Oriel Chambers with oriel windows

Oriel Chambers: A building ahead of its time

A short visit home allows me a short paean to Peter Ellis.

Peter Ellis is one of the unsung heroes of architecture. In the 1860s, he practically invented the techniques for building the skyscraper, all on his own, in Liverpool, and got no thanks for his endeavours. Instead, he got the opposite.

His first commissioned building was Oriel Chambers, in 1864, on Water Street. Oriel windows are a type of window that stands out from the main wall of the building, and Ellis used the technique copiously. As a way to let the most light into the most space in an already built-up area, his trick was brilliant. Pevsner called Oriel Chambers “one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe”.*

Not everyone agreed, however, and Ellis’s architectural career was probably blighted by unfavourable reviews. The edition of The Builder of 20 January 1866, for example, failed to note the brilliance of the design and described Oriel Chambers as a “vast abortion”. Ellis did get further commissions, but not many. His career is a sad branch on the architectural tree.

Plaque on Oriel Chambers describing Peter Ellis as a pioneer in the use of prefabricated structural units in cast iron

Pioneer in the use of prefabricated structural units in cast iron. Sounds exciting, huh?

The plaque outside Oriel Chambers does not do this architect justice. Peter Ellis was not just a pioneer, he was an innovator ahead of his time. When he wasn’t busy redefining architecture by building the world’s first two metal-framed, glass curtain-walled buildings (Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook Street, both in Liverpool), he filed a patent for a continuously moving lift — the kind now called a paternoster. The lift (elevator) is called a paternoster (the Latin for “Our Father”) because the lift went round and round in a loop like a rosary; the Our Fathers keep coming round, just like the lift compartments. Ellis added the world’s first paternoster to Oriel Chambers in 1869. Pasternosters aren’t so popular any more, what with the risk of mutilation and death as you try to hop on and off, but the library at the University of Essex still has a functional one. This video allows you to experience its sublimity from afar.

* R Pollard and N Pevsner (2006): The Buildings of England – Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West. Yale University Press, p342.

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1 thought on “Oriel Chambers: A building ahead of its time

  1. Pingback: 16 Cook Street: Unremarkable address; remarkable architecture | Views from my hotel room

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