MATT STEELE 1878 – 1937
(First published in in Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine, Issue 75)
Had Matt Steele been born in Bo’ness in 1978 as opposed to 1878, there is no doubt that today, he would have been a young architect with the foresight to grab the opportunities and ideas presented by 21st century technology with both hands.
Steele’s star is only just beginning to rise again, thanks to the refurbishment of his signature building, The Hippodrome Cinema in his home town of Bo’ness, and the recent publication by the RIAS of a biography devoted to his life and work in this small Scottish town.
A quiet visionary who worked steadily over three decades (which included at least two major recessions) and still kept his head above water, despite ever-tight budget constraints, he was blessed with a simple, gentle touch as an architect.
During his working lifetime, spent mainly in Bo’ness, he made a lasting impact on this small manufacturing town which sits on the south bank of the Firth of Forth.
From 1905 until his death in 1937, Steele moved through four distinct phases, from his futuristic circular Hippodrome, which opened in 1911, through to the distinct Germanic forms of the Corbiehall flats - local authority housing built in 1932 - which owe a debt to the spirit of the Austrian Secession.
Steele was born and bred in Bo’ness, the eighth child Alex Steele, a skilled craftsman schooled in the ancient art of sparmaking (also called blockmaking) who plied his trade with local boat builders. At that time, Bo’ness was a thriving commercial port in use mainly for the transport of coal and pit props from local mines, though its decline as a thriving industrial heartland was not far off.
Steele inherited his love of fine design from his industrious father and in 1896 he left Bo’ness for Glasgow to study architecture, having worked for three years as a draughtsman in the town. He studied on a part-time basis for five years at what was then called the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College before taking up a position with the Glasgow Corporation Telephone Company, a move which reflected Steele’s lifelong passion for technological innovation.
Many viewed the telephone as being at the vanguard of this new technological age – an instrument of democratic change, which would break down class barriers and unite disparate nations, and Steele soaked up all these influences during his four year tenure with the telephone company, where he was employed to produce drawings of locations and routing of telephone cabling, as well as brochures.
Steele returned to Bo’ness in 1905 and set up his independent architectural practice in the Masonic Hall Buildings at Corbiehall. During his career he was responsible for the design of a number of local buildings, including the Snab, the Knowe, a cottage on Dean Road, terraced houses on Kelty Avenue, the Bo'ness Iron Company offices, the Masonic Hall, the Hippodrome Cinema, Grangewells and many other industrial, commercial and residential premises.
Records show there was a continual flow of work into his practice, even during the lean years of the First World War. His pre-war buildings were designed in a simple unadorned Arts and Crafts or continental early modern manner, and were heavily influenced by the work of the English architect CFA Voysey, regarded by many as the father of modern architecture.
The business men of Bo’ness took Steele to their collective bosom (perhaps aided and abetted by a Freemasonry connection) even though the style in which he designed buildings was at odds with the usual Scottish vernacular – or even the fashion for Gothic or Baronial style which many of the 19th century captains of industry coveted at that point.
The crowning glory of Steele’s architectural career is the Hippodrome Cinema in Hope Street. The oldest continually operated purpose-built picture house in Scotland and one of the oldest in the UK, recently, it underwent a £1.8m refurbishment and opened its doors to the public with newly-added modern cinema projection equipment in early 2009.
You can only imagine the then 32-year-old Steele’s excitement at being asked to design this pioneering building by cinematography pioneer and fellow Bo’ness resident Louis Dickson. The apparent looseness of this beautifully curvaceous structure, which is based on hemisphere and cube motifs, was largely dictated by the irregularity of the site it occupied. “It is as if the reels, sprockets, cogs, guide-wheels and guides of a film projector have been laid on edge and translated into architectural form,” according to the authors of the newly-published book on Steele’s life and work.
In the aftermath of World War One, Steele’s clientele and commissions changed. Social and economic changes were ongoing and employment was increasingly hard to find, especially in a small manufacturing centre such as Bo’ness. There was a general shift in investment throughout Britain from the private to public sector and Steele’s commissions reflected this change. Prominent commissions from this stage include the Craigallan Housing project for Bo’ness Town Council in 1923 and later, the Bo’ness Labour Exchange.
As his career progressed into the 1930s, architecturally, Steele shifted to an Art Deco Moderne manner, with projects such as the distinctive, almost Germanic-looking flats at Corbiehall for the town council and flats in Harbour Road, also for the council.
His love of ground-breaking technology never left him and in 1931, he proposed an unrealised scheme to dam the Firth of Forth between Port Edgar and Inverkeithing to carry both road and rail. Towards the end of his life, he expanded his expertise to projects in Edinburgh.
Steele died suddenly in December 1937, aged 59. A commission on his drawing board when he died for flats at North Street and Commissioner Street in Bo’ness, reveal Steele’s ‘most consciously European housing development’, complete with dramatic corner feature, horizontal aesthetic, ground floor raised from street level and extensive use of reinforced concrete, as well as the familiar Bo’ness balcony to the rear.
RIAS secretary and treasurer, Neil Baxter says of Steele’s work: “There are few architects who, over such an extended period, innovated the way he did. He was rarely given lavish budgets, but he squeezed the maximum value – not to mention aesthetic value – out of modest commissions.
“As an architect, he was hugely imaginative about tackling challenges and showed how the right architect can create something with a little bit of magic.”
Matt Steele, Architect: A Biography, by Roger Emmerson and Mary Tillmouth, is published by The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. RRP £9.99