Saturday, May 31, 2014


Throwing the kitchen sink at it

A recurring theme in posts on this blog has been the way architects and builders deal with corners. Here’s one of the most striking corners I know, the turret or overgrown oriel that takes the eye around the junction of Chancery Lane and Brown Street in Manchester. The building was designed as the offices of a bank, and, from the rusticated ground floor to the rows of dormer windows in the roof and the iron crown that tops off the structure, it’s an eye-catcher in a city of rich showy 19th-century buildings.

The architect was George Truefitt, whose buildings included the unusual circular St George’s Tufnell Park Road in London, and other bold churches such as St Mary, Davyhulme, Manchester, which has an octagonal tower, and St John Bronley, which has a big apse and a number of quatrefoil-shaped windows. Whereas these churches are unambiguously Gothic, this Manchester office building of 1868 is in a style one can only call eclectic – a mixture of classical rustication, Gothic shafts, round-headed arches, iron balconies and stone parapets. Some of the carved stonework – repeated flowers and leaves, for example – looks forward to the terracotta details on many buildings of a couple of decades later. The finishing touch, that wrought-iron crown on top of the corner turret, is a charming one-off. This kind of blend of showiness and solidity, confidence and delicacy, is typical of the Victorians. It may not be ‘proper’, but one way to make a mark on the busy, architecturally eventful streets of Manchester is, in a popular phrase of today, to throw the kitchen sink at the building. I’m rather glad that Truefitt did so.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Huts and boilers

Britain’s railways, which had their heyday in the hundred years after the 1840s, developed an architecture of their own, embracing whole new building types from the vast train sheds of the London termini to the smallest rural signal box. Among the least regarded of these railway structures were the corrugated iron buildings, created by railway companies such as the Great Western Railway to fulfil a range of functions – workshops, platform shelters, little lamp huts. I’ve posted about one of these types before, the elegant pagoda platform shelters built by the GWR, with their distinctive concave roofs – perfect for production in large numbers and easy to erect with whatever labour was available locally. There's the end of one on the left-hand edge of my photograph above.

Still less glamorous were the metal storage huts that were made in huge numbers. Many were lamp huts, small structures with a curved roof and plain walls of corrugated iron on a frame of angle iron. There were also slightly larger huts, like this example from Kidderminster station on the preserved Severn Valley Railway. Although very plain, they can look good when painted, as here, in the railway’s colours – with a row of red fire buckets to help catch the eye.

The curving roof shape is classic for corrugated iron buildings – it’s the same shape, roughly, as that of the roofs of thousands of barns as well as of hundreds of railway buildings. It’s also that of one of the most celebrated (but also derided) early corrugated-iron buildings, the first South Kensington Museum, built in the 1850s and the modest precursor of the V&A. With its three curving iron roofs, this structure was described by The Builder as like a ‘threefold monster boiler’. The idea stuck and it became known, to the embarrassment of the museum authorities, as the Brompton Boilers. Curved roofs, corrugated iron, and escaping hot gases – the railways have always been associated with such things, and all they entail.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Two ways of looking at it

In Warwick a couple of weeks ago, when not contemplating the remains of the old gas works, I found myself admiring the painted Egyptian lettering on a building in the town centre. The strong letter forms (they are part of the word ‘Museum’) work for me, even if a lettering aficionado would probably find all kinds of things wrong with them. The stroke widths are inconsistent, there’s something perverse about the pale ‘shadow’, the tan colour and the mortar merge uncomfortably in places, and as for the spacing, it’s so wide you could drive a bus through it. And yet these very faults, combined with the robust Egyptian forms, give these letters a presence and a character that I like. A shame they’ll probably all have to go when someone takes the masonry in hand and sorts out the pointing – but meanwhile, there is something in the lettering to admire.

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On a weekend when votes are being counted in the European elections, readers might want to find a political meaning in my photograph. No such meaning was intended when I took the picture, but my own interpretation would be that I love my country and I love Europe too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Insurance agent's baroque?

Here's a building arrestingly adapted to its site, the baroque structure that forms the continuously curving corner of Wardwick and the Strand in the centre of Derby. I know it as the Refuge Assurance Building, and that company certainly occupied it for a long while, although I don't know whether it was originally built for them. Its grand style, the high baroque of the late-19th century, is rather well adapted to follow this tight corner. The cornices, string courses, balustrades, and window ledges all go with the flow, taking the eye around the curve, while the windows – one lot plain and rectangular, the other lot more fancy, with semicircular tops, carved keystones, and little balustratdes along the bottom – form a steady rhythm punctuated by various upright pilasters. All these classical details give the place a kind of grandeur, which is augmented by the striking skyline, with its French pavilion roof crested with ornamental ironwork. The narrow profile of the building at the corner also adds to the effect of the height, making the building look taller than it is.

