On March 20th 1964 – exactly 58 years ago when this thread was first written – Egon Riss died at his home in Colinton, in suburban Edinburgh. A name relatively unknown outside modernist design and industrial architecture circles, much of his life’s work was unceremoniously demolished. So let’s try and raise his profile just a little bit, particularly in the city he came to make his home in.
Riss was born into a Jewish family in 1901, in Lipnik Beilitz in what was then Austrian Galicia (now Lipnik Bielsko-Biała in Poland). His parents were Isidor Riss and Ernestine Itzkowitz. He had an older brother, Erwin. The young Riss studied at the Weiner Technische Hochschule in Vienna – not at the Bauhaus as is sometimes written – but he was clearly influenced by the latter.
He became a rising star in modern architecture and, with his partner Fritz Judtmann, managed to win an important public health commission to build the Arbeiterkrankenkasse (workers’ health insurance clinic) building in Vienna. This lead to further success in design competitions for major public health buildings, e.g. a new public health asylum.
And a new Tuberculosis Sanatorium for the city. Both buildings strikingly modern in both their appearance and their construction, heavy on the reinforced concrete and glass. But also with well considered function – a theme that will recurr.
But all was not well in Europe and the clouds of Nazism were gathering around Austria. The Riss brothers fled the rising anti-Jewish sentiment to Czechoslovakia in 1937, the year their father Isidor died, ahead of the Anschluss the following year. Their mother Ernestine did not leave. She was deported in 1942 to Auschwitz from where she never left. In March 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and once again the Risses had to flee. Egon made it to England where he was classified as an “enemy alien”. However through an association with furniture designer Jack Pritchard, Riss was fortunately exempted from internment.
Jack and his wife Molly were directors of the Isokon Company and if you’re a real modernism anorak you will recognise Egon Riss’ address on his registration card (Lawn Road Flats) as Wells Coates’ iconic Isokon Building.
Egon worked with Jack Pritchard for Isokon for a short but very period productive period. This collaboration bore fruit of several iconic (yes, that word merits being reused) pieces of modern design; the Penguin Book Donkey. Perfectly sized to take new and popular Penguin paperbacks (themselves now a classic of modern design). It was simple in form, made from a few plywood parts. The side “panniers” held the Penguins, the central slot, magazines and papers.
Allen Lane of Penguin put leaflets in every book advertising it and it could have become the must have piece of Modern British furniture had not war intervened and only a few hundred were produced before bent plywood became a strategic material.
An original Book Donkey will set you back around £5-10 thousand pounds if you are lucky enough to find one. More affordable is its little brother, the Gull. Again formed from a few plywood pieces, it holds books and newspapers and can be table or wall mounted.
A cocktail cabinet called the “Bottleship” (which I cannot find a picture of) and the Pocket Bottleship, based on the Gull and with holders for bottles and glasses. Again this was could be table or wall mounted (📷 Isokon Gallery)
Riss left his partnership with Jack Pritchard and Isokon to join the British Army, first the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (a reserve for the Pioneers, the army’s builders) and later commissioned into the Royal Engineers. In 1943 he married Margaret Jones, the couple would have 2 daughters before later divorcing. At the wars end he worked briefly in London for Robert Furneaux-Jordan and at the Architectural Association and was elected as a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
But he did not linger long in London and in 1946, or there abouts, took a job with the Miners Welfare Committee as an architect in Scotland. The MWC was a government body funded by industry levy to provide social, recreation and working condition improvement for miners. It was a pioneer of modern industrial architecture in the UK through its provision of pithead baths. Their clean, elegant, modern structures stuck out like modernist beacons against the backdrop of the Victorian collieries they served.
It’s obvious from these buildings why Riss might have taken the decision to join the MWC. The combination of relative carte blanche to design striking modern structures and also to balance their form and function would have appealed. And so Riss came to Edinburgh; but his time with the MWC would be very short lived (indeed he may never actually have worked for them), because on January 1st 1947, “vesting day”, the British coal industry was nationalised under the National Coal Board; the NCB.
