Friday, September 30, 2011
Commercial Road, London
Walking around East London in search of buildings taking part in London Open House Weekend, my eye was caught by this vast structure on Commercial Road. Now known simply as The Mission, it began as the Empire Memorial Sailors’ Hostel and was originally built in 1923–4 to designs by Thomas Brammall Daniel and Horace W Parnacott, with 1930s additions by George Baines and Son.
Pevsner’s London 5: East volume, my source for the architects’ names, describes the building as having ‘A stripped Perp exterior on a cathedral-like scale’. In other words the tall windows, long upright mullions, and those stone turrets at the end all show the influence of ‘Perp’ – the English Perpendicular Gothic style of the 15th century. This is very true, but there’s more to the building than that. The very plain rectangular windows on either side of the turrets owe something of their proportions to the neo-Georgian architecture that was much used for office blocks and town halls in the early-20th century. And those low, segmental arches – four along the side and one on the end, forming the entrance – have nothing to do with ‘Perp’ or Georgian. They have a hint of the Art Nouveau architecture of c 1910 about them, the sort of thing that the architects of London’s Mary Ward Settlement might have specified.
This hybrid design concealed simple rooms for sailors, men who’d arrived in the nearby docks and needed a bed (Limehouse Basin is just across the road). A big bold building for such a basic purpose, it caught the eye of the Situationists, who held their conference there in 1960. In 1989 the building’s owners, like many others at the time, were prepared to turn their backs on this proletarian and revolutionary history: they converted the place to flats. Its cathedral-like exterior is still as eye-catching as ever.