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Essay

David Walker, Salters' Hall, London.

 
During the blitz, the Livery Hall of the Worshipful Company of Salters, then in St Swithin's Lane, was destroyed in 1941. In 1960 Sir Howard Robertson developed a scheme for a replacement in St Martin's Place which was subsequently abandoned.' The Company then acquired a site in Fore Street, and late in 1967 sought the names of architects who might produce appropriate new designs. The choice of Basil Spence was ratified by the Company Court on 7 March, a Building Select Committee met a week later, and the Master outlined his requirements — a Livery Hall with prestige offices for let — during a visit to Canonbury on March 29.2 The Select Committee decreed 'that the building should be contemporary in style' but that 'the architects should be asked to have due regard to the traditional role of the Company.'3
 
Spence presented his first plans and a model on 4 November and although they underwent considerable revision the basic concept remained unaltered.4 As built, Salters' Hall comprised a very tall plinth — street-level reception and four floors of offices for lease — which supported a cantilevered superstructure, its appearance more horizontal and more sculptural, with three further floors for the Company's use.' Walls predominantly faced in white concrete, cast in situ and either ribbed, knapped or bush-hammered for textural variety, contrasted with extensive planes of continuous bronze-tinted glazing.
 
The plinth was articulated into four main bays by slim concrete columns but the structure derived much of its strength from the shorter stair-bays at each far end. Three bays of the double-height ground floor formed an open porte-cochere which preserved views of the London Wall from Fore Street, maintained an existing right-of-way into St Alphage's Gardens, and allowed cars to discharge their passengers under shelter. The presence of vehicles was concealed from the gardens by large planters which extended across much of the south side.6
 
The western bay accommodated a reception foyer with glazed frontages facing into the porte-cochere and towards the gardens. On the north side of the foyer there were two lifts serving the offices in the plinth, while another in the stair-bay rose directly to the Salters' apartments on the upper floors. This arrangement was acknowledged in the Fore Street elevation, the office lifts being suggested by the vertical modelling of the wall-plane into strips, while the Salters' lift-shaft rose the full height of the building to form the tallest part of the structure.
 
Above the porte-cochere on both the north and south fronts the concrete columns were jettied out slightly. The individual floors of the plinth found no formal expression in the elevations, which were continuously glazed between the columns; instead, the intricate pattern of the metal glazing-bars made an important contribution to each elevation as a whole.
 
The design of the superstructure was subject to much consideration and revision before it assumed a form which convinced the City Architect that it would not impinge on daylight received by the Barbican on the opposite side of the road.' The treatment of the north front, as seen from Fore Street and from the Barbican itself, was quite different from the south front viewed from the gardens. At fifth floor it overhung the plinth on every side before it stepped back on Fore Street from level to level in such a way as to conceal all fenestration. Set within this terraced treatment, the most prominent feature was the double-height banqueting hall which was arranged over the central office bay, its simple mass with angled corners balancing the lift-shaft and the east gable's cantilever stair.
The banqueting hall was equally prominent on the south elevation, a vertical counter to the horizontal bands of Salters' accommodation on this side — Court room on fifth floor, opening onto a small terrace; Master and Clerk's rooms set back slightly within a terrace on sixth floor; then the administrative offices clad in bronze on seventh floor. The importance of the Court room was acknowledged externally by a large sculpture of the Company's coat-of­arms, and a flagpole for its standard.8
 
Spence presented his designs for the interior in May 1971; they were developed by Norman Allanson of the Royal College of Art with David Hicks, a Company Liveryman, acting as consultant.9 The street-level reception foyer was panelled in white travertine marble, a complement to the white concrete of the exterior. At fifth floor the corridor forming the entrance lobby to the Salters' apartments was faced with a granulite wall finish, again composed of crushed white marble, and lit in Soanic fashion from behind a suspended segmental ceiling. More than just a waiting area, the lobby was a place to see and be seen. At its east end it opened directly onto the cantilever stair, the rise of which was such that those passing up or down were perfectly framed beneath the ceiling curvature. Within this very modern context, a sense of tradition was lent by the oil paintings and classical furnishings, while a block of sculpted rock-salt served as a reminder of the Company's original source of wealth.
 
After leaving their coats in the cloakrooms, visitors passed into an ante-room flanked by the Court room and banqueting hall. The Court room was square on plan and panelled in rosewood; its ceiling was notable on account of its octagonal prismatic form, which incorporated lighting within its slats. When the Court was in session, its bespoke tables were also laid out in part-octagonal arrangement, and when not so used, the room could accommodate 110 guests for sherry before dinner.

The banqueting hall was a double-height apartment with a musicians' gallery at its southern end and a balcony which opened off the ladies' dining room on sixth floor to the east. After careful consideration of the acoustic requirements, the walls were faced with ash panelling which was partly solid and partly veneered to absorb or reflect sound at low level, half-way height and high level. The panelling rose into coves with hexagonal light-sockets which also concealed the air-conditioning ducts. It was effective not just in acoustic but aesthetic terms since it created an atmosphere of deep rich opulence and in particular helped emphasise the banqueting hall's lofty proportions. For very large gatherings, entrance lobby, ante-room, Court room and banqueting hall could be used together, the Wilton carpet woven in purple and mulberry providing a sense of continuity from each to the others.
 
Although Spence's original scheme had been priced at £600,000 in March 1969, that figure rose to just over £1 million in late 197110 and ultimately to £21/4 million in January 1975." By that date Basil Spence had withdrawn from everyday practice and Gordon Collins had retired. Their practice was renamed after its surviving partner, John S. Bonnington, who completed construction in the following year.


1 For an illustration, see Builder, 6 May 1960, p. 687. See also Building Committee minutes held by the Worshipful Company of Salters, 1960-61.

 

2 Building Committee minutes, 14 March and 26 April 1968.

 

3 Building Committee minutes, 26 April 1968. Building Committee minutes, 4 November 1968.

 

5 The following description has been based on information published in Building, 11 November 1977, on the author's interview with Nigel Grimwade, and on his own personal inspection.

 

6 The ornamental gates of 1887 which were rescued from the old Hall were installed within the central bay of the new Hall in 1991.

 

7 See Building Committee minutes passim, in particular between 4 August 1969 and 5 March 1970.

 

8 The sculpture was by David Gillespie, in glass-fibre.

 

9 See Building Committee minutes, 10 May 1971.

 

10  Building Committee minutes, 24 March 1969; 20 October 1971; 29 January 1975; 27 May 1975.

 
 
Salters
Salters' Hall, Fore Street
 
PHOTOGRAPH
Photographer: Stephen Richards
Source of image: Geograph
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