In central London you’re never far from buildings designed by Henry Astley Darbishire, the dependable architect of choice for philanthropic individuals and institutions in the second half of the 19th century.
Gillian Darley’s new book is Excellent Essex.
In central London you’re never far from buildings designed by Henry Astley Darbishire, the dependable architect of choice for philanthropic individuals and institutions in the second half of the 19th century.
Walk south from St Paul’s Cathedral, itself gloriously lit but merely corroborating what we already know and admire of it, over the Millennium Bridge and east along the south bank of the Thames to see the revelatory sequence of Southwark, Cannon Street and London Bridges. Formerly either blanked out by nightfall or dully picked up in a single wash of yellow or blue, they now unpeel in front of your eyes along the riverbank, linked by their calibrated tones and shifting timing, subtle painterly effects achieved by LEDs and computer programming.
When Coventry City Council applied to be the UK City of Culture 2021, and won, what on earth were they planning to do with the city centre? As Owen Hatherley has written, ‘of all of the great reconstruction projects of the first decade after 1945, there’s only one city that never seems to take possession of and pride in what it did: Coventry.’
Victorian industrialists had a particular approach to advertising and branding, with money no object. Where feasible, the factory or mill itself was designed to promote the product. Rather like stained glass windows in medieval churches, easily instructive for the illiterate, the buildings were set free to tell the story. The façade of John Marshall’s linen mill at Holbeck in Leeds, built in the late 1830s, was a magnificent copy of the great temple at Edfu: flax had been cultivated in Egypt, and linen woven from it, since ancient times.
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s platitudes offer no solution to the UK’s housing crisis. What does it mean to ‘ask for beauty’? The report says that ‘schemes should be turned down for being too ugly.’ But who will be the judge of that? Any volume housebuilder’s sales office will tell you that the house people want to buy is like the one they just saw, ideally the one with the best view and the one they can afford. The market favours the traditional: pitched roof over flat roof, sash window over wrap-round glazing, a tiny porch instead of a doorstep, even – if the budget allows – a chimney in which to lodge a flue pipe. Above all, keep one house away from the next, even if the gap is little wider than an Amazon parcel.
The volumes of the Buildings of England series initiated by Nikolaus Pevsner unsurprisingly confine themselves to buildings and their settings, but it’s tempting to be distracted by what you already know about a place, about Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, for instance, the latest county to have its volume revised and expanded by Yale. The mid-18th-century country house designed by...
Over the years, travelling to Birmingham from time to time, I’ve noticed a handsome classical building, a kind of mirage that comes into view briefly as the train approaches New Street Station. Then, like almost everyone else it seems, I forget all about it – not even bothering to find out what it was. Stranded, isolated and distant in a nondescript wasteland of car parks and...
Earlier this year I went to Picardy, heading for a tiny, skewed, rectangle I’d drawn on a map of northern France. Here, north of Bray-sur-Somme, south of Albert, in the countryside around Méaulte, Suzanne, Carnoy, Fricourt and Mametz, was where my father lived from August 1915 to March 1917. It isn’t on the Poppy Trail or the official Circuit of Remembrance. I wanted to scan...
Cut-paper work from 1707 by the 17-year-old Anna Maria Garthwaite, who later became a designer of patterned silks for dresses
In contrast to the still contentment of a Zoffany conversation piece or the energetic racket conjured up by Fielding’s novels, life indoors in Georgian England was frequently a dull, hard and miserable business. For those who did not fit the norms, social or...
At the age of 70, we learn from the intimate and largely unpublished letters that are the raw material of Nicholas Fox Weber’s biography, Le Corbusier was still justifying his work, his name and his fame to his mother, by then in her late nineties. As always, he was trying to gain her favour over his (only just) older brother, the gentle but troubled Albert, a musician. The letters add...
Nikolaus Pevsner’s introduction to his Buildings of England volume for Essex made it clear that he considered the county tainted by association. Who, he wondered in 1954, would ever want to go ‘touring and sightseeing’ there, after experiencing the ‘squalor of Liverpool Street Station’, its horror compounded by the ‘suicidal waiting room on platform nine’? His hatred, oddly, even extended to ‘the cavernous left-luggage counters behind platforms nine and ten’.
‘Surrey is the Country of my Birth and my delight,’ John Evelyn told John Aubrey; and like Surrey, Evelyn has had more than his fair share of bad press over the years. Yet to picture him as simply the pious sermoniser the Victorians eulogised is as misleading as to write off Surrey as wall-to-wall Weybridge. The gouged-out lanes which thread through and over the thickly wooded...
