Sunday, July 25, 2010

St Pancras, London


Why Sir John hangs on to his hat

This blog is now three years old this month, so bear with me while I reflect about how I blog, and why. A regular reader, noticing that most of my photographs are of exteriors, recently asked me how often I manage to look inside the buildings I post about. The answer is sometimes, but not that often, and the reason lies in how I blog.

I had to decide at the beginning how I’d approach this blog. It would be possible to do lots of research, contact building owners in advance, and hope some would oblige with guided tours, information, and, in an ideal world, tea on the lawn. But, interesting and nutritious as all this would be, it would also take a lot of time, and, like most people, I have many calls on my time. So I decided on a different approach. I travel around – on business, for pleasure, or on the lookout for interesting buildings. When a building, often one I didn’t know about before, catches my eye, I take photographs of it, do some research, and see where this leads. If it turns out to be interesting, I write a post. So, in general, I look from the outside, though I take advantage of buildings that are open anyway, like many of England’s parish churches, and step inside.

This way of working reflects my interests, which are as much to do with the history, quality, and atmosphere of place, with townscape, with local distinctiveness, and so on, as with architecture. And the buildings turned up by my serendipitous methods reflect my interests too, which extend to barns and breweries as well as castles and cathedrals. When I wrote The English Buildings Book I described these preoccupations by referring to the great Nikolaus Pevsner. At the beginning of his book An Outline of European Architecture, Pevsner defines his subject by example: ‘A bicycle shed is a building,’ he says. ‘Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.’ So in calling our book The English Buildings Book, Peter Ashley and I were saying that we wanted to include all types and conditions of buildings – and both Lincoln Cathedral and a bicycle shed make their appearance in its pages. The English Buildings blog works along similar lines.

There’s another consequence of working in this way that has, I’d argue, wider significance – that one can find out a lot about buildings without privileged access, and that this way of looking at buildings is open to anyone who can use their eyes. Sir John Betjeman knew this. When extolling the pleasures of ‘church crawling’ he insisted that you need only two things: a map (in England it has to be an Ordnance Survey map) and ‘an eye’. Keep looking, look around you, above all look up, and you will be rewarded – and that is surely why Sir John is looking up, a practised hand keeping a firm grip on his headgear as he does so, in the statue by Martin Jennings at St Pancras Station.

A lifetime of looking at buildings and writing about them made Betjeman very well informed, of course. But he insisted that a knowledge of architectural styles was less important than observation. The eye comes first, and all of us who have eyes to see can use them in the way Betjeman intended. Doing so makes every journey one of fascination and I hope some of the fascination comes through in this blog.

20 comments:

potok said...

The advantage of your approach to us, the readers, is that we all can see what you do. Just turn up and look.

columnist said...

A good reminder on the importance of being observant about anything really. There is so much to see, and then the joy of learning more about it through reading and research. It's nice to hitch a ride on your blog to fulfill that great pleasure in life. Best wishes for more inspiration.

Philip Wilkinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...

The advantage to me is that, although I lived in Britain for a couple of years and have revisited often since then, I didn't give many buildings the attention they deserved. Sometimes it takes an outsider (other than Pevsner) to say "have you thought about a particular building this way?"

I think had I looked at St Pancras in 1972-4, I would have seen just a railway station.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Ah, but if you'd looked at St Pancras in the early 1970s you'd have seen a rather run-down railway station. It has recently been gloriously restored – and sensitively extended and altered. The ironwork three decades ago, for example, did not look sky-blue, its original Victorian colour, which was restored in the recent work. The staue of Betjeman is a recent addition too. Much has been written about the St Pancras restoration, so I've not commented on it on the blog, although I've been very impressed by it on my various visits.

You are right, I think, about the role of the outsider. I find it fascinating that it was an outsider from Germany who became the best guide to our buildings. As a different kind of outsider I stand on his shoulders, of course, and hope not to slip off to often.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Or indeed TOO often.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Potok: Quite so. I hope my readers continue to turn up and look up, as it were.

Columnist: Thank you for your comment. The more observant we all are, in all parts of our life, the better.

bazza said...

Philip, I was very interested to read about your blogging methodology. I blog in a similar way; if I come across a painting, poem, person, book or place that interests me I research it, blog about it. It's for my own pleasure really but when others look in It's even more rewarding.
Please feel free to drop in at http://todiscoverice.blogspot.com/ where you would be most welcome or at my former blog: http://bazzablog-uk.blogspot.com/

Terry said...

I'm with you. Design mags specialize in marketing staged and stage managed interiors. What I enjoy about exteriors is they have to survive out in the rain and they can't hide. You catch them without makeup, at their most natural and most beautiful in my opinion. Bravo.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you for the interesting thoughts, and a very happy third birthday to this ever-fascinating blog! (The English Buildings Book is also one of my favourites, largely for the reasons you highlight here.)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Many thanks for all these appreciative comments.

The Vintage Knitter said...

As a newcomer to your blog, I have to admit that I eagerly read your posts and enjoy looking the accompanying photos. Happy blogiversary and long may it continue!

Neil said...

With almost anything in life, you are either on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out. And most of us are, most of the time, the former.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: Always good to welcome a newcomer!

Neil: Indeed. You reach to the heart of the human condition here - how little we know about anything, the multiplicity of worlds, small and great, into which we peer. But the thing is to go on looking and trying to understand.

Peter Ashley said...

Happy Blogday Phil. It just gets better and better.

Vinogirl said...

Great post.
I determined to look up more when I was a teenager, (after walking into one too many lamp posts), then saw some wonderful stuff up high on Liverpool's buildings.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Vinogirl: Liverpool is a great city to look up in.

Jon Dudley said...

Many happy returns Philip. I've learned so much through your writing. Thank you.

LondonGirl said...

A wonderful post!

Personally, I think St. P's is a bit over-developed, too many shops / bars, etc

Philip Wilkinson said...

LondonGirl: Thank you. You may be right. It's difficult getting the balance right with these shops and bars...