Luke Engleback, son of postwar architect, Norman Engleback reflects on the design legacy of his father on London’s South Bank

“That was my Dad... endlessly creative, but always a pragmatist.”

The renovated NFT sign

In 1957, the south side of Waterloo Bridge acquired an iconic harlequin sign as part of the National Film Theatre development. This was designed by Norman Engleback, lead architect of the South Bank complex including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Hayward Gallery and the National Film Theatre (now the British Film Institute). The epoch-defining piece fell into disrepair and went unlit for several decades until it was renovated in 2018.

Over sixty years after its unveiling, the Illuminated River Foundation met with Luke Engleback, Landscape Architect and son of Norman, to discuss the NFT sign and learn more about the design influences behind his father’s architectural career.

Norman Engleback (1927–2015)

Born and raised in North London, Norman Engleback started his career in the drawing office of London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) at Kings Cross, focusing on the reconstruction of bombed railway structures. “His first building was a signal box in Mile End” Luke recounts. It was only after nine years of evening classes at the Northern Polytechnic Institute in Holloway (now London Metropolitan University), that Norman was able to qualify as an architect, utilising his great skills in draftsmanship and problem-solving.

Norman Engleback in 1957

After stints working for the housing architect, Edward Armstrong, as well as Tony Cox at ACP (Architects Co-operative Partnership), Norman joined the Architects Department of the London County Council in 1952 where he became the protégé of its Chief Architect, Sir Leslie Martin. At the age of 28, Norman was appointed team leader of the National Film Theatre development. He belonged to a wider group of young architects mentored by Martin, including James Stirling and Peter and Alison Smithson, who engendered an optimistic and experimental attitude towards postwar reconstruction. They would become the trademark names of Brutalist architecture, responsible for London’s civic buildings and monolithic concrete structures like Robin Hood Gardens (The Smithsons, 1972) and the National Recreation Centre at Crystal Palace (Engleback, 1953-4).

Luke Engleback explains that his father’s early interest in traditional vernacular Chinese architecture (on which he wrote his dissertation), set a precedent for his restrained design approach, abiding by the modernist proverb: ‘Less is More’. It was at the age of nine during a family trip to the iconic 1955 chapel, Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, that Luke adopted his father’s enthusiasm for Le Corbusier and the sculptural possibilities of concrete.

Later in life, Norman founded the Indolent Tendency, a name he gave for the group of architects and planners who chose early retirement instead of witnessing the dissolution of the GLC (which had replaced the LCC in 1965). Luke recalls, “My Dad started work at 16 but retired early as Thatcher was gearing up the fall of the GLC, so he jumped ship aged 52. During his long retirement he did everything he had wanted to do earlier in life. He had always painted, drawn and played classical guitar, but it all went up a notch from the 1980s.”

The National Film Theatre

The location of the National Film Theatre under Waterloo Bridge was unusual, impractical even, with the clamour of traffic above. But in 1956, this was the only space available on the South Bank and Wells Coates' Telecinema from the 1951 Festival of Britain was due to be demolished and replaced by Howard Robertson’s Shell Centre (completed in 1961). Its placement also explains the building’s heavy concrete treatment.

The National Film Theatre under construction in 1956. View from the NFT's former offices, now the BFI bar. Photograph: LCC Architects Department.

The National Film Theatre being built in 1956. Photograph: LCC Architects Department

A sketch of the Thames drawn by Norman Engleback in July 1962

The construction of the NFT took just 15 months, earning Engleback and his team a reputation for efficiency and know-how in the building process, especially when navigating the planning departments of local authorities. It helped that Norman was assisted by architects John Attenborough and Bryn Jones, with whom he had been friends during the war. According to Luke, they were as “thick as thieves” and tried to outdo each other in finding a better lunch venue. Together they playfully referenced cinema in the building’s small design details, for example, creating door handles in the shape of film reels. The main auditorium boasted 500 seats and its sweeping lines concentrated on the sightline of the cinema screen.

An artist’s impression of the auditorium, published in ‘The Ideal Kinema’, 16th August 1956

Cutting from the Architects' Journal, 1957

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery

Norman would end up working on a series of buildings just outside his own office at County Hall (the former headquarters of the LCC). For the completion of the Royal Festival Hall’s frontage in 1964, it was Norman who suggested that the main entrance be moved to the river, since most people arrived at the South Bank by crossing the Thames bridges.

