Central House and 1–13 Adler Street: flatted factories in Whitechapel
By Survey of London, on 24 July 2020
Central House on the south side of Whitechapel High Street is in the middle of a transformation, not its first.
The building began as a flatted factory, that is rentable spaces for small-scale industry, an important aspect of post-war reconstruction and planning in east London. Another roughly contemporary flatted factory survives close by, on the west side of Adler Street. This post presents both these buildings of the early 1960s, also accounting for what has happened to them since.
The County of London Plan of 1943 prescribed distinct zones of activity, recommending the dispersal of industry away from London’s inner boroughs. It was recognised, however, that small factories and workshops, heretofore scattered hither and thither, could not realistically be banished but would need in some degree to be kept close to the housing of those they employed, preferably gathered together in low-rent premises.
The plan therefore recommended the building of flatted or ‘unit’ factories, ‘which have proved suitable for clothing, some types of light engineering, light chemicals and chemists’ preparations, and furniture, although the latter will require more room for saw benches.’  In keeping with this the Stepney–Poplar Reconstruction Scheme of the late 1940s envisaged an industrial enclave to either side of Plumbers Row, a heavily bombed area that extended west to Adler Street. Denys Munby presented formidable evidence in favour of industrial relocation in Industry and Planning in Stepney: A Report presented to the Stepney Reconstruction Group (1951). But, having investigated multi-storey flatted factories, the LCC reaffirmed their desirability in East London in 1954 as redevelopment began to swing into action. A Unit Factories programme was begun and an exemplar followed at Long Street in Haggerston in 1958–9. Further support for this approach to keeping employment local had come from Michael Young and Peter Willmott in Family and Kinship in East London (1957).
Compulsory purchase and other difficulties meant that Walter Bor, the planner–architect in charge of redevelopment in Stepney in the LCC Architects’ Department’s Town Planning Division, had to revisit plans for the Plumbers Row area in 1959 to accept mixed use before he had worked up a scheme for unit factories/workshops. He turned to another site on the west side of Adler Street (beyond the zone), where houses of the 1780s flattened in the war had been cleared. Alternatives for a two-storey building were prepared and revised and in 1961 Yorke, Rosenberg & Mardall were engaged to see the job through. They prepared a scheme for a five-storey block to house fifteen units of from 600 to 2,200 square feet for light industry or wholesale showrooms above seven ground-floor shops, with access galleries off two stair and lift landings to permit subdivision. A specification for fair-faced concrete finish of the highest standard was questioned but approved as being of ‘architectural importance’. When tenders came in too high, the architects were obliged to reduce the estimate of £124,520 by £22,000. In the event the contract went to William Willett (Contractors) Ltd in 1963 for £110,430 and the building was completed in 1964. Early tenants were mostly in the rag trade, largely tailors.
Built with a reinforced-concrete frame and grey-brick infill panels on a regular grid, the Adler Street building has cantilevering that with its recessed galleries gives the long elevations dramatic Modernist geometry of the kind to which the term Brutalist is now often applied. Much of the fair-faced concrete has been painted, rougher aggregate staying exposed on the gallery rails. Parts of the building have been adapted for educational use, the second and third floors unified for the Icon College of Technology and Management London.
Meanwhile, close by to the west, planning for the roadworks that were to create the Gardiner’s Corner gyratory system meandered through the 1950s. The intended rerouting of the end of Commercial Road precipitated the compulsory purchase of a site on the south side of Whitechapel High Street that had for many decades housed Davis’s Feather Mill. In 1959 Lush & Lester, architects, a partnership formed in 1956 by Cecil Lush and Alfred Lester, approached the LCC to propose an eight-storey building on what would remain of this site, suggesting warehouses and showrooms below a flatted factory. This fitted well with the LCC’s approach to Stepney’s comprehensive development and was favourably received.
Reduced to six storeys, Lush & Lester’s scheme was granted planning permission in 1961. Central & District Properties Ltd of Berkeley Square secured a 99-year lease from the LCC and carried forward the development, starting with site clearance in 1963. Central House went up between June 1964 and June 1965. Taylor, Whalley & Spyra were the engineers, responsible for precast-concrete panels, and Tersons Ltd the contractors.
Lush & Lester responded to the challenge of building cheaply and sturdily with a pragmatism that was characteristic of their work. Central House has a simple reinforced-concrete frame of six bays east–west and ten bays north–south. Continuous windows wrap around all sides of the building. On the short north and south elevations, off-centre open staircases are recessed above projecting balconies over entrances for access to the workshops on the second to fifth floors. Seven ground-floor showrooms were given corresponding first-floor warehouses or workshops. An eastern service lane off Manningtree Street snakes around a semi-circular substation to underground parking. The ground and first floors were immediately occupied by textile businesses, but other intentions were diverted. The Sir John Cass School of Art was accepted as the main tenant of the rest of the building. Modular partitions made it readily adaptable to educational purposes, but the logic of the flatted factory was lost.
