Learn more about Charles Holden
Holden's childhood in Bolton was not easy. His father's drapery business went bankrupt, and his mother died when he was eight. After leaving school, he worked first as a railway store clerk, and as a chemical laboratory assistant.
His brother-in-law, Frederick Green, a land-surveyor, employed Holden at the age of twenty to be apprenticed to E. W. Leeson, a Manchester architect. He studied at the Manchester School of Art and Technical College, with such success that he was soon teaching. Around 1896, Holden revealed his grasp of architectural form in designs he submitted to the Building News Designing Club, using the pseudonym 'The Owl'.
Modestly believing that architecture was a joint effort, Holden twice declined the offer of a Knighthood.
Charles Holden's great-niece Dr Jean Ward in 1999 presented to the RIBA Architectural Library Drawings Collection many topographical drawings, family photographs and ephemera by or relating to him. They joined a large body of material acquired in the 1970s at the closure of his partnership, Adams, Holden & Pearson.
One of Holden's first major designs was the Bristol Central Library for which he won a design competition in 1902. Working to a limited budget, Holden designed a modernist building following "Arts & Crafts" design principals of form and function and using a steel frame with brick external walls faced with Bath stone. External the building has a stripped-down, neo-Tudor style inspired by the adjacent Abbey Gate of Bristol Cathedral, internally, it is more classical in style. As he was later to do with many of his other buildings, Holden designed all of the interior furnishings for the Library - mainly in teak.
The library has been compared with Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art and Hill House and it is sometimes suggested that Mackintosh's designs were inspired by Holden's; however the designs were developed slightly earlier and, although bearing similarities in details are unlikely to have been influenced by Holden's design.
 London Transport
From the 1920s to the 1940s Holden was architect for numerous projects for the London Electric Railway Company and later London Transport (now Transport for London). Throughout this period, he worked closely with the organisation's Managing Director Frank Pick who championed good design throughout the business. The earliest of Holden's commissions from Pick included stations on the southward extension of the Northern Line to Morden in 1925-6 and a new company headquarters in 1927-9.
A revival of 18th century monumental styles then dominated British architecture. In contrast, Holden's designs for the Northern Line stations and 55 Broadway headquarters, over St. James's Park tube station, were original and modern: Holden produced not just a building, but a complete design. For 55 Broadway, he commissioned a series of sculptures for the exterior of the building from contemporary artists including Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore. The most controversial - considered indecent at the time - were the two groups by Epstein, Day and Night. His attention to this kind of detail typified Holden's commitment to total design.
Holden also produced the designs for the improvements of Piccadilly Circus (1925) and Leicester Square (1931). These congested central London interchanges were rebuilt with spacious new below ground concourses and escalators to replace the original sets of lifts.
The 1930-3 Piccadilly Line extensions both north and west, gave Pick and Holden the chance to develop a new type of station. Aiming for a striking and inviting modern appearance, they adapted for English surroundings simple, geometric styles and exposed brickwork they saw on the Continent. This led to their 'classic' style of Underground architecture, using clean, simple forms - cylinders, curves, rectangles - built of brick and concrete and often decorated internally with brightly coloured tiles. All parts of a building were to be harmonious, all aspects integrated into the design. This included interior and exterior lighting, platform seats, clocks, kiosks, ticket machines and even litter bins. For London Transport's bus operations Holden also designed bus shelters.
Sudbury Town first demonstrated this style, opening on 19 July 1931. At least 17 other similar stations soon followed. A number of them - including Enfield West (now Oakwood), Southgate, Arnos Grove and the original Sudbury Town - were in 1971 designated as of "special architectural interest", as was the 55 Broadway headquarters building.
In the mid 1930s Holden designed new stations for the Northern Line's Northern Heights Plan, but much of the project was postponed by World War II and later cancelled. Only East Finchley was completed in full and Highgate in part. Impressive designs for the reconstruction of Edgware and the new stations on the Bushey Heath extension were scrapped.
Holden's designs for the new and rebuilt stations on the Central Line extensions faired better, although they too were delayed by the war. They were not completed until the late 1940s and the designs were somewhat reduced by post-war austerity measures when compared to the stations built in the 1930s. Amongst these, Gants Hill is notable for the design of its platform level which was inspired by stations Holden had seen in the 1930s on the Moscow Metro.
 Senate House, University of London
The University of London had existed since 1836, but a major reform in 1900 indicated the need for an administrative headquarters; for this, in the words of Lord Haldane "ought to be the chief centre of learning in the entire Empire, perhaps the chief centre of learning for the entire world”.
Charles Holden won the commission to design the new buildings for the University of London in competition with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott amongst others. Holden's original plan, published in 1931, was more ambitious than what was eventually built. It had an enormous linear spine with 2 towers and 17 courtyards that extended from the British Museum to Byng Place; it would have dominated much of central London and would have taken decades to build. Only Senate House, the first part of the approved scheme, was built, incorporating the Library.
Holden designed the tower to taper, to "appear with quiet insistence", yet it was the tallest building in London (except for St. Pauls Cathedral) for a number of years, and was in effect "London's first skyscraper". It was Holden’s last building.
 External links
- National Portrait Gallery - Charles Holden by Francis Dodd, 1915
- Londonist.com - Article on Charles Holden's buildings
- Looking at Buildings - Bristol Central Library
- London's Transport Museum Photographic Archive
- LT Museum
- German Underground
- Web page about Charles Holden (archINFORM database)