Friday18 August 2017

architects’ inspirations

Adam Caruso on the impact of Liverpool’s pioneering Ellis Buildings

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When the Caruso St John partner first moved to England, Peter Ellis’s Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook Street offices were among the first buildings he made a visit to see

Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook Street

Peter Ellis

1864 and 1866


The thing about Oriel Chambers is that it’s so early — 1864 — more than 20 years before the key buildings of the Chicago School were being designed. It gets mentioned as a sort of footnote in some architectural histories as an early pioneering step in the progression towards modernism. But nothing is written about its architect.

I first learnt about Oriel Chambers when studying architecture at McGill University in Montreal. When I moved to England after graduating, Liverpool was one of my first trips out of London and the Ellis buildings were among the handful of projects I wanted to see, along with the Albert Dock, St George’s Hall and Port Sunlight.

I thought they were extraordinary — so light and delicate, with such beautifully composed facades. I have subsequently seen the interiors of 16 Cook Street, which are also very beautiful, with the rhythm of the prefabricated iron structure giving the open floors a room-like scale. At the time of that first visit I was working at Arup Associates, and Oriel Chambers, along with the work of Kahn, were real touchstones for the practice, not only for the college buildings they had done in the sixties and seventies, such as St John’s in Oxford, but also for a series of City office buildings that were being designed at the time. When we were at Arup’s, Peter St John and I worked on a hotel built along the Tyne in Newcastle where each room has an oriel window. I’d totally forgotten about that until now.

I’m not so interested in the Ellis buildings being examples of a proto-modernism, a part of that inexorable linear progression from the Crystal Palace to European inter-war modernism. I think that’s a convenient post-rationalisation perpetuated by modernist historians. I am more interested in the Ellis buildings in the context of the cast-iron offices and warehouses that were being built in the mid-19th century in Liverpool and Glasgow, like the Gardner’s Warehouse in Glasgow by John Baird in 1856. These buildings had cast-iron structures and facades and had all but eliminated most of the elements of what would have previously constituted a “correct” urban facade. I am particularly interested in why Peter Ellis chose to clad his cast-iron structures in stone, organised according to a Gothic language — something that prefigured what John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan would later do in Chicago. He was developing an expression for his building that was in addition to, and was autonomous of, their technology.

These buildings had all but eliminated most of the elements of what would have constituted a “correct” urban facade


The Ellis buildings are contemporary with Gottfried Semper, whose writing and built work were pivotal in the development of Chicago architecture in the late 19th century. Something like 50% of Chicago architects and engineers at that time understood German! Semper had little influence on British architecture, and his key texts have only been translated into English in the last decade. I have no reason to believe that Ellis was aware of Semper’s writings, although Semper had been in exile in England at around this time. It is a mystery. I don’t know what he was thinking of, or looking at. But there is, in the two Ellis buildings, a specifically Semperian imperative, that an architectural expression is achieved through the manner in which the structure is clothed in its cladding. When I look at these buildings, they appear clothed in architecture.

Both of the Ellis buildings have prefabricated cast-iron structures that were fireproof, and they have startlingly reduced curtain walls for their rear facades — those really are proto-modern. Cook Street, which is the smaller of the two buildings, has an amazing prefabricated iron staircase that cantilevers over the rear court. Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building of 1888 has a very similar cantilevering stair. Root was sent to England during the American Civil War and attended high school in Liverpool in the mid-1860s. Legend has it that he saw the two Ellis buildings and that they informed the architecture he would design 20 years later in Chicago.

Like Sullivan’s Guaranty and Bayard buildings, Ellis decorated the structure of his buildings in a way that articulated the load paths in the structure. Like Sullivan, he accentuated the verticals with bundles of continuous piers and the floors are expressed as discontinuous spandrels that are held by the verticals. Although the Liverpool buildings are not very tall, their formal organisation anticipates Sullivan’s dictum of a base, middle and top. Unlike the Crystal Palace, or the Gardner’s Warehouse, this is not an endless structure, but rather a finite composition with a very transparent rooting in the ground, and a strong termination at the top. Ellis’s interest in composition is clear from the significant differences in the facades of the two buildings. Cook Street is an infill; its facade is finite and very self- contained. Oriel Chambers is larger and goes around the corner — its membranous windows are almost an expression of the open space of the interior pressing out into the space of the street.

