Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Story of The Little Chef and The Invisible Architect

You wouldn't expect to find one of the country's most stunning man-made structures beside a busy interchange of the A1, but, I guess, you often find beauty in the strangest of places.

Several years ago, I'd drive past it every weekend on my way to and from the area's largest Sunday market. At the time, the sight always captivated me. I always resolved to find out more, but never got round to it.

More recently, frequent trips to the Peak District have involved travelling once again on the road past it.

A couple of weeks ago, on our return from the High Peak Marathon, I pointed it out to Tammy as we travelled between Worksop and Lincoln.

'See that there. It's beautiful isn't it?' I said.

No reply.

'A Modernist masterpiece.'

No reply.

'Built by the same man who designed the Sydney Opera House.' (Of course, it wasn't. But it was a story I'd heard told about it sometime back, and I wanted to provoke some sort of reaction.)


In spite of Tam's obvious underwhelment, I promised myself that I'd look deeper.

Look deeper I did. And what I found was a tale of a man of his time, ahead of his time, out of time. What I found was an unrecognised genius who transformed Lincolnshire's skyline, pushed forward Modernist design, but who was almost totally unknown. What I found was mystery, invisibility, and a  lightning strike of brilliance.

There's a great deal of praise heaped upon the iconic TWA Flight Centre, located at New York's JFK airport. The following give you just a glimpse:

"One of the most self-assured, self-confident— even self-conscious—buildings to emerge as a result of the interplay of the architectonic and engineer-inspired buildings was Saarinen's TWA Terminal Buildings at New York. It alarmed the remaining purists of modern architecture. Its bird-like symbolism, exciting forms and cavernous interior were not simply a casual reminder of the changes that had taken place in architectural thinking in the 1950s, but a demonstration of the architect's role as an originator and, in the American scene, as a 'building stylist'...Clearly it represented a revival of architectural Expressionism..." — Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History. p245.

  "This is surely one of the world's most dramatic airline terminals. Few straight lines here: approached head on, its curving contours uncannily suggest a bird in flight. Inside, the main lobby's soaring, swooping walls, its carefully modeled staircases, seating areas, and many other features are a blend of graceful sculptural forms selected 'to suggest the excitement of the trip.' — Sylvia Hart Wright. Sourcebook of Contemporary North American Architecture: From Postwar to Postmodern. p117

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, this was not his only work to receive international critical acclaim. Known particularly for his expressionism and his technical marvel in concrete shells, many of his other designs are equally as stunning as the TWA Flight Centre:

The Gateway Arch, St. Louis

Kresge Auditorium, M.I.T. campus

Ingalls Rink, New Haven

Saarinen's reputation grew to such a level in the architectural world that he served on the jury for the proposed Sydney Opera House project and was crucial in the selection of the now internationally-known design by Jorn Utzon. A previous jury which did not include Saarinen had discarded Utzon's design in the first round. However, Saarinen reviewed the discarded designs, recognised a quality in Utzon's design that, apparently, had eluded the rest of the jury and ultimately assured the commission of Utzon.

At the same time as the TWA structure was being constructed, Britain's own version was being built too. Whilst not as big or dramatic as the TWA Flight Centre, its design was just as beautiful - an impossible Modernist spark that, far from detracting from its rural surrounds, actively enhanced them. It arrived - a slice of the future - in 1961, beside the A1 at Markham Moor, when a new filling station opened for business.

Designed by Sam Scorer, working alongside structural engineer Dr Hajnal Konji, the Markham Moor filling station looked like nothing that had proceeded it. Whilst most petrol stations of the time consisted of a couple of pumps outside a wooden shed, this was, to coin a phrase of the '60s, 'far out.'

Its design consisted of a concrete roof, in the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid, supported on four stanchions. In the only widely-available photograph of the filling station in use at the time, the image that greets you is a temporal clash of outrageous proportions - the present, represented by the old fashioned motorcars, contrasting with the future, vividly portrayed by the sleek contours of Scorer's 'hypar'.

The structure continued in use until the filling station closed in 1989. At that point, the then-flourishing roadside chain, Little Chef, built a restaurant under the roof.

