An excerpt from

A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land

Joshua Abbott

Metro-Land and Modernism

The idea of Metro-Land has been around for just over 100 years. In 1915, an employee of the Metropolitan Railway, James Garland, came up with the concept of Metro-Land to help sell some the excess land the Met had acquired in extending its railways out from the capital into the greenery north of London. The expansion of the Metropolitan Railway was driven by the company’s General Manager, Robert Selbie, who wanted an extension to link up the capital to villages such as Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and Ruislip, and towns such as Amersham and Aylesbury. The surplus land was handed over to a newly formed company, the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited (MRCE) which drew up plans to create commuter suburbs at some of the villages along the new railway. The first estates were built at Neasden (Kingsbury Garden Village), Wembley (Wembley Garden Suburb), Pinner (Cecil Park and the Grange Estate) and Rickmansworth (the Cecil Estate). These new garden villages were largely fashioned in the Arts and Crafts style, created by architects such as Oliver Hill who designed Wembley Garden Village.

The idea of Metro-Land, echoed by the tiled cottages of the garden villages, was to create a rural idyll for the commuter to escape to (via the Metropolitan Railway) after a day working in the city. Posters show houses surrounded by gardens and parks where the harassed white collar worker could enjoy his free time and live in harmony with nature (at least until Monday morning). Metro-Land didn't just have the MCRE to publicise it, but also it’s own Poet Laureate. John Betjeman hymned Metro-Land praises in verses such as “Harrow-on-the-Hill” and “Middlesex”, where the poet talked of such obscure places as Perivale, Wealdstone and Ruislip Gardens. Later on screen his Metro-Land documentary, broadcast in 1973, would become a television classic.

The question "what is Metro-Land?" is easier to define than "where is Metro-Land?" As the MRCE produced Metro-Land guide famously said, it is “a country with elastic borders that each visitor can draw for himself as Stevenson drew his map of Treasure Island”, an idea rather than a geographical marking. However we can shade in the map a little. Taking the aforementioned villages moving out in a line north west from Baker Street, we can see Metro-Land moving out of the capital from Neasden, taking in Wembley, Harrow, Ruislip, Pinner and then onto Amersham. Of course, its influence didn't stick to this tidy trajectory, extending right around suburban London, taking in such places as Enfield, Barnet, Watford, Greenford, Ealing, Hillingdon, Hayes and the spreading ribbon developments of the capital.

Being influenced by the Garden Suburb movement and due to its innate Englishness, the default architectural style of Metro-Land was nostalgic; a mixture of Mock Tudor and Elizabethan, nicknamed Tudorbeathen. This hybrid style mixed traditional designs on the exterior, and the comforts of modernity such as electricity and indoor plumbing inside. However outbreaks of Modernism did occur in this realm of wistfulness. Charles Holden’s London Underground stations are the most prominent example. His functional ‘Sudbury Box’ design first appeared at Sudbury Town in 1931, and its pared down brick and glass minimalism set a template for stations throughout suburbia. Another widespread but lesser known example of the Scandinavian modernism being built in Metro-Land were the schools of Curtis and Burchett for Middlesex County Council. The duo designed and built a swathe of schools throughout the county, often with their signature Willem Dudok influenced central staircase tower. The pair also built other municipal facilities such as clinics, libraries, courthouses and police stations.

There was also room among the mock timber for the white walled, flat-roofed house. The short-lived but highly influential partnership of Welch, Lander and Day built large number of Deco influenced ‘Sun Trap’ houses throughout the 1930s, as well as more robust looking brick dwellings in Hendon and on the Hanger Hill estate in Ealing. The darlings of the international style in Britain were of course the partnership of Connell, Ward and Lucas. Their signature house ‘High and Over’ nestles in the green hills of Amersham on the Metropolitan Line, built in a Y-plan for Professor Bernard Ashmole. Perhaps even more cutting edge was their design for a whole estate in Pinner, of which only three houses were completed, 97, 99 & 101 Park Avenue. The art deco cinema was also in its golden age during the rise of Metro-Land, and many great examples still exist such as the Rayners Lane Grosvenor by local architect FE Bromige. 

Much has changed in Metro-Land in the post war period. Just as Metro-Land had itself swallowed up tiny villages, the ever growing metropolis submerged the arcadian ideal sold in those posters from the MCRE. Now the former villages and Garden suburbs of Wembley, Pinner and Harrow have become part of the endless exterior sprawl of London, losing some of their unique character. And of course the growth of modernism in Metro-Land didn't stop either, but became part of the state sanctioned post war redevelopment. The harsher Brutalist style buildings of the the 50s, 60s and 70s did not proliferate as much as in Central and East London, but there are some good examples of buildings by Erno Goldfinger, Owen Luder and the Smithsons in this area. Borough councils emboldened by the 1965 reorganisation went on a building spree creating homes, hospitals and libraries for their growing populations. Much of this municipal building followed the trends and ideas of post war architecture, but some innovative architecture departments like those at Hillingdon or Haringey broke with the high rise orthodoxy and designed buildings on a smaller more intimate scale.

As redevelopment rumbles ever onward, many monuments to modernism in Metro-Land are disappearing. Just in the last few years a number of buildings have been demolished, such as the Palace of Industry at Wembley and the Electricity Showrooms in Willesden.That of course is the impetus behind this book, to document these wonderful and half forgotten buildings before they disappear through accident or design, and to allow the 21st-century visitor to Metro-Land to create their own modernist county with elastic borders.