The British coal industry faced any number of crises; outdated working practices, a chronic lack of investment in modern techniques and equipment, labour shortages, wartime ossification, and a huge number of old, small pits approaching the end of their working lives. The NCB had a huge consolidation, modernisation and reconstruction task facing it – at the same time as maintaining and increasing existing production to keep the nations’ lights on and home fires burning. Riss himself describes it in his own words;
900 to 1,000 independent collieries had to be integrated into a single organisation. Divisions and Areas required accommodation for their staff. The offices of old coal companies were found to be most inadequate… New and better methods of material control and machine maintenance demanded Modern and spacious workshops, stores, stockyards…Egon Riss, quoted in “Mountains and Megastructures” by Kakalis, Beattie and Ozga-Lawn
And in Scotland, it was Egon Riss who was made Chief Production Architect to the National Coal Board’s Scottish Division, headquartered at Greenend House in Gilmerton, a pit village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Production Architect was responsible for all the above ground buildings of a colliery. Riss was a man with a mission to use modern architecture to revolutionise Scottish coal mining. I’d like to focus this thread mainly on Riss’ work, but I do unfortunately need to stray a little bit into the early history of the nationalised coal industry in Scotland to put it in context.
The coal industry in Scotland at the time was vast, but troubled. It had suffered from a chronic lack of investment; relied heavily on manual labour and old practices; there were too many small pits with declining output; profitability and productivity were relatively low. Its old coal seams were being worked out – they were nearer the surface and easier to access and work with the older technology. There was plenty coal there, but the reserves were unproven and lay much deeper than had hitherto been exploited in Scotland. They would need the application of the most modern mining technology and methods to exploit them.
The NCB had to juggle both increasing (or maintaining) the existing output from the old, existing pits in the short term; maintaining overall production in the medium term as old pits were worked out; and planning for the bright, modern future in the long term (10+ years). It is apt that the NCB’s motto was E Tenebris Lux (“out of the darkness, light)”, as the nation was almost entirely dependent on coal for domestic and industrial heat, light and power. Without coal, and more of it, postwar reconstruction and couldn’t happen.
Much of the work needing done was deep underground, hidden from view of all but the men undergroun; mechanisation, reorganisation, automation, investment in new machines and techniques, exploring and exploiting new seams. But it was on the surface where Riss and his department came in. Some of his earliest work was on buildings to improve surface arrangements at existing pits, to both increase productivity but also to better the working conditions for the men. I think there’s a recurring theme in Riss’ work for the NCB that he considered the miners at all times, and how they would move around and make use of the surface buildings of the pit. He really tried to make that journey as smooth, economical and comfortable as possible. An example of this is some of his earliest work; covered walkways at the Newbattle collieries to allow miners to get between the pithead baths and the pithead, under cover and with the luxury of heating.
Simple improvements like this made miners lives just a little bit more comfortable and saved them a bit of time; they could get directly from the baths (where they started and ended work) to the pitheads at Lady Victoria and Lingerwood under cover, without stops, to start work.
The NCB quickly shut down the least productive (usually the smallest and oldest pits) and made investments like this at the bigger and more profitable ones as they set about trying to consolidate and rationalise the Scottish industry. But these rearrangements were piecework to tide the industry over. It was the vast new schemes, which would be coined “Superpits“, that were to be a renaissance for the industry and allow Riss to stamp his style and ideas into the landscape in towers of concrete and steel.
The NCB had a radical plan to get Scottish mining to a profitable production of 30 million tons per year by 1965, and to do this it would need 15 million tons of brand new, efficient and profitable production output from new pits. This was Riss’ challenge. These new mines would have to do something that had never been done before in Scotland; Go deep – really deep! Most of the unexploited coals lay in the deep limestone group and this meant going down to 3,000 feet before hitting the coal measures. And so Riss set to work. From his office on Eglinton Crescent in a grand Victorian villa in central Edinburgh, he worked upstairs at his easel, sketching out his ideas in charcoal, which were then taken down to his team to be turned into the technical drawings.
