The City of London is not well-known for its 1930s buildings. Between the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph buildings on Fleet Street, the impressive Ibex House in the Minories and the delightful Fox Fine Wines shop in Moorgate (formerly the Fox umbrella shop) you could be stumped trying to think of any more modernist monuments within the Square Mile.
Walk out of Cannon Street Station, however, and look for the small Nii Haw sushi bar straight ahead of you. Before it fed local office workers with dim sum this cute and curvaceous outlet was a branch of TM Lewin. But 80 years ago 115 Cannon Street - to give its correct address - was the Mortimer Gall Electrical Centre showroom.
The previous building had had a traditional shop front, and perhaps because they were after a contemporary look that reflected the state-of-the-art products they sold, the retailer commissioned the architects E. Maxwell Fry and Walter Gropius to design something more eye-catching. The result: a sleek combination of glass and metal, and a rare example of Bauhaus architecture in London, or indeed Britain.
Fry and Gropius chose to use Vitrolite, a shiny glass material that first appeared in Britain in 1930 and was widely used as cladding for shopfronts and fascias at that time Vitrolite can be best seen on that gem of Art Deco architecture, the Daily Express building (Owen Williams 1930-32). Its white version even featured in operating theatres, since it was easy to clean and impervious to water.
The first thing you notice when you see Maxwell Fry and Gropius’s shop is the striking way the black glass and wide, clear windows curve inwards at an angle, away from the street, with the entrance door set into the side. The plain glass doors are made from stainless steel and given a satin finish: the long cellulosed pull handles and neat locks complete the utilitarian look.
Below the broad windows runs a course of glass bricks that form the stall-riser, while to the right is a freestanding cylindrical stanchion (column) which Pevsner says brings ‘a whiff of Dessau’ to the City. Mortimer Gall’s signage, incorporating their telephone number (MAN 9888) has sadly long been replaced. Walter Gropius (1883-1969) was one of the pioneers of the Bauhaus movement and became its first director in 1919, designing the new campus at Dessau. In 1934, with the rise of Nazism, he fled Germany and settled in Hampstead, an area well known for attracting artists and architects. When he was invited to become Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937 Gropius left Britain for the United States, where he remained until his death in 1969.