Today Andrew Miles takes us a virtual trip to the UK’s Capital, to celebrate one of its architectural (and automotive-related) gems.
Many moons have waxed and waned since this building’s walls housed typewriters chattering along with the clang of the wheel wrench and the heady aroma of rubber. These days (well at least before the virus that must not be mentioned) you’d more likely be sweltering in a meeting room costing over a hundred pounds per hour to rent. Downstairs would offer you coffee and pastries within equally luxurious surroundings. As colourful as Ramsey’s language (although far more inviting), as extravagant as Joseph’s fabled jacket, as chic as the Rue Saint-Honoré – for this was once the UK home of Compagnie Générale des Établissements Michelin SCA.
Built in 1910 for the rapidly expanding Clerment-Ferrand based tyre manufacturer, a signature UK HQ was designed by Francois Espinasse as their previous home of 49 Sussex Place had proved too small. This building was set up by four employees in 1904 when Dunlop’s licensing hegemony ceased. Taking on fourteen locals, although quickly expanding to over forty within a year, a new purpose-built home was planned.
Built in ferro-concrete at the end of the Art Nouveau period, yet stylistically pre-empting Art Deco by a good twenty years, this delightful architectural confection was constructed on the borders of Kensington and Chelsea no less – hardly an austere avenue even a hundred years ago. Consider this rhapsody of colour at a time where stone and soot were more the order of the day. Beautiful outside, inside this system allowed open spaces without huge supporting columns, as well as excellent fire resistance. Handy for the volatile early motoring days.
Michelin house on Fulham Road and the corner of Sloane Avenue having been described by the late architectural visionary Ian Nairn (more on him momentarily) as “One of the least likely buildings of an unlikely city.” In his 1966 book, Nairn’s London, his Capital meanderings gave sway to classically opinionated and poetic judgements on all manner of buildings, though little on Bibendum’s home. He refers to the tiles and glass “dissolving the Fulham Road back to 1900’s with clouds of dust and enraged Motor spirit sputtering.”
If you have the merest hint of interest in London architecture (as do I), I implore you to read this book. It is a handsomely written blueprint, a time stopping glance back to a former world. His sanguine views are these days mostly altered or lost now: as is Nairn, sadly drowning his sorrows in gallons of Guinness and succumbing to alcoholism.
But let us turn to brighter matters and the building itself. January 1911 offered the motorist virtually everything. One could plan a road trip – imagination the limiting factor – and staff would happily type this up for sir or madam. Need a restaurant? “Why not Motor over there, sir. We’ve checked this establishment over and it needs for nothing. This, along with others are in our guidebook which you can purchase in our Touring Office should you wish to venture further North, perhaps?”
And of course the tyre fitting and service area: brightly lit, modern equipment and fully trained staff. The very next year, extensions were had to provide yet more needed space for administrative reasons. This HQ had it all.
With noted sporting achievements and famous race victories framed in glass and tiles, vivid re-enactments of Michelin shod charges, this building was as busy externally as those within; it leaps out of the pavement in a cornucopia of colour and still does to this day.
Such is life, the speed of expansion left the home of Michelin somewhat behind. Stoke on Trent was the favoured locale to build a new factory in 1927 and with it, a new headquarters. So what to do with this colourful edifice? They kept the ground floor open as before with their Touring office and tyre fitting bays but upstairs was for a good while, forgotten. A furniture warehouse leased some space later on.
As the Second World War began, some clever soul thought to remove and store those stained glass windows for fear of Luftwaffe damage. Alas, somewhere down the time-line, they were subsequently lost. Do they hang in a dusty garret, proudly displayed to no-one in particular? Could they be in a (presumably large) safety deposit box? Or were they smashed to pieces by hapless removal people and the evidence discarded? Goodness only knows but someone thought to actually replace them and return the building to glory once more.
Keeping the building on until 1985 when management finally decided to dispose of it. Sold to a partnership of Sir Terence Conran and buddy Paul Hamlyn for £8M, it was their plan to re-establish Michelin House as a social occasion. Conran being the refurbishment king at that time, his influence is very strong although to his credit, the building’s integrity was maintained.
Anthropomorphic ambiguities aside, one should raise a glass to the initial mascot’s title, Nunc est Bibendum – now is the time to drink. This referring to the unstoppable tyre ‘drinking up obstacles‘ and why not throw in some good living with a glass of vino (nails and road detritus in the original adverts) along with a cigar? Though in early days he could come across as an intimidating, quite brutal figure. Nowadays Monsieur Bibendum is a far more easy going, sunny, ebullient character. Rather like his former home.