The first scheme was Rothes. Planned by the Fife Coal Company prewar (one of the more learned and modern of Scottish coalmasters), this is a scheme that promised so much employment and profitability, but was killed by treacherous underground geology and a blind failure to accept that fact. It’s hard to overstate the optimism that surrounded Rothes. It was to be the showpiece for the Scottish industry – a new town was prepared for its workers at Glenrothes. And Riss prepared appropriately monumental and modern surface buildings for it. His Rothes was beautifully stark and elegant. Two giant concrete, steel and glass towers held the modern “Koepe” winders, connected by a vast car hall ( concrete, steel and glass. Surface buildings were carefully arranged, like that fanhouse with its flared ventilation scoops.
Riss’ charcoal sketches survive with Canmore. With a literal clean sheet, everything could be arranged on the surface for maximum efficiency. The flow of men, machinery and coal was carefully planned and considered. True to the principles of the Bauhaus, form balanced function.
The first Superpit was opened in a blaze of publicity and optimism in 1958. The Queen performed the ceremony and even went 1,600 feet underground in pristine white overalls
But all was not well at Rothes behind this official veneer. Infact, it was catastrophic. The geological conditions were appalling. Water pressures of 1,000 PSI were encountered, the shafts flooded and cracked quicker than they could be dug and lined. Long story short, Rothes was beset by poor planning and an over-optimistic, over-enthusiasm to get going on unproven geology. Heroic efforts were made above and below ground by the miners and management to make a go of it, but it was a pit for nothing but money. The NCB called it quits in early 1964 and Rothes was unceremoniously closed, its monumental surface buildings left to rot for the next 30 years as a bitter reminder of its failure.
Rothes’ towers came down finally in March 1993. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Riss’ part in this grand scheme, but it was an ignominious start for the revitalisation of the Scottish mining industry.
Fortunately the administrative building, some of the surface workshops and the fan house survive at Rothes.
Rothes had a close architectural sibling in another Superpit – Killoch in Ayrshire. That was a bit of a happier story, it was the first Scottish colliery to hit a million tons output per year – in 1965. It survived the miners strike but closed in 1988, its towers demolished. For quite some while after closure of the shafts, the coal processing facility at Killoch remained open to treat opencast coal, and much survives of the former workshops and administrative buildings on the surface as far as I’m aware.
Close-by Killoch was another colliery at Barony. This was not a Superpit but was a vast reconstruction and reorganisation scheme of an existing, older mine. No. 3 shaft and its surface buildings are one of Riss’ enduring monuments.
The vast A-frame that held the winding gear at Barony remains as a monument to the now-gone industry. Barony survived until 1989, linked underground to Killoch. These pits were perhaps the most successful in the post-war Scottish industry.
Another Riss reconstruction scheme was at Kinneil in Bo’ness. The old colliery was systematically modernised and rebuilt in a style which, unusually for Riss, made heavy use of brick as a feature.
Kinneil closed just before the Miners’ Strike, in 1983, its expensive reconstruction never really bore the expected fruits. It is remarkable for being linked by a 5.5km tunnel, under the Forth, to Valleyfield Colliery in Fife.
In the Lothian coalfield, Riss sketched out his designs for two brand new Superpits. The first was in Loanhead, to replace the existing, older pits at Burghlee and Ramsay. This scheme would become Bilston Glen.
Although it was never as profitable as was hoped, Bilston Glen was a productive and relatively successful pit. Nothing like as monumental as Rothes or Killoch, on the surface it was quite unobtrusive, more like a modern factory than the vast, statement cathedrals to mining.
Sinking commenced in 1952 and production began 11 years later in 1963. By 1970 it employed some 2,300 and produced almost 1,400,000 tons of coal per year. Although a relatively productive and profitable mine, Bilston Glen had an unhappy end. It became a flashpoint for the Miners’ Strike of 1984 in Scotland and the site of some of its bitterest scenes, first between police and strikers and later between strikers and strike breakers. Attempts were made to restart production after the strike, but it suffered badly from flooding during the period of enforced dormancy and never really got going again. It shut in 1989 and no sign of it remains today under a modern industrial estate.
Nearby Bilston Glen in the Lothian Coalfield was Monktonhall; another showpiece and another monumental Riss design. Monktonhall was to be bigger and deeper than Bilston Glen. It was sunk between 1954 and 1967, with coal production peaking almost immediately at 1.8 million tons per year, most of it getting straight on a train for the few miles down to its assured customer at the SSEB’s new power station at Cockenzie.
