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Building the Original Gilbey House, 1932.
In 1937 Chermeyeff built Gilbey House at the corner of Jamestown and Oval Roads, as the new administrative building. Today it is called Academic House. Chermeyeff (1900-1996) was a colourful character. Russian born,he had been sent to England by his parents at the age of ten to acquire an English education. He went to Harrow but at the age of seventeen, had to forego a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, when the Russian Revolution broke out. Far from going to college, he had to survive as best he could. He took a menial job at the Amalgamated Press. Without formal training he relied on his charms, becoming a gigolo at the Berkeley and Savoy Hotels and opening a dance hall in Buenos Aires. He became a British citizen in 1928.
With no formal design or architectural qualifications, but a natural flair, he was put in charge of the Waring and Gillow modern art department. There he created Art Deco designs which, in that rather staid setting, burst on a surprised public. He was a decorator with a love of new materials and effects. In 1930 he designed the interior of the Cambridge Theatre in Art Deco style. It was completely different from any British theatre of the time.
In 1933 Erich Mendelsohn, who had designed original cinemas and other buildings in Berlin,1 fled from Hitler's Germany. He left the keys to his flat in the door so that the Nazis, who he knew were coming to arrest him, should not have to break it open, and took the first train out of Germany. That same year he formed a partnership with Chermeyeff and, in 1935, they built the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, It was the first public building in Britain in the international modernist style, very famous and used frequently today as a TV or film set. Thus by the time Chermeyeff came to design Gilbey House, he had been involved with a very successful building.
Plans of Gilbey House (now Academic House)2
The heavy black lines around the cross
Gilbey House presented some interesting technical problems. The old Stanhope Arms at the corner of Jamestown Road, popular with both railway and brewery men for years, had been demolished. In the middle of a noisy industrial area, with trains in the marshalling, iron shod wagon wheels day and night and the din of a bottling plant next door, Chermeyeff had to create an administrative building as a place of calm and quiet, where people could work in peace.
Noise would enter the building through the windows. Therefore they were made small, sealed except for cleaning purposes and placed high in the wall to allow filing cabinets to be placed below them. Air inside the building was filtered by a plenum system but, instead of the normal metal ducting, all air pipes were made in reinforced concrete and formed an integral part of the structure. This construction was much more rigid and massive than any metal pipe, so reducing noise to the minimum.
To reduce internal noise further, the building was constructed in three separate parts from foundations to roof. Parts 1 and 2 contained all the services, with their noise and vibration, while part 3 held the quiet offices. The vertical isolation joints between the three buildings were packed with cork to prevent vibration from passing across.
External noise was another problem. However well the building was insulated internally, vibration would enter the building through the ground. Therefore all columns and walls were built on pads of natural cork 10 cms thick and transmitted to large concrete blocks below, to spread the weight. The cork was slowly compressed to 7 cms as the building rose and the weight increased. 'Sprung' buildings of this kind are fairly common today, but most rest on neoprene rubber pads, not cork. They were very rare in 1937. James Gilbey and Alfred Blyth, who had investigated the supply of cork from Spanish forests decades before, would have been pleased to see that a new use had been found for their material. The building was highly praised when built and still gives great pleasure.
Chermeyeff was a colourful character. A few years ago I went into a Gothic Revival house in Abbey Road, built about 1840. Stepping through the door, I was back in a Heal’s furniture showroom in the 1930s. All cornices in the house had been removed and the walls panelled in Australian Walnut, a very popular veneer at that time. The rooms in Abbey Road were full of fitted furniture, built in thick plywood and veneered in huge flat surfaces. Clean, simple and ‘Chermeyeff’ - for when I asked, I was told he had lived there and had completely redesigned the interior. The contrast between the inside of the house and the exterior, which Chermeyeff was not free to alter, reveals the ruthlessness of an architect.
Chermeyeff too was a creator who needed new projects every day. With Wells Coates, he designed the round Ecko wireless set, in moulded brown or black Bakelite, which has become an icon of the period. He also designed the famous Pel chair. Catalogues were full of his designs, yet in 1940 there was no work for him in Britain. He tried to enlist, but was rejected. He left bitterly for America, to become Professor of Design at Brooklyn College, in New York. He later moved to Harvard as Professor of Architecture and died in 1996, the flamboyant mentor of Richard Rogers and many other architects.3 We should have kept him.