A second recital hall had always been intended for the Royal Festival Hall (RFH), but this was removed from the scheme to ensure that the building was completed in time for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) and Purcell Room were subsequently introduced to the South Bank development in 1967 - a key moment in Norman’s career - offering a longer reverberation time than that of the RFH.

Music was a fundamental part of Norman’s life. His father, William Engleback, was a scientific instrument maker and Luke attests that Norman was “an accomplished classical guitarist (often playing with me at the piano in my youth).” When researching acoustics for the QEH, he travelled to concert halls in Italy, Germany and Switzerland, as Luke Engleback says “no hardship for a man who loved classical music and opera,” where he took a particular liking to Zurich’s elegant Grosser Tonehallesaal.

Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank

In his consideration of the exterior of Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, Norman wanted to cut through the monumentality of Waterloo Bridge and the Royal Festival Hall by building something that “looked interesting when viewed from above”. This was achieved with the help of acclaimed sculptor Henry Moore, who designed 66 glass pyramids to decorate the Hayward Gallery’s rooftop. Indeed triangular pyramids were a reappearing motif in Norman’s own artistic projects.

We used to have Christmas decorations up on the wall, that were a bit like tetrahedrons covered in tissue paper,” Luke fondly remembers. “It might have been that these were experiments for the roof of the Hayward Gallery or the ceiling of Elizabeth Purcell Hall. When I was really small, I remember him making them on the kitchen table and being fascinated.

National Film Theatre Sign

The refurbished NFT sign

The original NFT sign was made of perspex and metal and constructed by Strand Electric (now part of Philips). For its 2018 renovation, the BFI worked closely with master craftsmen at Newman’s Displays to install low energy lighting, refurbish the electrical wiring and clean the protective housing. Peter Coots, a former apprentice to the fabricator, Bill Hinton, who built the sign in 1957, led the restoration team. Luke visited Newman Signs during the process and together they ensured that the light panels and typography of the 1957 sign were retained.

An early memory of Piccadilly Circus, painted by Norman Engleback in 2007

“In the sign you can see a fascination with the luminosity of glass. He always liked Piccadilly Circus and I wonder if there is not a little flavour of that in the sign” says Luke.

Norman understood the meditative, enchanting effect of bold light in bustling city centres.

Illuminated NFT sign

A glowing example of mid century modern design, the harlequin NFT sign also demonstrated Norman's long-held interest in stained glass. Its geometric composition and vibrant colour scheme are mirrored by many of the stained glass works he made in retirement, and which have been lovingly preserved and incorporated in the door frames and corridors of Luke’s home.

Stained glass works by Norman Engleback

Watercolours, oil paintings, calligraphy, illumination, sign writing, life drawings, ceramics were further artistic endeavours to which Norman devoted himself during his long retirement. He was an avid enthusiast of film and photography as a member of the Royal Photographic Society and president of the Tunbridge Wells Photographic Society. Luke suggests that the chain of arrows in the NFT sign could reflect the countdown motion of vintage film reels or Eadward Muybridge’s 1870s pioneering photographic studies of motion.

A water-colour of the old Hungerford Bridge by Norman Engleback, 2006

Luke feels his father would have most emphatically approved of the NFT sign due to its replacement of outdated lamps with more energy-efficient LEDs, “That was my Dad... endlessly creative, but always a pragmatist.”

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If you would like to discover more about the postwar development of the South Bank, you can watch the 1964 documentary 'South Bank' by Alan Lovell which captures the area in the middle of a cultural metamorphosis. And if you enjoy this, have a look at the BFI's Bridges on Film series, an online collection curated from the BFI National Archive in partnership with Illuminated River.

Illuminated River artist Leo Villareal will be adding a light artwork to Waterloo Bridge in Spring 2021. The artwork will incorporate a line of colour that shifts and blends across the bridge, adjusting to the constantly changing riverscape. The sculptural surfaces of the bridge’s undercrofts will also be emphasised for the first time in soft washes of coloured light. Read more about the proposed artwork here.