Monktonhall survived the Miners Strike in better shape than Bilston Glen, but it was always a struggle to keep it profitable. Attempts to merge the two together into a single operation centred at Monktonhall came to naught.
Monktonhall closed with Bilston Glen, but that was not the end. In 1992 it was reopened by a few hundred laid off miners who clubbed together their redundancies and made the extraordinary bold decision to restart production. However heroic their struggle, without the millions in capital needed to drive and equip new seams, it was not to be. The men toiled 3,000 feet underground for 2 years against the floodwaters, but the end came again in 1994, with final demolition in 1997.
And so we return to Fife for the last of Riss’ Superpits. At Seafield outside Kirkcaldy. Appropriately for its name, it was sited in a field and was to work the coal reserves out under the sea, deep below the Forth. The sinking of Seafield was troubled and took 12 years from 1954-66. But it was not the first difficult Fife mine to be sunk under the sea and the miners persevered and in the end succeeded. However it was always a difficult mine to work, with steeply inclined roadways and faces – and in coal mines, difficult means unprofitable.
Geological difficulties, flooding and “heating” (spontaneous combustion in the coal seams) plagued Seafield and although it also survived the Miners’ Strike, it shut in 1987 when the government refused to fund the millions needed to open new production faces. Like the other Scottish Superpits, Seafield had tens of millions of tons of untapped coal reserves, it was just too expensive to get them out. It was demolished in 1989.
Seafield is often better remembered for its most famous ex-employee, the late Jocky Wilson.
The five Superpits were Riss’ masterpieces. It is sad that none of them had especially successful or long-lived stories to tell. This was no reflection on anything but the realities of geology, economics and politics. From an architectural and surface organisational point of view they were triumphs of design. Another Riss scheme at Airth came to nothing when sinking had to be cancelled when it dawned on the NCB that they would never hit coal no matter how hard they dug for it. Things proceeded further at nearby Glenochil, with Riss laying out modern surface arrangements for a drift mine under the Ochils.
Again Glenochil was to have an assured future thanks to being tied to a guaranteed customer in the SSEB’s new power station at Kincardine; but it turned into another frustrating failure for the NCB’s Scottish Division. It was to have been the UK’s largest drift mine and was to have given employment to thousands of Lanarkshire men, brought in to work it as their pits shut. Sinking started with enthusiasm in 1954 but the project was abandoned in 1964, again poor planning by the NCB had the miners chasing riches that just weren’t there to be won. The land was turned over to the Scottish Prison Service who built HMP Glenochil, infamous for the 1988 “dirty riot” protests. But again, that is no reflection on Riss or his work.
Egon Riss was praised in his time from the unlikely source of The Times’ architecture correspondent; a late 1950s article complimented Riss on how he worked and how he had his team organised to work together in their common goal of creating modern, efficient collieries. His attention to the details of improving miners’ working lives was singled out. Particularly, comfortable and generous pay-halls were designed “where the miner can queue up for his pay in comfort“; no more queuing in the cold and rain to be handed your packet at the side door.
Riss’ Superpits should have provided steady employment for 10,000 men, and families and communities an order of magnitude greater, and should have been producing 10 million tons of coal a year. He sadly died at home at 1 Munro Drive of a heart attack at the age of 62 in 1964 before it could be realised that this would never happen.
Riss’ obituary praised his creations for “their strictly functional design combined with an elegance of line that could only be achieved by a creative artist who was a master of his craft“. It noted “he had an inquisitive mind that ranged over many interests, antiques, objets d’art, science and religion, backed by a wide reading in German, French and Hebrew… he was always a fascinating conversationalist who enjoyed argument as an end to logical eduction. His good company, charming manners and not least his dignified presence will be remembered and missed by his many friends“.
So let us remember and miss the late Egon Riss, 1901-1964. From Austria to the Scottish coalfields via Isokon.
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.
These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] was retained as a training centre for a number of years. The workforce of both pits transferred to the new “Super Pit” at Monktonhall. Although there was still mining work in the area, the village fell into decline and by 1972 was […]