Simpson (Piccadilly) Ltd., 1936. Exterior at night. Joseph Emberton Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
By Imogen Adams
I have marvelled at the Waterstones flagship store on Piccadilly countless times, unawares of the architect who designed it. The curving windows on the ground floor imperceptibly guide the passing pedestrian in through its sweeping doors, whilst the windows become billboards upon being illuminated at night. The building’s charm speaks to the talent of its architect, Joseph Emberton. Although a regular feature in the architectural press of the 1930s and 1940s, Emberton is no longer a household name and I was curious to find out why.
Joseph Emberton was the architect behind stand out modernist buildings across Britain, from his design for Timothy Whites Chemists in Southsea, which was selected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for its defining 1937 exhibition Modern Architecture in England, to his yacht club at Burnham-on-Sea. The latter is composed of stark white walls with large expanses of glass which, bridging the divide between exterior and interior, invite the glittering sea into the indoor clubrooms. His buildings were well received by the public, though in many ways Emberton drew criticism because of this: his work was seen to be less radical than some of the architectural currents of the day, it was too commercial and too ameliorative, and this might account for his relative obscurity today.
His Master’s Voice, Oxford Street, London, 1939. Joseph Emberton Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
An interview with curators Catherine Moriarty and Sue Breakell
With a new exhibition, Joseph Emberton: The Architecture of Display at Pallant House Gallery, Emberton will hopefully regain his place in architectural discussion. Imogen Adams speaks to the exhibition curators Catherine Moriarty and Sue Breakell about Emberton’s architecture, its reception and the archive that informs our understanding of it.
Why do you think Joseph Emberton is not a household name in modern British architecture?
It is interesting that Joseph Emberton’s work earned him high profile attention in his contemporary moment, with even commentary from Philip Johnson, the much-lauded American architect and curator, yet Joseph Emberton’s profile has dwindled over the years. His work was included in the important MoMA exhibitions of 1932 and 1937, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and Modern Architecture in England respectively. Emberton’s work of the 1930s, while looking modern, simply wasn’t relevant to more radical, transformative agendas. In Dennis Sharp’s A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Architecture (1972), Emberton’s Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham-on-Crouch sits alongside Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Peter Behrens’ Villa Gans at Kronberg. Even so, it was always considered something of a curiosity because it wasn’t part of a sustained, intellectual project. That said, he was a vocal proponent of high-rise housing solutions in the post-war period, creating his Stafford Cripps, Old Street and King Square estates in Finsbury. In many ways, a more outspoken cohort took forward the Modernist baton, firstly the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) group, and then in the post-war years, a younger generation with the bit of reconstruction between their teeth.
Fun House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, 1935. Joseph Emberton Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
Would you classify Joseph Emberton’s buildings as examples of ‘an architecture of inclusion’ to borrow theorist Charles Moore’s term?
In the exhibition we consider the way Joseph Emberton created spaces for particular activities, many of which were connected to forms of display. As such, the design questions he addressed were essentially practical rather than didactic: using modern materials to make what he called a more “precise solution” for the consumer experience. The exhibition draws attention to the circulation of people within his buildings, as shoppers at Simpson’s on Piccadilly (1936) or HMV on Oxford Street (1939), as pleasure-seekers at Blackpool (1935) or as exhibition visitors at Olympia (1929). Perhaps if he had designed more schools or hospitals, his work might have been received differently.
Timothy Whites chemist, Southsea, 1934, Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
Are there particular architects, artists, or designers who you can name as Joseph Emberton’s inspirations?
During the 1920s, Joseph Emberton worked in the office of Sir John Burnet & Partners, one of whom was Thomas Smith Tait. Tait was one of those influential proto-modern figures; he knew a lot about Dutch architecture and Emberton learnt a lot from him. Emberton loved to travel, so he knew what was happening elsewhere in Europe. It’s clear that Dutch architect J. J. P. Oud and progressive German architect Erich Mendelsohn inspired him, particularly the latter’s Petersdorff department store of 1928.
The outfitting department at Simpson (Piccadilly) Ltd., 1936. Joseph Emberton Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
What do you think the role of the archive plays in understanding an architect?
To understand architecture you need to understand space and so nothing beats visiting the surviving buildings. The yacht club at Burnham-on-Crouch retains this extraordinary floating quality and at (what was) Simpson’s in Piccadilly there is still an aura: you can experience how Emberton choreographed shoppers between departments and floors in the interior of what is now Waterstones. The HMV building on Oxford Street is now an HMV store again, although Emberton’s carefully considered interior is long gone. Despite changes to the structures of buildings, or their demolition, surviving archival evidence in the form of correspondence, drawings or press cuttings, allows you to piece together how things happened and how they were received. It makes you realise that all histories and reputations are constructed. Going back to the archive allows you to consider things afresh, and that’s what we’ve tried to do at Pallant House.
The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, Burnham on Crouch, 1931. Joseph Emberton Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
For details of the Joseph Emberton exhibition at Pallant House Gallery, click here
Find out more about the Joseph Emberton Archive at the University of Brighton Design Archives
For more images of Joseph Emberton’s architecture, visit ribapix.com
The exhibition coincides with the major retrospective of the work of Leon Underwood, who was a lifelong friend and fellow-student of Emberton at the Royal College of Art.