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Metro Central Heights, Southwark

Description: Metro Central Heights

Grade: II
Date Listed: 8 July 2013
Building ID: 1405570

OS Grid Reference: TQ3204579100
OS Grid Coordinates: 532043, 179143
Latitude/Longitude: 51.4958, -0.0992

Locality: Southwark
County: Greater London Authority
Postcode: SE1 6DQ

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Listing Text


Former offices for the Ministry of Health, designed by Ernö Goldfinger RA. Built in two phases, Blocks A-C (1959-62); Block D (1964-66). Converted into housing 2002.

Listing includes the exterior form and detail of the four main blocks and the linking bridges, the rectangular pond and the retaining walls and central parapet wall to the spiral ramp to the car park. It includes internal public spaces, ie the original northernmost ground floor foyer and ground floor lift lobby and the glazed screen in the southern lift lobby; also those stairwells and bridges retaining original balustrades.

Block E, the later inserted shops and shopfronts and interiors of the ground floor commercial premises are not included in the listing. Beyond the cited public areas, interiors of the flatted accommodation are not included in the listing.

Reason for Listing

Metro Central Heights, formerly Alexander Fleming House Blocks A-D, offices for Ministry of Health, including the rectangular pond and walls to the ramp to the underground car park, by Ernö Goldfinger and built 1959-62 and 1964-66, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Authorship: important post-war government offices by Ernö Goldfinger, a major exponent of the European Modern Movement in Britain and an architect of international standing;
* Plan and structural interest: four linked blocks of unequal height, on a scale and plan reminiscent of the work of the Russian Constructivists, built on a precise grid using the classically informed post and beam vocabulary propounded by Goldfinger for commercial buildings, all governed by the proportions of the Golden Section;
* External design interest: deeply modelled facades created by forward and recessed window bays within the grid, with windows designed with a 'photobolic screen' a recessed toplight, to deflect sunlight inwards;
* Materials: carefully considered materials with high quality external (where they survive) and internal finishes; potential survival of Vitrolite spandrel panels, although later coated;
* Fittings of note: coloured glazed screens designed by Goldfinger in collaboration with Kenneth Rowntree;
* Intactness: despite later anti-carbonation coating, a high level of external intactness and major elements of the important interior spaces;
* Planning interest: designed as part of the wider redevelopment of London's Elephant and Castle, a scheme first set out in the important County of London Plan of 1943 by Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw, representative of Goldfinger's post-war interpretation for the city and the Idealist philosophy behind it, addressing the relationship between tall and low-rise buildings;
* Critical reception: acclaimed at the time, receiving RIBA Bronze Award in 1964; on completion of Phase One, Architectural Design (January 1963), was unusually and exclusively devoted to Goldfinger's career.


Metro Central Heights, formerly Alexander Fleming House, was built in 1959-67 as offices for the Ministry of Health by the architect and designer Ernö Goldfinger RA (1902-1987). It was constructed in two phases, phase one, Blocks A-C (1959-62); phase two (1964-67), the southernmost Block D, Block E including the Elephant and Castle public house, and the detached Odeon Cinema. Initially designed by Goldfinger for Arnold Lee of Fortpost Investments (later Imry Properties), it was acquired by the Government during the early stages of construction of phase one, and completed for the Ministry of Health. The ground floor corner of Block A was laid out as the Ministry of Health Showroom. The Ministry of Health vacated Alexander Fleming House in 1989 and it remained empty until it was converted to residential use in 2002 and renamed Metro Central Heights. The cinema was demolished in 1988 and replaced by a residential tower in 2004.

Alexander Fleming House was designed as part of the wider redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, a scheme first set out in the County of London Plan of 1943 by Patrick Abercrombie and JH Forshaw, later modified in the 1951 County of London Development Plan and realised on a reduced scale in the late 1950s. Goldfinger himself prepared a scheme in 1960 which was never implemented but which was to inform later decisions for the area.

