Industry and aesthetics
In many ways the 1930s were Oscar Faber's happiest and most successful — the practice's work was growing, he was secure financially and he held many garden parties hosted by his wife Joan at their beautiful home in Surrey (Hayes Court, Kenley). In 1935 he was made President of the Institution of Structural Engineers, an organization he had joined in 1911 when it was known as the Concrete Institute.
As part of the ongoing repair work at Durham Castle
(1927-45), Faber devised an underpinning solution for which Durham University awarded him an honorary degree — Doctor of Civil Law. His previous experience underpinning the Bank of England
served him well here.
Durham Castle is built on a (partly man-made) mound within a loop of the River Wear, where the bedrock is 21m below courtyard level. Its battlement walls and the west fronts of the Norman Gallery and the Great Hall were tilting and slipping towards the river, with parts of the stonework fissured and loose to the touch. The battlements were first stabilized by copious pressure grouting, then anchored with steel tie rods and underpinned with concrete.
The walls of the castle buildings had moved so far from vertical that they were exerting unequal bearing pressures on the soil below, and their centres of pressure were therefore not central over their bases. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of proper footings. Faber designed reinforced concrete foundations that were placed so that the centre of gravity of each building was concentric with its foundation. This balanced the bearing pressures and ensured that any settlement would be uniform. The top of the underpinning, between the new concrete and the undersides of the original walls, was constructed in brickwork.
Several and various jobs accompanied this triumph — Spillers' Cardiff Mill
(1931-3), South Africa House
(1933), Earl's Court Exhibition Centre
(1935-7), Harringay Arena
(1936), Spillers' Tyne Mill
(1936-7), Queen’s Hotel
(1936-7) and the Rolling Mill at Shotton
, Deeside (1938). Also in this decade were Spillers' Mill
and National Fertilisers' bulk storage
buildings, both in Avonmouth, the Pirelli Factory
at Southampton and Nine Elms Warehouse
At Earl's Court
, Faber and his team had the task of ventilating an exhibition centre (structrual engineering by L.G. Mouchel & Partners) that covers almost 5 hectares and has a volume of some 1.4 million cubic metres, with a moveable arrangement of halls and corridors. Eight ventilation plants were installed on the roof, blowing air downwards parallel to and 3m above the seating in the auditorium, with extraction via side ducts and slots in the false ceiling.
Harringay Arena was an octagonal building used primarily as an ice-hockey venue, though it hosted boxing, circuses and the Horse of the Year Show (1949-56). Its roof had no internal supports to obscure the spectators' view. The arena and Nine Elms Warehouse were later demolished.
Queen's Hotel in Leeds was built for the London Midland & Scottish Railway, between a railway station and a power station. Of necessity, it was built with double glazing and mechanical ventilation with filtered air to all the rooms, to exclude pollution and to reduce traffic noise from the cobbled streets outside.
For the Harringay Arena project and the various mills, silos and warehouses for Spillers Ltd, Faber worked without any architectural assistance. This gave him not only the opportunity to act as both architect and engineer, but also to appreciate the work he was then doing with great architects such as Charles Cowles-Voysey (1889-1981) and his friend Sir Herbert Baker. Cowles-Voysey specialized in the design of town halls and Faber worked with him on a number of them, including Worthing Town Hall
(1933), Watford Town Hall
(1937-9) and the Cambridge Guildhall
(1939). With Baker he worked on India House
, South Africa House
and various banks (Martins, Glyn Mills and Barclays).
There was an increasing need for industrial structures in England at the time and Faber sought to achieve balance between the function of the building and its external appearance, in his own way combining truth with grace in his industrial buildings. He was not the only engineer of his generation to believe in structural honesty — Modernist architecture was popular in Europe and America, exemplified in works by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, 1887-1965).
Good examples of Faber's take on Modernism are the mills in Cardiff and Avonmouth. At Cardiff, one whole side of the silo is devoid of windows because stored stuff — in this case bulk grain — would be hidden rather than displayed, and Faber showed this on the outside. Piers instead of windows divide the surface into bays and though they are structurally unnecessary, as the division walls behind provide rigidity, they give order and rhythm to an otherwise bare expanse. The windows indicate which part of the mill is occupied by people and which part by machinery.
At Avonmouth, the flour mill is in the centre with the grain silo on the left and the warehouse to the right. In the warehouse all storey heights are the same, reflecting the same storage capacity on each floor, whereas in the mill storey heights vary between levels showing the different functions of the machinery within.
The downside to Faber working so intensively on all these jobs was that he was so steeped in his own work that the practice began to feel less like a cohesive unit than a group of talented individuals going solo. Jim Vaughan, in spite of his expertise and ability to manage work alone, was increasingly frustrated by the lack of discussion between himself and Faber. Relations between the two men would continue to cool right up to Faber's death in 1956.
Portrait courtesy AECOM