Seven wonders of London: Hoover Building

Second in our series of the capital's man-made marvels, Perivale's art deco masterpiece, which watches over the A40 like a silent sentinel of the approaching city, is as glorious now as it was in its 1930s heyday

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    The Hoover Building

    'Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue/Must have been a wonder when it was brand new.' Elvis Costello's mournful tribute to the Hoover factory was recorded in 1980, when the building's half-century as an industrial flagship was coming to a close, its fabric succumbing to 'concrete cancer'. He was, though, upbeat about the building's future. 'One of these days the Hoover factory/Is gonna be all the rage in those fashionable pages,' he predicted, rightly as it turned out. Art deco may have been anathema to the utilitarianism of the 1960s and 1970s but, by 1987, the Hoover factory, designed by London's deco specialists Wallis, Gilbert & Partners in 1933, had been given a Grade II* listing and was hailed as a masterpiece. It was intended to be a 'modern palace of industry' – the glazed ceramic on the front was inspired by ancient Egypt, and the floodlighting was part of the original design.

    Personally, as someone who grew up on the western edge of London's urban sprawl, I've always loved that confident, widescreen façade more as a harbinger of the approaching city than as a piece of mere architectural exuberance. Even though, when you think about it, there isn't anything quite like it in London; blazing white during the day or lit up like a film set at night, it pumps out a distinctly American brand of glamour and possibility. But, to my childish eyes, it always marked a crucial point on my favourite car journey into town. Before the Hoover factory, the A40 was just a liminal no-man's-land, clogged with smog-blackened weeds and lined with ugly industrial units. After the cheerful gleam of the factory had passed your car window, signs of life began to emerge. Soon the Westway would whisk you into Marylebone and London proper.

    Two things always amazed me about it. First of all, the discovery that it was a factory rather than a palace: aside from its grandeur, it had a regal air bestowed on it by the royal crest that used to be framed by the words 'Hoover' and 'Limited' along the top of the building. Secondly, the context of its location: the way it sailed the grimy waters of the Western Avenue like a luxury ocean liner lost on its way to New York. I didn't realise then that both the factory and the road were built at a time when motoring was an exciting leisure activity. (The long-gone glamour of the road also explains the huge picture windows which grace the rows of semis built along it. Who wouldn't want to look at the Western Avenue all day?)

    My childhood love of the Hoover factory culminated in an argument I had with a tutor from Eton College in the late '80s, during a charitable summer course they ran at the time for state-school kids like me. The tutor asked each member of the group to name their favourite building. I wasn't even trying to wind him up by naming the Hoover factory but his reaction was furious disbelief. 'That monstrosity! It looks like a birthday cake!' he spluttered. 'What's beautiful about that?'

    I was as appalled by his philistinism as he was by mine but, in retrospect, I wonder if his reaction was as much about class as architecture. Loving the Hoover factory probably does mark you out as not very posh; you can only see it as a herald of London if you grew up on the wrong side of it, after all. That long-gone Eton master may have disliked art deco for its frivolous decorative qualities and lack of intellectual oomph, or he may have been unable to conceive of a factory being anything other than a painful reminder that the poor are always with us. My guess is that he was reacting to something more subtle: the whiff of suburbia that lingered round both the building and me.

    And now, of course, the factory is a branch of classless Tesco, and renamed the Hoover Building in an attempt to throw snobs off the scent. It's a curious twist of fate; after all, buying up decrepit listed buildings and investing large amounts of money in restoring them seems a very un-Tesco thing to do, in that it's a hard way to make a profit.

    The Tesco-isation does the factory one grave disservice, though: it gives us an excuse to stop and see the building up close. Standing at the foot of the façade recently, I was disappointed at how little there was to see. There's no finesse or detail at ground level; the impact is all in the big picture. All the things I love about the building disappear from view when you get out of the car and go looking for them: those resolute horizonals and verticals, the grandiose geometry of the front entrance, the touches of bold, ceramic colour.

    Besides, there's something very wrong about making the factory stand still to be scrutinised. It's a building that should ideally be glimpsed from a car window, preferably at dusk when the floodlit façade is at its most improbable; in perpetual motion as it whizzes eternally by.

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