The dust jacket of the final volume of Bevis Hillier’s epic life of John Betjeman shows the poet laureate seized by giggles. In this lengthy coda to Hillier’s authorised biography Betjeman appears in many lights, but he’s rarely carefree. ‘Nothing frightens me more than the thought of dying,’ he told a friend in 1958. He was 52, had a well-tried Christian faith...
“Architects don’t come much angrier than Ernö Goldfinger. Even among his own disillusioned generation, he seemed perpetually crosser than most. Towering, handsome, self-assured (’Everyone always seems to have known me’), this Hungarian emigrant was quite unlike the pallid, fish-eyed Professor Otto Silenus, Evelyn Waugh’s caricature Modernist . . . as one of the few unashamedly Modernist practices, Goldfinger’s office readily attracted young architects, but was blighted by his explosive temperament. An employee who arrived in early 1955 and left before the year was out discovered he was the 26th to leave in two years.”
Sir Edwin (Ned) Landseer Lutyens, architect of genius, was a master of the false trail and the misleading, if jocular, aside. Born and educated in London, he preferred to dwell on his formative years in rural Surrey. Although trained in the architectural office of Ernest George and Harold Peto, the older of whom was an able vernacular revivalist and the younger a skilled landscape architect,...
I read Christopher Woodward’s book in August and then reread it in September: what a difference a month can make. Insistent images of newly ravaged places, like the ghostly fretwork silhouette which looms over Ground Zero, seem to sneer at us, laughing at our fragile optimism. The notion of the ruin as an expression of violence and blind hatred is not Woodward’s subject, however...
The recently opened Gilbert Collection at Somerset House includes a vast number of objects made by a meticulous technique of inlay known as micromosaic, in which tiny fragments of glass are assembled to form a picture – not always in the best possible taste. Mark Girouard’s biography of James Stirling is constructed by a similar procedure, an astonishing accumulation of small details, asides and memories building up to a portrait. Big Jim is vividly told and convincingly three-dimensional. And it isn’t always in very good taste. Yet despite some paragraphs that read like an architectural Hello!, Girouard’s inclusive approach is entirely vindicated as the book gathers momentum. Big Jim offers the best insight into the architectural process, the gestation, design and construction of buildings, seen from over the architect’s shoulder, that I have ever read. Even a fly on the wall TV documentary, which it often resembles (particularly in the discreet invisibility of the author), could not compete with this sequence of Restoration dramas, largely enacted on British university campuses in the expansionist years of the 1960s and early 1970s.’
John Betjeman was the voice of postwar Englishness: at best, humorous, quirky and enthusiastic about some of the oddest things; at worst, parochial and smug shading into bitter. How ironic, in view of later developments and the argument of Timothy Mowl’s book, that Nikolaus Pevsner’s first visit to England, in 1930, was to research a new topic: Englishness in art.
I can’t explain why, in the face of all the seductive images and lyrical descriptions of the new Tintagel footbridge, I’ve become fixated on a small incision slashed through the surface of the walkway in the middle of the bridge. I know it’s technically the meeting point between the two cantilevered segments, a 40 mm expansion joint in an impeccably engineered structure. But it struck me forcibly that the seemingly reassuring surface connecting clifftop to clifftop, strung in tension over the dizzying void below, had been cut. It gave me a nervous charge. Was this an actual moment of the sublime?
The Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842, was compiled by Dickens’s friend Richard Henry Horne. The result of a three-year investigation, it was unprecedented, not merely for the level of shocking detail and first-hand evidence, but because it was illustrated. And most of the 26 images were by Gillies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.’
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.
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’.
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.
In 1958 the leonine young German architect-engineer Frei Otto made a public attack on the new, American-funded Berlin Kongresshalle. The building’s clunky bivalve form meant it was already known as ‘the pregnant oyster’. On a public platform alongside the architect, Hugh Stubbins, Otto fumed that it was a cumbersome, essentially fraudulent structure: ‘Can a suspended roof be a symbol of free speech?’ In 1980 he might have enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude when a ring beam collapsed and the Congress Hall had to be rebuilt.
Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition's curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks.
In the global league of immense sporting events, the Tour de France is third to the Olympics and the World Cup, or so the Essex Chronicle says. So how can a narrow lane in this corner of Essex between Chelmsford and Ongar, intensely rural though hardly thirty miles from London, accommodate the event?
As a well-behaved only child I spent time arranging, and rearranging, a set of woodblock buildings, mostly houses, red roofed, white walled: a little German village that I suspect the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood would give their eye teeth for, had I still got it. A lot of grown-ups have been arranging garden cities on the carpet recently. Following Ebbsfleet’s green light, come the five proposals shortlisted for the Wolfson Economics Prize (in answer to the question: 'How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable and popular?'). The proposals touch on complex variations of sites, strung out necklace-like, or attached barnacle-like to existing conurbations, and follow various planning and financial models, more or less interventionist. Shelter's adapts Ebenezer Howard's original Garden City ideals, according to which the increased value of the developed site accrues to the town and its residents.
