Sunday, October 26, 2014
I was once at a literary festival event where a panel that included Joan Bakewell and Jonathan Meades were discussing their favourite buildings. Joan Bakewell, eager to put in a word for Elizabeth Scott, the pioneering woman architect, was making the case for Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre (this was before its recent remodelling), her most celebrated design. Meades wasn’t convinced, and when Bakewell insisted, ‘Isn’t it like a glorious ocean liner?’ he delivered the coup de grace: ‘Well, maybe. But it isn’t going anywhere.’
‘Ocean liner architecture’ – long lines, strip windows, nautical-looking railings, curves relieving the rhythm of straight lines and right angles – was popular for all kinds of buildings in the 1930s. There are apartment blocks, hotels, and lidos in the style. Here’s a bus shelter (was it originally a tram shelter?) in Leicester that’s in a similar mode. The overall shape, the row of windows, and the overhanging roof give the shelter a strong horizontal emphasis and the lack of pillars at the corners is just the kind of thing modernist architects liked to do to show off. Look, no visible support! The natty angled glass panes at the corners draw attention to it.
Most striking of all, though, are the curvaceous ends of the overhanging roof. As well as providing some extra shelter, they give this little building an overall form not dissimilar to the round-ended city trams of decades gone by. I remember seeing shelters like this when passing through Leicester as a small boy with my parents on trips to visit family in Lincolnshire. Even then they seemed rather special, modern, new (in spite of the fact that they were already maybe 30 years old), and rather like the kind of thing I could build with LEGO. Although I would not have thought to put it like that in those days, they seemed, indeed, to be going somewhere.