The LCC scheme for widening and re-planning the roads at Elephant and Castle matured in 1956, when thought began to be given to the surrounding plots of land. This process coincided with the widespread movement towards larger, more complex blocks and more integrated planning, a progression led at Elephant and Castle by the LCC planner Walter Bor. In 1958, the LCC organised an informal limited competition, then a novelty, for architects' and developers' proposals for the northern half of what became the Alexander Fleming House site. Goldfinger had already designed a successful but much smaller pair of offices at 45-46 Albemarle Street for Arnold Lee. At Elephant and Castle his proposal was for three parallel office buildings on a staggered plan linked by glazed bridges, aligned north-south with little regard to the road layout. At this stage there was no formal brief for the development to extend to the south of the site, which was then still occupied by the massive Trocadero cinema, the principal entertainment focus of the area. Yet there seems to have been an informal expectation that the southern site would be released, as from the first Goldfinger's schemes seem to allow for the three original blocks to be enclosed by a fourth.

A Hungarian émigré, Ernö Goldfinger moved to Paris in 1920 and to London in 1934. He stands out as one of the only architects, trained under Auguste Perret at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1920s and closely involved in the early years of the Modern Movement on the Continent, who found acceptance in Britain where he continued to be a major exponent of these ideas in the post-war period. Firmly rooted in Perret's Structural-Rationalism, he also drew on Le Corbusier's social idealist views and the work of the Russian Constructivists.

Alexander Fleming House was Goldfinger's largest project and in his view his major work. It endorsed his post-war interpretation for the city, an exploration of the philosophy that amongst other issues addressed the social and physical relationship between tall buildings and low-rise development, that influenced the important Brownfield and Cheltenham Estates of 1965 and 1968-71 (Balfron Tower, listed Grade II; Trellick Tower, listed Grade II*; Cheltenham Estate, listed Grade II).

Structurally Alexander Fleming House was the summation of the post-and-frame vocabulary that Goldfinger adopted for commercial buildings, executed at 45-46 Albemarle Street (1954-5, listed Grade II) and in the Hille Building, Watford (1959) and also developed for unexecuted projects in London. It was his purest and most classically inspired building and closest in spirit to the work of Auguste Perret.

Alexander Fleming House received acclaim at the time it was built, receiving the RIBA Bronze Award for best building of the year in London in 1964. On completion of Phase One, the January 1963 issue of Architectural Design was unusually and exclusively devoted to Goldfinger's career. The completed project was widely published in the UK and abroad, and was extensively reviewed by Kenneth Frampton in Architectural Design in October 1967.

As government offices, the building was very economically built, at £5 per square foot. However the two internal foyers were richly finished in polished marble and here Goldfinger collaborated with the artist Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997) to create two coloured glazed screens to illuminate the lift lobbies. Rowntree trained at the Ruskin and Slade Schools of Art. During World War II, along with artists such as Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, he was engaged in ‘Recording Britain’ a government project set up to capture the character of Britain before it was destroyed by wartime, that accorded with his interest in the country’s vernacular tradition. After the War he collaborated with Clough Williams Ellis on his Vision of England series. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he produced murals for the Lion and Unicorn pavilion. He later taught at the Royal College of Art before becoming Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University. He became increasingly interested in modernist, constructivist ideas incorporating them in his work.


MATERIALS: reinforced concrete frame with an exposed aggregate finish; buff brick infill panels; granite cladding to external ground floor columns; steel-frame windows with Vitrolite spandrel panels, (the original cool grey panels were predominantly covered or coated in a sky blue film in 2002; some were replaced, others are covered internally); pre-cast concrete glazed screens with brightly coloured glass light internal lobbies which are lined in marble and vertically slatted timber panelling. In 2002 the original exposed concrete surface was coated in anti-carbonation coating and painted.

PLAN: four principal blocks aligned north-south laid out in a diamond formation of axial north and south blocks flanked by lower parallel east and west blocks, all overlooking a central courtyard. The blocks were labelled A-D, running clockwise starting with the north-south block facing Newington Causeway. The blocks are linked by enclosed glazed bridges above first floor, aligned east-west. The principal blocks contain lift and staircase towers which project forward from the facades and rise above the roofline. (The lower four-storey rectangular block, built as Block E, now accommodating flats above the Elephant and Castle public house is not included in the listing).