Peter Ellis lived until he was 80, but I don’t know what he did before or after the two buildings in Liverpool. There was a vicious review of Oriel Chambers in the Builder that said: “The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street known as Oriel Chambers.” Apparently he never designed another building.

If there are any similarities with how Peter and I work, it is the idea of designing a facade — for us this is never just an expression of structure, or of the organisation of the interior. With Nottingham Contemporary, we had the idea of making a facade with an incredibly fine surface, inspired by the terracotta facades of Sullivan. We used precast concrete, which today is a much more efficient and mechanised way of achieving this fine and articulated surface. We are currently working on a large office and apartment building in the centre of Zurich. This facade is also made in precast concrete, using a range of colours and surface finishes. It is a rich expression of a trabeated structure, but it is not actually the structure of the building.

I am currently writing an essay about the Ellis buildings for a book called The Invention of Steel — On the Fateful Introduction of Iron in the Building Industry, which is being edited by M Rinke and J Schwartz, who are professors of structural engineering at the ETH in Zurich.

When I was in Liverpool a few months ago, I visited the Ellis buildings again. I always do, they are such beautiful things.

Offices ahead of their time

There was a vicious review in the Builder… apparently Ellis never designed another building


Peter Ellis (1804-84) is known to have completed just two buildings, 16 Cook Street (1866) and the better-known Oriel Chambers (1864) nearby on the corner of Water Street and Covent Garden, in Liverpool. These iron-framed office buildings were very much ahead of their time, easily predating the development of the Chicago-style commercial office block. They were also two of the first examples of commercial architecture to depart from the classical language, and are regarded as Liverpool’s most important Victorian office blocks.

The Oriel Chambers commission was won by competition and is distinctive for its prefabricated iron structure that is exposed on the inside, and its projecting, suspended oriel windows, separated by slender stone mullions. It also features one of the earliest instances of curtain walling in its rear courtyard.

The grade II* listed 16 Cook Street has a three-bay front elevation topped by a Venetian window. It is most notable for its rear curtain-walling and bulbous spiral staircase tower, which is cantilevered from the main floors of the building and clad with sheet iron and plate glass.

It is not known whether Ellis continued as an architect after the negative critical response to Oriel Chambers, notably in the Builder. He lived until he was 80, but no other buildings designed by him have been identified, although he is recorded as a civil engineer.

Oriel Chambers suffered bomb damage in World War II, which exposed its cast-iron structure and prompted renewed interest in the building. Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “almost unbelievably ahead of its time” in his book Pioneers of Modern Design (1949). It was sympathetically repaired by James and Bywaters in 1963 and is grade I listed. Until recently it was occupied as barristers’ chambers.

By the 1960s, Ellis’s work was beginning to be critically appreciated. In his book, Seaport, Quentin Hughes describes Ellis as a “genius” who was much abused in his day.

“Few buildings foreshadow the modern movement so strikingly as his courtyard design for Oriel Chambers and No 16 Cook Street, built at a time when cast iron was tending elsewhere to deteriorate into an abundance of elaborate and florid decoration,” wrote Hughes.

In 1969, Pevsner called the building one of the most remarkable in Europe of its time, and one that prefigured the Chicago skyscrapers of 25 years later.

Original print headline - ‘These buildings are clothed in architecture’


Readers' comments (2)

  • What an excellent article about Ellis and his Liverpool Buildings - a continuing favourite of my mine since student days in the 1950/60's. I would like to know who commissioned both buildings as the patrons deserve a lot of credit too. Does anyone know?

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  • Bored me to death. I couldn't get past the second paragraph.

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