder of the street’s journalism heyday in the early 20th century. Until 30 years ago, the building was home to the Daily Express newspaper. Founded in 1900 by Sir Arthur Pearson (1866-1921), the Express was originally printed in Manchester before moving to Fleet Street in the early 1930s.
The bold black and glass building was constructed from 1930-1932 to a design by architects Herbert O. Ellis and W.L. Clarke. The duo were commissioned by the Express’s then owner, William Maxwell Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1960) to extend the existing newspaper buildings towards Fleet Street. Their original designs featured a steel-framed structure, clad in Portland Stone. However, the narrowness of the plot and Aitken’s requirements for room to have printing presses in the basement, meant their first proposal was canned. Aitken then brought in London-born architect and engineer, Sir Evan Owen Williams (1890-1969) to improve the plans. Although he started out as an aircraft designer, Williams won fame with his buildings for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 (including being the engineer for the old Wembley Stadium) and later designed the Dorchester Hotel, the Boots factory in Nottingham, the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre and the first section of the M1 motorway. Williams redesigned the building’s exterior, with black Vitrolite panels and chromium strips replacing the Portland stone façade. Meanwhile, Robert Atkinson (1883-1952) designed the ground floor entrance, with a chrome canopy and the Daily Express spelt out in Art Deco lettering. Atkinson’s striking lobby features two plaster reliefs – ‘Britain’ and ‘Empire’ – by British sculptor Eric Aumonier (1899-1974). as well as silver and gilt decorative features and a grand oval staircase. The finished building is widely considered one of the best examples of Streamline Moderne architecture in the capital.
The building was joined by neighbouring Aitken House to the east in the mid 1970s, erected on the site of some smaller Victorian buildings. It was clad in similar black panels to the original Daily Express building so the two buildings looked like one huge building on Fleet Street (see a photo in 1990). While the extra office space was needed for Daily and Sunday Express staff, Aitken House ruined the shape and symmetry of the original 1930s design.
In March 1972, the Express building was Grade II* listed because of its Art Deco features, as well as its concrete frame structure. After over 50 years on Fleet Street, the Express group followed in the footsteps of many other newspapers and departed the building in 1989.
By 2000, the building was entirely refurbished and neighbouring Aitken House was demolished. John Robertson Architects restored the original building, including the façade and glazing, as well as replicated and reinstated the lost Art Deco features of the lobby. Investment bank Goldman Sachs leased the building until 2019. It will be interesting to see which tenants move in next…
- The Express Building, 120-129 Fleet Street, City of London, EC4. Nearest stations: City Thameslink or Temple.
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