The main entrance lobby is now approached from the vehicular entrance from Newington Causeway. (The original approach to the courtyard via a passage under Block A has been blocked). A secondary entrance from the south was blocked by the insertion of a ground floor shop, leaving a small entrance to the south-east. The interior of the lobby was altered after the conversion to flats in 2002, retaining the glazed screen. A spiral ramp leads to a basement garage beneath the north block.

The interior, which was designed as an open flexible space within the structural shell, is converted to flats. The former Ministry of Health Showroom on the ground floor of the west block has been converted to a café and shops.

EXTERIOR: the complex is set out on a 16' 6" grid, in which the proportions and detail of each block are defined by the Golden Section (a mathematical ratio fundamental to classical design that has defined aesthetic proportions in art and architecture). North and south blocks are of 18 and 12 storeys, the north block comprising two rectangles stacked horizontally, the south block of two blocks stacked vertically. The east and west blocks are of 9 storeys. Above the parapet, each block is surmounted by a visually free-standing horizontal beam supported on short set-back piers, that was described by Goldfinger as the cornice. The service towers project above and beyond each tower.

The structural grid is expressed in robustly scaled, exposed uprights and horizontal beams of equal proportion. Blind windowless bays within the grid are infilled in buff brick cladding. The external columns, which are of square plan, are integral to the grid which rises above them (they are hollow and contain service ducts). The facades are deeply modelled, creating a sense of retraction and projection within the grid. At five-storey intervals each floor is set back from the facade while the slab projects to the outer frame, on the narrow facades forming a shallow balcony on the return elevations. At intervals bay windows project forward beyond both the recessed sections and main facades. On the narrow, symmetrical north and south facing façades of the taller blocks, horizontal and two-storey, vertical bay windows alternate. Steel-framed, mostly four-bay, window units, set back slightly from the façade, have Vitrolite spandrel panels, originally grey; those on the lower floors now covered by thin protective boarding, those above clad in a sky blue coating (2002). The window units on the northern, western and eastern blocks built in phase one, have a pronounced transom at door height creating a narrow clerestory or toplight which is set back behind the transom. This shelf, named by Goldfinger a 'photobolic screen', was designed to equalise light levels in the building by providing shade closest to the window while reflecting light into the room. The phase two, southern block (D), is treated slightly differently, without the recessed toplights, but with an applied frame, over the projecting window bays. Fully-glazed seven-storey bridges aligned east-west enclose the courtyard, affording views across and down into it.

Ground floor columns are clad in polished grey granite, incised as if rusticated, beneath coffered concrete ceiling slabs. Some are now internal where the reception lobby has been enclosed. The main entrance from the courtyard to Block B (northern block) is marble lined (the marble cladding has been extended since 2004). Smaller door units opening onto the courtyard are set beneath deep projecting concrete canopies and between flanking concrete fins. The original door and window units are intact. The courtyard is set out with a large rectangular pond within a raised concrete parapet surmounted by a deep horizontal lip. A spiral ramp contained between board-marked concrete panels descends to the underground carpark. The lower central dividing wall terminates in a small concrete planter.

INTERIOR: the two principal ground floor lift lobbies are lit by pre-cast concrete screens fitted with brightly coloured glass, designed by Goldfinger in collaboration with the artist Kenneth Rowntree. The main lift lobby, in the northern Block B has a coffered ceiling slab. The entrance lobby, ground floor lift lobby, steps, skirtings and floors are lined in polished grey or white marble and vertically slatted timber panelling; the integral marble risers and skirtings are shaped. The original external approach to the main entrance is now partly enclosed but the distinction between former external areas and the treatment of the internal lobby remains legible. The south lift lobby was considerably reduced in size in 2002; only the glazed screen has special interest.

Internal stairs are pre-cast concrete with a steel balustrade. Panel radiators are fixed to the balustrades of the stairs and glazed bridges.

Beyond the lobbies the former office plan has been subdivided to form individual flats and is not of special interest.

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.