Things change, places are re-shaped, old certainties are defeated. As a graduate, the only glass manufacturer I dealt with was Pilkingtons: the Lancashire firm which invented the float glass process. Pilks provided us with pocket-sized handbooks which were indispensable in the days of dial-up internet. They’d swallowed up their last British rival, Chance Glass of Birmingham, several decades earlier, and even in the 90’s and early 00’s, architects still specified British products: Pilkingtons for glass, Corus for steel and BPB for plasterboard.

No longer. A few months ago when I was specifying a curtain walling system, I asked the technical rep for a spec to suit what are relatively large units on the southerly and east-facing elevations. We had to consider the solar transmission coefficient for overheating, the strength of toughened & laminated glass for barrier loadings, as well as the usual R-values. When the proposed IGU spec came back, with Saint Gobain inner and outer panes, I raised a metaphorical eyebrow.  He explained that Pilkingtons were no longer the dominant force they once were.

That came as a surprise, and I became curious about what had happened to Pilkingtons. After their takeover by a Japanese firm, NSG Group, the rep felt that Pilks' profile had diminished. And perhaps their French competitor used more aggressive marketing…

On a recent trip down south I spent a couple of days in Rossendale, looking at a combination of good and poor adaptive re-use projects, which had taken redundant cotton mills in the Colne and Irwell valleys and converted them into flats. The best example is Ilex Mill in Rawtenstall, which still towers over the little town just as the Lancashire cotton magnate who built it intended. After I’d finished with the mills, I headed across Lancashire to St Helens, a town dominated by glass manufacturing, just as many towns in East Lancashire were dominated by cotton.

The smoking chimneys and distant roar of furnaces in central St Helens tell you that Pilks are still very much in the glassmaking business, but their former head office complex in Alexandra Park closed a few years ago. The buildings are in limbo, with new owners who have carried out a soft strip and asbestos remediation, then inexplicably stopped. The building I was particularly interested in was the Pilkington works canteen, which is a relative rarity in Britain: a building by Fry & Drew that you can visit (after a fashion).

Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were in the vanguard of British Modernism. Fry was a local boy, born in Cheshire to a Canadian chemical manufacturer who ran the Liverpool Borax Company. He studied at Liverpool School of Architecture under Charles Reilly, when Liverpool was seen as the best school in Britain. Fry began professional life as a reluctant neo-Classicist who converted to Modernism in the 1930’s, and got heavily involved with the MARS and CIAM groups.  He built some of the earliest Modernist buildings in Britain.

Meanwhile, just like Fry, Jane Drew's career combined the roles of architect, town planner, author and academic. She trained at the AA in London, and rumour has it that she was recruited as an MI6 operative during the War. Drew later curated exhibitions, taught at MIT and Harvard, and did a good deal of interior design work. Perversely, she’s now better known for the prize named after her, than for her buildings.

Reading the profile which Alan Powers wrote a few years ago, Fry and Drew were well-off bohemians with utopian socialist leanings. In the late 1930’s, Fry designed the Kensal House flats in Ladbroke Grove, London, then the Impington College campus – both with Walter Gropius, before the latter headed off to the US. After Fry met Drew, the two married then went into practice together, designing the Tanys Dell and Chantry housing estates in Harlow New Town, then working on several projects in the tropics during the 1950's including housing in Ghana and Chandigarh in Northern India where they worked as associates of Le Corbusier.

The idealism of their early social housing schemes was gradually set aside when they returned to the UK and designed a series of corporate offices. The Pilkington HQ in St Helens is probably Fry & Drew’s most important work in Britain, and it was completed in the mid-1960’s, quite late in their architectural careers. The Alexandra Park complex sits close to Pilkington’s Watson Street and Greengate glass factories, and consists of a landmark office tower, a slab block under it, an ornamental lake, and a canteen building.

The canteen is a long, low flat-roofed block which appears to float over the water and acts as a vista stop to the lake. The lower, entrance floor is brought down almost to eye level of the ducks and geese on the lake. It’s a single aspect building, with a glazed facade to the south, towards the office tower, and a blank face to the north. The floorplate has been punched through with a series of lightwells which illuminate and bring greenery into the depth of the plan.

Despite Fry & Drew’s socialist beliefs and the Pilkington brothers’ credo as a paternalistic employer, the building was planned hierarchically with a 620 seat capacity canteen for office staff on the upper floor, a 500 capacity canteen for glassworkers on the lower floor – and separate dining rooms for managers, visitors and senior staff. Even in the 1960’s, Britain’s most enlightened companies were still trapped in a class system which emphasised an employee’s place in the pecking order. Researching another company for a recent article, I discovered their canteen was also split into four: separate rooms for directors, managers, white collar and blue collar staff.  At that point, I realised that the famous "Class" sketch from a 1966 episode of the Frost Report (with John Cleese looking down on Ronnie Barker, who looked down in turn on Ronnie Corbett) was social realism rather than satire.

Ironically for a glass manufacturer, most of the canteen’s windows have been smashed, and many of the glazed ceramic tiles, too. As well as a glassmaker, until a few years ago Pilks were also a tile manufacturer, with a giant tilery at Swinton on the outskirts of Manchester. The canteen had once been a product showcase for the company, but the combination of remediation and vandalism makes it tricky to see the original design intent.  The large format glazed tiles on the serveries have gone, but the structural columns are still lined with marble-effect tesserae.

Although the ceiling soffits were originally lined with slatted hardwood, in their stripped condition the coffers of the concrete waffle slab make the spaces incredibly photogenic as each soffit picks up reflected light from the lake in front of the building. Arguably, the building in its present condition, with timber flooring and soffits removed, is far closer to the Brutalism which is currently undergoing a fashionable revival, than the more polished Modernism which Fry and Drew practised.  In fact, we're in danger of overlooking the work of architects like Fry & Drew, along with Basil Spence and Robert Matthew, simply because they used hardwood and stone cladding rather than visual concrete everywhere.

The complex is listed Grade II and miraculously, the Victor Pasmore mural is still there, although slightly vandalised – see second last photo.  As I stood there, I reflected on how Pasmore might have received his commission. Fry and Drew mixed socially with Henry Moore, Alvar Aalto, Barbara Hepworth, Ove Arup, Herbert Read, Hugh Casson and Eduardo Paolozzi. Pasmore was part of the same milieu; in other words, you can’t help but feel that he got work through the old-boys-and-old-girls network. Again, the artists and architects may have had a Modernist ethos, but theirs was still an old-fashioned society where the strictures of class ruled, and true meritocracy was rare.

Visiting the canteen was a curious experience: I arrived early in the morning and discovered a strong smell of smoke hanging in the air. Someone had burnt a hole through part of the hoarding, but all was quiet, so I wandered inside. After an hour or so, a wee guy in a blue nylon cagoule turned up, gabbling away in a strong dialect. Once he figured out that I wasn’t from the local newspaper, and wasn't a security guard, he disappeared downstairs to rummage through the rubbish.

I shot a set of photos using a digital camera, then switched to medium format and fed some film into my Mamiya 645. Later on, I watched from a first floor window as a battered Fiat Punto reversed at speed up to the hole in the hoarding. The wee guy jumped in and they drove off towards Prescot Road with a series of crashed gearchanges. I’m not sure what he’d discovered amongst the debris at Pilkington’s canteen, but he clearly felt it was precious.

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