Original architect of ex-Ham&High building at centre of planning storm speaks about his work
PUBLISHED: 13:00 18 October 2013
Last week a campaign was launched opposing changes to an office block in the heart of Hampstead that once housed the Ham&High. Reporter Tom Marshall meets the original architect and delves into its history.
When the Ham&High knocked down its offices and rebuilt them in 1961 – complete with an extra storey – there was barely a murmur of discontent, according to the original architect, Mayer Hillman.
Fast-forward 52 years and the latest plan to redevelop the building in Perrin’s Court, Hampstead – currently occupied by estate agents Savills and comedy megastar Ricky Gervais – has met with a very different reception.
The owner has stoked up a storm of protest by proposing to add a third storey, with residents, businesses and councillors alike all expressing dismay.
Jessica Learmond-Criqui, who spearheads the Hampstead Shops Campaign, described the scheme as “breathtaking in its audacity” and said the proposals would “change forever this example of tranquillity in Hampstead”.
Speaking at his home in Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead, Mr Hillman, 81, recalled the reaction to his design.
“There wasn’t any opposition” he said. “Nobody said anything other than how nice it looks. It was modern but integrated.”
Mr Hillman was commissioned by the Ham&High’s then proprietor Arthur Goss to modernise and expand the offices, which the paper had occupied for about 25 years.
The project posed its fair share of challenges, not least because the printing press was too heavy to move – and was kept in operation throughout the build.
The architect and builders simply had to work around it.
But far from being a thorn in his side, the printing machinery was right at the heart of Mr Hillman’s vision.
He said: “When I was a teenager, I had an old watch and I thought it would be nice to see the mechanism inside, rather than the watch face.
“I took off the cover and carefully etched the numbers on the glass, which meant I could read the time and see the mechanism operate. That was the inspiration for the building.
“I thought it would be nice for Hampstead citizens on a Thursday evening to see the presses in action and I think Arthur Goss was quite touched by that idea.”
Opening up the ground floor, with its wide glass frontage, was a big success. “It gave me great pleasure to see people stopping and looking in and watching,” he said, before adding: “There was a bit of difficulty with the union, because it put members on surveillance. They could not slack off, it was like putting a searchlight on people in their offices.”
His design became the subject of a glowing feature in The Architects & Building News in January 1962, which said: “The brightly-lit machine room, with the press rolling off the weekly paper at the rate of 3,000 an hour, is infinitely more eye-catching than the most extravagant still display... this free show proves a great attraction in what is a very craft-conscious community.”
The opening in December 1961 was attended by a host of distinguished guests, including the Conservative MP for Hampstead Henry Brooke, soon to become home secretary, and Labour MP Sydney Silverman, who is credited with ending the death penalty.
Mr Hillman was a partner in architecture practice Dinerman, Davison and Hillman at the time, which was based around the corner in Perrin’s Lane.
A few years later, in 1967, he left the trade and went back to university before becoming a social scientist at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster, and dedicating his life to environmental issues.
He cites the Perrin’s Court building, which the Ham&High left in 1989 to move to Swiss Cottage, as one of his two proudest projects, along with a 12-storey tower in Hornsey Lane, Highgate.
He said: “If I was at the pearly gates and Saint Peter said to me, which of your buildings are you most pleased with, that would be one of them.”
Mr Hillman has given his backing to the campaign against the freeholder’s plans for another floor with a mansard roof.
He said he would have refused if asked to go any higher back in 1961.
“There’s no doubt at all that it’s quite a narrow pedestrian way and I think to put another floor would make it much more claustrophobic,” he said.
“I created two storeys when there had been only one, but I would not have added another one.
“I would have thought that was ridiculous and would have made Perrin’s Court gloomy.”
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