In 2004, plans to improve the road junction at Markham Moor meant that the Little Chef and Scorer's roof were threatened with demolition by the Highways Agency. These suggestions provoked outrage. Whether you loved the building or hated it, it appears it had become a part of the landscape that most people cherished. After a fierce campaign, the plans were revised and the building escaped the wrecking ball.

In March 2012, the building was listed by English Heritage at Grade 2, with the then-Arts Minister describing Sam Scorer as 'a pioneer in the use of this type of roof construction and a figure of national significance.' The listing makes it clear that the paraboloid roof is the only thing of interest here, the restaurant underneath it being of no architectural merit whatsoever. It notes that:

'The canopy and four structural supports remain intact and uncompromised by the inserted building underneath. The restaurant building does not have special interest and is excluded from the listing. The interior of the restaurant building has standard late C20 fittings, typical of those found at motorway service stations, and is not of special interest.'

The Little Chef restaurant closed in the summer of 2012 and the building now stands devoid of use, just as the TWA Flight Centre does. However, whilst the Flight Centre is being lovingly restored at the cost of many millions, no-one seems sure what is going to happen to the Markham Moor filling station. Abandoned, it is looking increasingly shabby.

It's a great shame, but its fate seems to mirror that of its designer. For Sam Scorer, one of Britain's greatest provincial architects has also been largely ignored. Whilst comparable architects received national and international recognition, Scorer remained invisible, largely unheard of outside Lincolnshire - a shadow man who left behind a legacy of brilliance and idiosyncracy through pioneering designs.

Hugo Segar 'Sam' Scorer was born on 2nd March 1923. He was brought up in Lincoln, the youngest of five children. The Scorer family had once been important in Lincoln. (There is a 'Scorer Street' on Sincil Bank - a name I always assumed was the product of its proximity to the Lincoln City Football Club ground, but now know was named after previous generations of the Scorer family.) Sam's father was a clerk to Lindsey County Council, whilst his mother was a lecturer at the Bishop Grosseteste teacher-training college.

After becoming head-boy at Repton School in South Derbyshire and reading Mechanical Sciences at Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, Scorer volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm to train as a fighter pilot. Whilst training, he met his wife and six weeks later they married. He served as a pilot until 1945, when he was invalided out of service after an accident.

Having decided to become an architect, he entered the Architectural Association School of  Architecture in the second year in 1946 and graduated in 1949. It was then that he changed his name by deed poll to 'Sam'.

After graduating, Scorer worked for a year as assistant to George Grey Woornum, who later won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. A year later - 1951 - he was invited to work with Denis Clarke Hall. Clarke Hall regarded Scorer as a gifted designer, and just three years after employing him, he opened an office with Scorer in Lincoln and invited him to become his partner.

After the opening of the office, Scorer was promptly approached by the Freemasons. Should he join the brotherhood, he would never be short of work. Scorer declined, stating that if this was the only way he could secure work, he would rather not be an architect at all.

At first, Denis Clarke Hall, Scorer and Bright and Partners did a lot of work for county councils, designing two schools - William Farr School at Welton, and Riddings Comprehensive School in Scunthorpe. However, it wasn't long before Scorer hooked up with structural engineer, Hajnal Konji, A Hungarian refugee who had a particular interest in concrete shells, particularly hyperbolic paraboloids. Working together between 1954 and 1963, Scorer designed the buildings that have since been recognised as of national importance and special interest:

- the Markham Moor petrol station;

- the garage and car showroom on the Brayford Pool (now home to a number of restaurants);

- the St. John the Baptist Church on the Ermine estate.

All of these buildings have listed status, which guarantees that demolition, extension or alteration cannot take place without special permission from the local planning authority. Of the estimated 374,081 listed buildings in England, the total number of post-war listed buildings is approximately 0.2% Of this tiny number, three are Scorer's designs.

When the new garage for the Lincolnshire Motor Company showrooms was being built in 1959, it caused a sensation. This was the largest hyperbolic paraboloid to have been built in the UK. During its construction, the local newspaper - The Lincolnshire Echo - received a number of phone calls from passers-by alerting them that the roof had subsided in the middle and was about to collapse.

A spectacular achievement, the building consists of four hyperbolic paraboloid shells separated by a rooflight running the entire length of the building. An in-depth report, published in Concrete Quarterly (1960, vol.44, p.11-12) can be found here.

