Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

It’s always a pleasure to come to St John’s Elkstone, which is one of the most beautiful small churches of the Cotswolds. When you enter the porch and see this carving above the south door, you know you’re in one of England's special buildings. The zigzag carving around the arch is a typical bold gesture of Norman masons working in the late-12th century. So are the tiny beakheads, a bit of grotesquery that the Normans of this part of England seem to have particularly liked. The semi-circular panel above the door depicts, in a style that’s naïve but clear, Christ in Majesty, the symbols of the Evangelists, the hand of God the Father, and the Lamb of God.

Inside, a Norman arch frames a tiny sanctuary and chancel vaulted in stone. Norman and later medieval details abound, from the carved boss at the centre of the vaulted ceiling to the tiny windows. But it’s not just the architecture that impresses here. It’s the warmth of the atmosphere. This is a building that’s been cared for for over 800 years and is still much loved today.

I can’t resist posting a photograph of one more detail though. Around the outside walls of the church are rows of corbels that display more of the fancy of the Norman carvers – heads of animals and people, abstract patterns, and coiled serpents are among the subjects. This centaur archer, copied from a medieval bestiary that gave the monks and masons their take on Classical mythology, is a personal favourite.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Riding House Street, London

Here’s another outstanding combination of signage and architecture that remembers a long-gone industry. Boulting’s made stoves, sanitary goods, and related products throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The signs on this building, on the corner of Riding House and Candover Streets, tell us that this was their ‘Range & Stove Manufactory’, although it appearance and fenestration are more like those of the neighbouring apartment blocks from the same period.

The style is that mix of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts that enlivens many of the better English buildings of the turn of the century. The combination of varied colours of brick, stone dressings, and ornate details like the 1903 datestone with gables, bays, and different-sized windows is a feast for the eye. Boulting’s signs, with their Art Nouveau lettering in gold and green mosaic, make the whole composition richer still. Pevsner tells us that the architect was H. Fuller Clark, who also designed the interior of the Black Friar pub in the City of London. Not exactly a household name, but a man who could work wonders of building design. Boulting’s must have been pleased with their permanent advertisement. Modern passers-by get pleasure too from this striking landmark.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Former Hat Factory, Hollen Street, London

Back in the early 1980s, I used regularly to take the short train ride from New Cross Gate to London Bridge. On this brief inner-city commute my train passed all kinds of factories churning out products from foods to light engineering goods. Paper bags, biscuits, malt vinegar, and flags were all being made near that busy railway line. Most of these industries have since vanished from the area and many former inner-London factories are now given over to apartments or shops.

Walking across central London the other day with the Carreras building (see previous blog entry) still in my mind, it occurred to me how many of these inner-London industries there used to be. I passed some of their former buildings in Soho, including this old hat factory in Hollen Street. A fairly ordinary building of the 1880s is enlivened with this lovely lettering. It’s as if the maker of the letter forms put in just that bit of extra effort into the design, just as the hatters inside wanted us to know that they would take similar pains with a homburg or a trilby. It’s good to see such care lavished on a relatively modest building in an obscure side street.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Greater London House, London

For decades, London took its wonderful Art Deco factories of the 1920s and 1930s for granted. Then from the 1950s to the 1970s they became the victims of makeover merchants and snooty design gurus who despised them as the cinematic fripperies of a past age, irrelevantly ornamented with details from an age still older: what had the ancient Egyptians, for goodness sake, done for us? And so the sunbursts and bright flashes of colour – and sometimes the entire buildings that bore them – began to disappear.