After graduation I’d planned to be a documentary film researcher but instead found myself working, miserably and often late into the evening, as a ticket seller and chair stacker at the Art Film Cinema, a proto pop-up in a basement hall just off Leicester Square. It fell to me to fend off the dirty mac brigade, who had a different idea of what ‘art films’ were: certainly not a succession of worthy shorts, mostly Arts Council funded, on art and artists; and not the main attraction, either – a big screen presentation of Kenneth Clark’s epic TV series Civilisation.
When the Guardian bought the Observer in 1993, the Sunday paper left its striped pomo hatbox on Queenstown Road, Battersea, for one floor in the daily’s pebble-dashed eggbox on in Clerkenwell. I met Jane Bown lingering in the Observer’s empty new office on the Farringdon Road. We exchanged a few words of commiseration. Embarrassing as such second-rate buildings were to the architecture correspondent (me), they were evident misery for the photographer, now relieved of her darkroom and an entire back catalogue of negatives.
One of the more benign consequences of perpetual rainfall, if you’re not living in a floodplain or on a disintegrating riverbank, is moss. When the rain stops, take a look at the vivid green material blanketing flagstones and roof-tiles, laying down velvety pads underfoot which make it feel as if you’re wearing cushioned trainers. The plant can’t get too much moisture: moss doesn’t have roots, but takes in water through its leaves.
‘Poor Tate! It seems to get the rough end of every stick,’ Ian Nairn wrote in Nairn’s London, trapped in its ‘pompous, confused building’. The early 1960s had no patience with 1890s histrionic classicism, the work of Henry Tate’s more or less in-house architect, Sidney Smith.
Perhaps the best thing about Birmingham’s newest civic building on Centenary Square is what they’ve called it. No beating about the bush, no equivocation: it’s a library. After all the weasel words – ‘idea stores’, ‘learning centres’, ‘discovery centres’ – it’s cheering to see the book is back. Though the loudly trumpeted opening, set against what the Library Campaign reckons is a 25 per cent loss of public libraries since 2009, just the beginning of a terrible cull, bears out the questionable orthodoxy that, as with hospitals, bigger is better.
I hope Michael Gove has been reading the obituaries of Colin Stansfield Smith, Hampshire’s county architect between 1974 and 1993. Firmly supported by the leader of his (conservative) County Council, he made the quality of design of schools, libraries, fire stations and other public buildings something to be proud of.
In 1857 Prosper Mérimée went to London to see Anthony Panizzi’s new Reading Room at the British Museum. As the head of the commission charged with transforming the Parisian national library, Mérimée was hugely impressed by what he saw: the top lighting, the drum-form and the integrated, orderly systems, all designed for a general reading public, not just a few clerics, rulers and their acolytes, the previous users of the great libraries of Europe.
One night in early 1961 Tom Driberg stood up in the House of Commons to appeal against the imminent demolition of the listed London Coal Exchange. An early Victorian Pantheon in iron and glass, it stood in the path of the proposed Lower Thames Street:
Ever since I read about Oscar Niemeyer’s death last week I’ve been wondering where his only British building has gone. In 2003, at the age of 96, he was given the commission to design the Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilions built each summer in front of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are strictly temporary and it is said that the sale of each helps finance the next one. The invitees are all world-class architects who have not yet built in this country.
I’d been an undergraduate at the Courtauld for all of a month when the Arno burst its banks and flooded Florence on 4 November 1966. A few days later, all students were encouraged to gather in the glorious Adam room that masqueraded as our lecture hall. With its plaster ceiling roundels and monochrome wall decoration, it felt like an elegant drawing-room fallen on hard times. The speaker that day bore little resemblance to our usual lecturers. He was a heavily handsome, determined figure – about the same age as some of the younger staff but with an air of chutzpah that no junior art historian could muster. He strode down the central aisle, inveighing on recent events in Italy which were, he said, as much of a cataclysm to us as the Spanish Civil War had been to a previous generation of students. I was puzzled by the analogy – I still am – but from then on, Robert Hughes, who died earlier this month, was surfing on our attention.
They are pulling down the 19th-century Lermontov House in Gudiashvili Square in Tbilisi. The historical association Tiflis Hamqari have been protesting against the demolition since Sunday, sounding off with whistles and horns and holding placards – ‘If you destroy this building you destroy us’ – while the process of stripping out fretwork balconies and roof timbers, smashing stair banisters and ripping out floorboards goes on behind them. The work is being carried out on behalf of the Georgian office of an Austro-German developer, Magnat, whose head office is in Frankfurt.