Still much admired locally, the St. John the Baptist church, located on a large housing estate, was commissioned by Father John Hodgkinson. After completion it was named as 'The Church of Tomorrow', and, according to the Telegraph, is one of the '100 most loved churches in the UK'. Not everyone at the time of its developement shared the same view however.

A letter, published in The Architect and Building News in 1963, refers to the church:

I am sure that the design of this church will shock most ordinary people. Did the architect have his inspiration on a wet Monday after an acute attack of indigestion? But perhaps having seen TV pictures of hurricane damage in America, he seized his set-squares and compasses and exclaimed Archimedes-like, 'I've got it.' In short, is this architect cocking a snook at traditional architecture and intentionally initiating the new 'typhoon' period at the expense of his Lincoln victims?

After these three stunning successes, Scorer and Konji were appointed for a project for what was billed as 'one of the most modern and progressive theatres in Europe'. To be situated in Lincoln, Scorer drew up proposals for an auditorium to seat 450 people, in addition to a separate 200-seat auditorium for use as a film theatre.

In May 1972, with the backing of Lincoln Corporation, Lindsey County Council and Kesteven County Council, and with 75% of the necessary funds secured, it looked certain that the project would go ahead. However, 1973 was to prove a low point in Scorer's life. Britain plunged into recession, there were big changes in local government after the by-election of 1973, and the City Council pulled its support of the venture. It was rejected entirely. What would have been the largest and most prestigious scheme in Scorer's career was lost. Later in the same year, Hajnal Konji died and Clarke Hall retired. Almost, but not quite, a broken man, Scorer stayed in Lincoln and took over the practice.

Although never replicating the heights of his 1960's achievements, Scorer worked indefatigably for the rest of his life. His archive houses a collosal 800 designs. From the 1970's, his projects became increasingly idiosyncratic, but full of imagination and historical illusions. Two, in particular, are more than worthy of mention.

Standing next to the seaside resort's famous miniature railway, The Southern Outfall Pumping Station in Cleethorpes was completed in 1987. Designed as a temple to Amon, the god of ammonia - a by-product of the decomposition of the pumping station content, this utility shed is a building of both great eccentricity and suprising beauty.

A familiar landmark on the bypass on the edge of Lincoln is another Scorer building - Damon's Restaurant. Designed in 1987-88, this is a circular building with an unusual feature in the middle of its roof. In fact, the wooden crown signifies the BBQ ribs that are served in the American-style restaurant. Inside the venue, walls are covered with film posters, smoky mirrors and artificial plants to create a glitzy, Hollywood themed interior. Those most inquisitive diners might also notice a photograph of an unfamiliar face. On the wall is a framed picture of Sam Scorer, keeping an eye on proceedings.

In his later life, Scorer founded and funded The Gallery, now The Sam Scorer Gallery on Drury Road, Lincoln.

He died, aged 80, on March 26th 2003. The funeral ceremony took place in the local crematorium. Sam lay in the coffin he'd designed, decorated with flowers from his garden. An acoustic jazz quartet played to the packed chapel. After the ceremony ended, the attendees were asked to go to Damon's Restaurant to enjoy a meal.

They say that each long journey starts with a single step. All journeys have a start point and a destination. Whilst you're certain of that start point when you make that first step, the most rewarding journeys often reach a destination other than the one you originally intended. This was one such journey.

What started as an idle enquiry over a beautiful, but discarded, building by a busy road, took me into the life of a brilliant, but puzzling, designer. What started as a question about a concrete roof ended up as The Story of The Little Chef and The Invisible Architect.

It's both foolish and dangerous to look into the life and work of an individual and postulate about what went on inside his head. I didn't know Scorer, don't know anyone who did know him - indeed, I don't know anyone who even knows of him. So, how can I presume to know or understand the feelings, the drive, the raison d'etre by which he lived his life. Of course, I can't. But I can imagine. After all, sometimes it's good to be foolish and dangerous.

There's question marks that hang around Mr Scorer.