From the 1980s onwards, though, people started to realise that the world was a duller place for the loss of these exuberant buildings. Changing fashions and the rise of postmodernism with its penchant for outré ornament helped. So did the realization that the 20th century had contributed more to design than hair-shirt glass-and-steel modernism. So, of course, did amenity groups like the Twentieth Century Society. As a result there have been some dazzling successes of preservation and restoration.
By the approaching millennium, the old Carreras cigarette factory in Mornington Crescent had been shorn of many of its decorative details. The front of the 1926 building, designed by M.E. and O.H. Collins, had been the epitome of Carreras’ Black Cat cigarette brand, with cat-head roundels repeated across the façade and two eight-foot high seated cats, inspired by the Egyptian feline goddess Bastet, guarding the entrance. Triumphantly, the cats were brought back for the millennium, and the whole frontage – cat heads with wiry whiskers, stylish Art Deco lettering, colourful Egyptian capitals – was restored. This corner of North London is all the better for it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The enormous Edwardian Exchange in the centre of Manchester was a trading centre for the agents and salesman of thousands of Lancashire businesses, especially mill owners, cotton importers, and others involved in the textile business. When it was completed in 1921, the fourth building of its type on the site, the place buzzed with activity, but by the 1960s, a combination of industrial depression, mergers, and new means of communication meant that the trade there had declined. In 1968 the vast hall, with its three glass domes and massive neoclassical columns, had to close.

When the hall was put to use in 1973 as a temporary theatre, its success set people thinking. How could a permanent theatre be built to make best use of the cavernous space? The solution, designed by Levitt, Bernstein Associates, seemed to have been made for the phrase ‘the shock of the new’: a theatre pod with a visible framework of tubular steel. With the Apollo moon landings fresh in everyone’s memory, this building-within-a-building soon became nicknamed ‘the Lunar Module’. It wasn’t hard to see that something extraordinary had landed.

Inside the little theatre in the round, every audience member is close to the stage. It’s intimate theatre at its best. Outside, the alien structure is small enough not to overwhelm the hall of the Exchange. One can still appreciate the grand architecture – the columns with their gilded capitals, the brilliant glazed domes. When Manchester was bombed in 1996, the architects came back to do refurbishment work, taking the opportunity to build in new services. Add to that a dramatic new lighting and decorative scheme in the hall and the combination is even better. Old and new contrast, but work together, an object lesson in allowing modern design and traditional architecture to coexist in symbiosis.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

This plaque in the centre of the Herefordshire town of Ross-on-Wye commemorates John Kyrle (1637–1724) known as ‘the Man of Ross’. Kyrle was rich, but was not attracted to the high life so he stayed in his home town and devoted himself to charitable works – he was said to have helped the poor by paying the dowries of impoverished brides and subsidizing apprentices’ fees and, trained in the law, he gave free legal advice to the needy. In addition, he improved his town, laying out a public garden called the Prospect (still partly intact), planting elms, giving the parish church some pinnacles and restoring its spire, and leaving money to Ross’s charitable school. The poet Alexander Pope wrote about Kyrle in his third Moral Essay, the Epistle to Bathurst, praising both his charity and his flair for landscape gardening, and ensuring the lasting fame of this modest man.

In the 19th century, the proprietor of the Royal Hotel took over the Prospect and closed it to public access, planting cabbages over part of it. There was a public outcry and in 1848, while revolutions broke out across Europe, Ross had its riot too. After several years the Prospect’s lease was taken back, the garden was given to the town, and Kyrle's generosity was remembered once more.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bee shelter, Hartpury, Gloucestershire

Almost too small to be a building, this structure is simply too special to ignore. It is a shelter containing 33 niches or boles to accommodate straw bee skeps, the traditional English forerunners of bee hives. There is nothing else like it in the world.

The shelter was originally made in the Gloucestershire town of Nailsworth by a stone mason, Paul Tuffley, some time between 1824 and 1852. Its carved scrollwork decoration shows that Tuffley was an accomplished carver and from the beginning the structure must have looked impressive. By the 1960s, though, it was unused – the bee skep had long been replaced by the wooden hive and the shelter looked likely to be demolished. But it was rescued and resited at Hartpury Agricultural College – only to be moved once more to Hartpury churchyard in 2002, when it was thoroughly restored. It’s still there, showing how well housed some of Gloucestershire’s bees once were.