In 1978 Roy Sandhu, a lower-storey tenant through Roy Manufacturing Co. (Fashion) Ltd, acquired the Central House freehold. With the rag trade on the wane, in 1986 Sandhu turned to property development. He commissioned Ian Ritchie, a Wapping-based architect, to reimagine a site that stretched from Commercial Road to St Mary’s Gardens (Altab Ali Park), taking in Central House and involving the closure of White Church Lane. The speculative scheme tested the appetite for a monolithic banking centre just east of the City, presenting a potential rival to Canary Wharf.
The proposal consisted of a semi-cylindrical office tower of sixty storeys, taller than any tower in Europe at the time, inflected with High-Tech nuance. Dealing floors clad in translucent glass were to be punctuated by open garden levels at strategic intervals. A four-storey mixed-use podium was a concession to the urban context, so too was new parkland behind the tower, envisioned to extend and upgrade St Mary’s Gardens. Sandhu’s project was widely reported, at least in part on account of his rags-to-riches story and bold ambition. Roy’s Corner, as the scheme was mockingly dubbed, was not well received by Tower Hamlets Council and local residents. Criticism focused on the tower’s high proportion of office space, its potential impact on the rag trade, and its unprecedented scale. An unfavourable political climate ensured the controversial scheme was shelved. Even so, it was resurrected in 1988 with only a slight reduction in height. It failed once more, though Ritchie claimed, to the incredulity of critics but with some foresight, that ‘the tower will be hardly visible from street level until you look upwards and then it will be like gazing into the 21st century.’ 
Via a series of mergers, the Sir John Cass School of Art was subsumed into London Metropolitan University (LMU) in 2002. Central House had been retained throughout, used for teaching art, craft and design since the 1960s, with additional workshops at what had been the London College of Furniture to the east on Commercial Road. In 2011 the University moved its Architecture Department from Holloway Road premises to Central House to create a unified ‘creative hub’. All floors of the building came into the possession of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture and a thorough refurbishment was undertaken by Cartwright Pickard, architects. Reorganization of the ground floor and basement created new entrance, gallery, café, gym and studio spaces.
Robert Mull, LMU’s Director of Architecture and Dean of the Cass Faculty, commissioned insiders Florian Beigel, Philip Christou and the Architecture Research Unit (ARU), to re-conceive the upper floors of the building to facilitate the teaching of architecture. Their scheme reasserted the original structure, but deliberately sought to disrupt its pragmatism to allow informal connections between disciplines to emerge serendipitously. After relocating to Central House in 2013, students and staff acknowledged the efficacy of Beigel, Christou and the ARU’s sensitive interventions. Moreover, the ‘Aldgate Bauhaus’ benefited from proximity to the East End art scene and the Whitechapel Gallery. Confidence in the future culminated in July 2015 in a proposal for a large installation of external signage designed by art Professor Bob and Roberta Smith. It was to proclaim ‘Art Makes People Powerful’. Subsequent events suggested otherwise.
In October 2015, under heavy financial pressures, LMU’s management presented a ‘one campus, one community’ plan, anticipating the closure of nineteen courses and a much-reduced student body. Central House was designated for sale and the Cass was to be relocated to Holloway Road, its new custom-designed teaching spaces discarded. The proposed closure was met with fierce opposition, perceived to be a short-sighted commercial decision, and indicative of an identity crisis afflicting former polytechnics. A ‘Save the Cass’ campaign drew widespread support, including from David Chipperfield, Richard Rogers and Nicholas Serota. The sale of Central House was debated in the House of Lords, but the government declined to take action and LMU’s management kept its resolve.
In February 2016 Frasers Property purchased Central House from LMU for £50m, a price the University noted was ‘significantly above the expected market level’.  The Cass vacated on 31 August 2017, relocating to Calcutta House off the north side of Whitechapel High Street. Initial plans for a retail, hotel and office tower of around thirty storeys, with outline designs prepared by Arney Fender Katsalidis, were scaled back in 2018 in favour of an office-block scheme by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. This was approved and is being carried forward by BAM Consruction. It retains the north, south and west walls of Central House and adds six storeys in somewhat mirroring form, though in steel and darker hued, a parti that claims inspiration from Rachel Whiteread’s Fourth Plinth.
1 – J. H. Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie, County of London Plan, 1943, pp. 97–8
2 – East London Advertiser, 6 August 1988
3 – Building Design, 23 February 2016