Gillian Darley


23 January 2019

Tolstoy in Essex

You could look very hard in Purleigh and not find any physical evidence of the Tolstoyan anarchist community that was founded there in 1897. The experiment, near Maldon, Essex, was short-lived, and the core settlers soon moved west, to Whiteway Colony on a (then) bleak Cotswolds plateau. It is there still, now comfortably huddled and well treed, its continued existence due in part to a decision by the founding colonists to destroy their title deeds, leaving the settlement to be held perpetually in common.


26 June 2018

In Epping Forest

Cricket breaks out all over at this time of year. Bell Common, a generous village green set against a backcloth of ancient trees in their dark summer foliage, dotted with men in whites, is as bucolic a scene as you’ll find anywhere in England. The grass, turning a little pale after a long stretch of hot sunny days, is a shade greener on the woodland edge. Sometimes it can be boggy over there, a reminder of natural conditions, as Peter Day, the groundsman and a former captain, told me on Saturday. One of his sons was playing, the third generation of the family with links to the club. His father was a founding member of Epping Foresters when they set up in 1947, mostly ex-servicemen who began as a wandering team. Two years later they were granted a licence by the Conservators of Epping Forest to use Mill Plain, off Bell Common, as their ground.


18 July 2017

Essex, 1951

The Festival of Britain showed postwar Britain what it might yet be. The crowds flocked to London to see the Skylon and visit the Dome of Discovery. Peter Laszlo Peri’s concrete Sunbathers writhed on a wall at Waterloo Station (recently found lying in a hotel garden in Blackheath, they are being restored after a crowdfunding campaign and will soon return to the South Bank) as the visitors came off the trains in their thousands. Rowland Emmett’s toy railway was the main attraction at Battersea Pleasure Gardens. More seriously, the Living Architecture exhibition in Poplar, the Lansbury, though still largely under construction, offered a prototype for modern New Town living. The estate caught the local imagination, showing how enlightened planning, social policy and architecture could be harnessed.


20 July 2016

‘The Destruction of Memory’

In the words of Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, the fate of World Heritage Sites – from the bridge at Mostar to the temples of Palmyra – ‘is not about just bricks and stones’ but ‘the way we see human civilisation developing’. Tim Slade’s new documentary film The Destruction of Memory, based on Robert Bevan’s book of the same name, is a measured indictment of the failure of international bodies to find the words for the crime of cultural vandalism, and so offer legal protection to important buildings in war zones.


18 February 2016

Too Much Light

Artists’ impressions of yet-to-be-made architectural designs show impossibly pristine buildings, their materials innocent of wear and tear, the images (let alone the weather and the light) adjusted, enhanced and cropped into submission. In this honeymoon period, no one questions performance, or durability, or if the architecture will necessarily deliver the desired outcome. (In the early years of her career, as she shifted from constructivist imagery to international practice, nobody nudged the apparent limits of the possible more consistently than Zaha Hadid, who has been awarded the 2016 RIBA Gold Medal.)


11 February 2016

Los Niños de Guernica

In Southampton last week, a city I am completely unfamiliar with, I noticed at the entrance to the City Art Gallery an attractive blue roundel. Bearing the date 2007 it commemorated, seventy years after the event, the arrival of almost 4000 refugee children, with a small support team of teachers, priests and volunteers, from Guernica.


18 January 2016

How Buildings Sound

Derek Sugden, the dean of acoustic engineers, who has died at the age of 91, remained perpetually surprised that architects could be so concerned with every aspect of the building they were designing ‘but not really with what it sounded like’. According to Sugden, ‘the sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space.’


28 October 2015

In Nancy

An elaborate veneered late 19th-century commode is smothered in fecund art nouveau vegetation: according to the inscription on the top, Prunus armeniaca. This is botanical illustration in fine inlay but also a subtle vehicle for political commentary: 100,000 Armenians were massacred by Ottoman forces between 1894 and 1896.


13 July 2015

Separation by Symmetry

Plans of the 1815 New Bethlem Hospital in Southwark included in the Richard Dadd exhibition at the Watts Gallery, Compton, show complete segregation between male and female inmates. The ground plan consisted of two identical halves, except for the outlying women’s criminal building, which was considerably smaller than the men’s. There could be no chance meetings between men and women in a secure home for the ‘criminally insane’.


5 June 2015

Aubrey & Soane

When John Aubrey was learning to read, he found himself in a rich tilth of old manuscripts, reminders of the iconoclasm of the Dissolution a century before. His Wiltshire schoolmaster, the rector, had inherited many volumes taken from the great libraries of vandalised abbeys and priories at Malmesbury, Bath, Cirencester and elsewhere. The pages came in handy in a hundred and one ways – covering new volumes, wrapping a pair of gloves, making a serviceable lining for a storage chest, stoppering a barrel of ale. Paper was scarce and valuable, and old leases or surplus parchment scrolls had their uses for a tailor who wanted to cut out a pattern or a cook who needed to line a dish. Every sheet could find a second life.