David Cameron has been playing fast and loose with the term ‘Garden City’, almost as if he didn’t know that its origins lie in Victorian utopian socialism. The First Garden City (that is, Letchworth) was the realisation of ideas that Ebenezer Howard had set out in a small book in 1898, Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow. The following year Letchworth Garden City began to take shape, about thirty miles north of London. Every citizen who came to First Garden City Ltd was a shareholder; everyone in town was to be a part-owner of a large and valuable estate. One of the first investors was George Bernard Shaw.
The only colour on Margate seafront in February comes from the hoardings marking off the Dreamland site. The text and images tell of past glories and high hopes, and of how popular entertainment in the resort (starting in the 1860s and grinding to a halt some ten years ago) could yet come back to life. This was once the amusement park that beat all competition. For now, the hoardings mask an immense backland site stretching virtually from the railway station to the edge of the Old Town.
By unlucky coincidence, the Royal Mail launched this year’s set of Christmas stamps the day before the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition opened at the National Gallery. On the one hand, both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the same room; on the other, to ‘celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’, Mary looking like one of the Bisto kids, but more inane, with her head wrapped in an ethnically imprecise white cloth, covering her hair but knotted oddly at the back. That’s on the first-class stamp, purporting to illustrate Matthew 1.23 (‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son’). The larger version shows a dove, apparently perched on a Windsor chair.
I arrived in Tbilisi in the small hours of the night. (I was on my way to the Tusheti to go trekking, partly in aid of the Roddy Scott Foundation.) The road from the airport passes a blazing, undulating glass building. My taxi driver made me guess what it might be. A skating rink or art gallery, perhaps? But no, it was the new Interior Ministry and Police Headquarters, which, for all the symbolic transparency, has a solid, blocky core. Next, on a hilltop dominating the Georgian capital, comes the Presidential Palace: a crude White House lookalike topped by a glazed dome borrowed from the modern Reichstag.
French law requires that a purebred dog or cat – that is, an animal belonging to one of the breeds listed in the Livre des origines français or the Livre officiel des origins felines – be given a name beginning with a prescribed letter of the alphabet, determined by the year of its birth, rather like the way British car registration plates used to be organised.
The modernist mantra that form follows function is best suited to industrial buildings. Even the great cooling towers of coal-fired power stations, visible for miles around like the funnels of land-locked ocean liners, can be celebrated as functional architecture. But the inscrutable form of the nuclear power plant gives nothing away. The events at Fukushima are a terrifying reminder of what those innocuous-looking boxes actually contain.
When I was a student I lived over a shop, just off the Edgware Road. Four of us squeezed in, and the cobbler and his wife (no, this wasn’t the 19th century) kept a kindly eye on us before heading home in the evenings to Purley. These days, as I wander the high streets of towns, small, medium and large, with an eye cast upwards, alert to any signs of life, I rarely see anything more than mountains of cardboard boxes or clothes racks. A campaign, LOTS (Living Over the Shops), which might have been a lot shriller, for years tried to draw attention to this wasted space, accommodation that doesn’t appear in the national estimates of empty housing – written out in favour of ‘guesstimates’ of the soaring need for more housing ‘units’, especially in the south-east.
Even though I was born almost in Essex, giving me an enduring taste for the exceptional qualities of an unexceptional landscape which I often indulge by walking in it, I hadn’t read (or, frankly, even heard of) J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine until it was reissued by New York Review Books a few years ago. Robert Macfarlane’s introduction says that almost nothing is known about Baker except that he was born in 1926 and was diagnosed with a serious illness around the time the book was published in 1967. The NYRB blurb added that ‘he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life.’ There was no date of death. The book is written in the form of a journal over six months, from October to April. Criss-crossing on his bicycle a small area of countryside to the east of Chelmsford, Baker is on the track of a peregrine falcon – less murderous in intent than Captain Ahab, but no less obsessed.
The day before leaving for Cyprus, I read an excellent account of the sinister weather conditions of 1783, which Benjamin Franklin surmised were the result of recent volcanic activity in Iceland. I’m writing a book about Vesuvius and this was by way of light research. I was about to leave Nicosia for home when Eyjafjallajökull erupted.
San Gennaro (St Januarius) has a chapel in Naples Cathedral to himself, a church within a church, a bombastic Counter-Reformation affair of precious metals and rich marbles, encrusted with busts and frescoed to the rafters. The decoration celebrates his status as protector of Naples against pestilence, disaster and Vesuvius. The volcanic eruption on 16 December 1631 was the most severe since the one that entombed Pompeii. Since at least the 17th century, Neapolitans have been giving the saint three chances a year to prove himself, through the miraculous liquefaction of his blood, encased in two phials within an ornamental glass reliquary.
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