The first is based around the invisibility of our man. The 1996 Proceedings of the Institute of Structural Engineers was an issue dedicated to the history of concrete shells, and contained an in-depth analysis of hyperbolic paraboloids. It's surprising then, that since no other architect built so many of them, Scorer doesn't receive a single mention.

Similarly, the only information catalogued in the Lincoln City Archives under the name of Scorer is a letter of complaint about the architect's behaviuor, dated 1997, at a meeting regarding Manton Parish Church. Data on Sam Scorer is virtually non-existent.

It seems that, although Scorer had every chance to become internationally famous, he never chose to profit from it, deciding instead on obscurity rather than celebrity.

Perhaps his invisibity was a conscious choice? Certainly, it seems that he chose not to write. Whilst his contemporaries were known as much for celebrating and explaining their own works, as much for their lectures on buildings as the buildings themselves, Sam Scorer chose to do no such thing. He left behind a vast archive of work, but little, if any, writing about his work. He refused to use his relationship with the Concrete and Cement Association, his practice in Lincoln, his position as president of the Nottingham, Derby and Lincoln Society of Architects or the Architect East Midlands magazine he was responsible for as tools for self-promotion. It seems that Scorer just did not care about publicity or what someone might think about him or his work during his lifetime.

Secondly, a look into the life of Sam Scorer would not be complete without an examination of the matter of location. Scorer was born in Lincoln. He worked in the same city for all of his adult life. His architectural projects, including his three magnificent listed buildings, were all based in Lincolnshire, the majority of them all within a few miles of Lincoln city centre. The art gallery Scorer founded was in Lincoln, and he died, just days after his 80th birthday in Lincoln. It's evident, to me at least, that Scorer had a strong sense of place. He belonged to this place. He loved it dearly. Lincoln was his home.

As I grow older, I increasingly feel the ties to the place I call home. And, in looking into the life of Sam Scorer, it is, perhaps, this matter that impresses me most about this secret of a man. He spurned opportunities to move to London, preferring the honesty of being a provincial architect. He stayed true to his roots. Perhaps this is the main reason why this great man remains unknown? If it is, then it's a fine one - a decision I can't help but admire.

A final mystery revolves around the apparent contradictions in Scorer's architectural beliefs. Whilst he worked almost exclusively on Modernist buildings, he was also a member of the Victorian Society. He served as the first chairman of the East Midlands Group of this Society, and is remembered  for his enthusiasm and knowledge. He worked on the conservation of Lincoln Cathedral and protested against the demolition of the Royal Insurance building on Silver Street.

In Scorer's hey-day, Victorian architecture was as unfashionable as it got. Victorian buildings were being demolished to be replaced by the stark concrete blocks of Modernism. No hero of Modernism was ever interested in the past. Except one.

Who knows why this particular Modernist was so passionate about what had been before? And maybe the answer is less important than the reminder it serves us with. A reminder of the myriad of facets of each human being, and the duty to follow what is truely felt, regardless of whether the course of action taken fits with the label you've been given, or the label you might have given yourself.

It is fitting that Sam Scorer's archive is stored in a redundant church - St. Benedict's - in the tiny Wolds village of Wood Enderby. He bought the building in 1976, when its demolition was being proposed. He encouraged his friends to buy other redundant churches, but it's unlikely that any of them did.

Inside the church, there is documentation for over 800 architectural jobs, all ordered and clearly numbered. The projects are packed in dusty tubes, and it seems possible that no-one has opened them since they were put aside after the projects were completed.

No-one visits the church anymore. The building and its contents are owned now by his son, who still holds the opinion of his father as one of the most important architects of post-war Britain.

                    *                   *                    *                    *                    *                     *

Information on Sam Scorer is difficult to come by. In telling this story I am hugely indebted to Karolina Szynalska's paper, 'Sam Scorer - A lesser known architect of the twentieth century'.
It is a very fine piece of writing and well worth a read.


  1. Great blog, really interesting! :)

  2. I can't thank you enough for this piece! I've often found myself wondering about this beautiful piece of Architectural Engineering with a shabby Little Chef squatting underneath.

    I originally thought it was an early Heinz Isler project. I'm grateful to you for doing the hard work of researching the story and making it available online.

    Your sensitive account has only increased my regard for the structure. I only wish I had the money and the wherewithal to save it.