This is how the 1880s did urban grandeur and when they went for, they were cooking with gas, to use a figure of speech that might have been made for the Victorian era. It's roughly the style that has been dubbed 'banker's baroque' and the insurance-men of the late-19th century had it taped too. There are examples all over Britain's major cities, especially in London, but few are graced with such a dramatic shape. Here's to Victorian confidence!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Exit, pursued by a hare, or, Odd things in churches (5)

It started with cows. The first CowParade was held in Chicago in 1999. Artists – established or unknown, amateur or professional, young or old – decorated fibreglass cows, which were then placed at strategic places in the city. After a time on display, the cows were corralled in one place and auctioned, funds being donated to charity. Since then there have been CowParade events in many cities all over the world, from New York City to Prague, Istanbul to Rio.

CowParade, a brand owned by CowParade Holdings Corporation, has raised more than $20 million for charity through the auction of cows bearing the work of more than 5,000 artists. Cows are much liked and, with their gentle curves and generous flanks, have proved fulfilling artistic canvases. But there have also been local endeavours, quite separate from CowParade but very much in its spirit. Bath, taking its cue from the presence of the pig in its foundation myth, held an event called King Bladud’s Pigs in 2008. Now comes Cirencester, with hares. Hares because there’s a wonderful hare on a Roman mosaic discovered on a dig in the town in 1971 – it’s now the symbol of the excellent Corinium Museum. The March Hare Festival is not on a huge scale, but Cirencester is no Chicago – 25 hares are scattered around the town, their decoration ranging from ancient Egyptian in style to modernist-inspired, and hare-spotting has become a favourite pastime for locals and tourists alike. Promoting tourism, indeed, is one of the aims of the project, but money from the eventual sale of the hares will be used for environmental and educational projects in and around the town.

So that’s how this hare comes to be in Cirencester’s glorious late-medieval parish church. This particular hare was decorated by the designer and television personality Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. At first glance, it seems as if the flamboyant Mr Llewelyn-Bowen has produced a rather muted design, in a restrained palate. But look more closely (click on the image to enlarge it) and one discovers that the découpé images applied to the hare are somewhat provocative. More redolent of the boudoir than the church, they’ll cause a few raised eyebrows – and even more smiles. Sonnez la cloche!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Westville Road, London

A mural restored

 I’ve posted before about the architectural illustrator and writer Gordon Cullen, whose books Townscape and The Concise Townscape had a big impact on me when I discovered them in the 1970s and have helped to educate probably hundreds of thousands of architects and planners. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cullen was very influential, not just because of the Townscape books but also because his drawings were everywhere – in the architectural press, in advertisements, in books. At the weekend I had the chance to experience another aspect of Cullen’s work, when I went to Greenside School in West London to see the mural he did for the building unveiled after restoration.

Greenside School is itself an interesting building of the early 1950s, designed with great flair by Ernö Goldfinger and opened in 1952. Goldfinger had designed a structural system for schools, with a reinforced concrete frame, that was intended to be rolled out widely, but only Greenside and one other school were built using the system. When the architect wanted a mural for the school’s entrance hall, he turned to Cullen, with whom he’d worked on a number of exhibitions that had been sent to the troops during World War II. Cullen wrote in a notebook a sentence that seemed to mark a starting point and a challenge: 'Mural. To undulate and intrigue. How?' His response to the challenge was brilliant: a series of colourful vignettes on a range of subjects: history (a medieval castle), the sea (an ocean liner), geography (a world map), the solar system (with a sun like a vast egg yolk), railways, and natural history (a composition of leaves and birds). Brightly coloured, simple, but full of interesting detail, they were clearly designed to appeal to young people and to inspire. Entering the foyer is a bit like stepping into a Picture Puffin book, and one can imagine children responding enthusiastically and teachers incorporating the images into lesson plans.

But the mural wasn’t always popular with the staff. I suppose it began to seem old-fashioned, with its images of the de Havilland Comet airliner (the first commercial jet) and the Britannia steam locomotive that was commissioned by the British Railways Board, both of which came into service in 1951. The current staff, however, are enthusiastic, and see the potential of the mural – as an inspiration in lessons, as an uplifting sight when you enter the school, as something to be proud of.

So a group of parents, staff, and school governors got together to ‘rehabilitate, restore, appreciate, protect and celebrate the Gordon Cullen Mural in the context of the Ernö Goldfinger building to the benefit of the whole school community and enrich the Learning Environment’. Or, as a spokesperson said at the unveiling, ‘simply to love it again’. Now the restoration is complete and colours sing once more, illuminated by natural light coming down from Goldfinger’s cunningly concealed clerestory window above. Warm applause as Jacqueline Cullen, the artist’s widow (top photograph), cut the ribbon to mark the mural’s unveiling, confirmed the project’s success, as well as the appreciation and love that people have for this very unusual* work of art.

Appreciation was also I think, typified by the reaction of one young child looking at the mural afterwards with a small group of us. ‘Which part do you like the best”?’ asked one of the adults. ‘Oh, I like the Fried Egg,’ she replied, with emphasis, looking at the image of the solar system. The knowing expression on her face suggested that she was very well aware of the painting’s real subject.

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*Although unusual, the Gordon Cullen mural is part of a bigger picture, which is that quite a number of schools built in post-war Britain had distinguished decorative artwork of various kinds, much of which has now either vanished or is under threat. A research project under the title The Decorated School has led to greater awareness of these works, and one of the fruits of this project is a book, Catherine Burke, Jeremy Howard, and Peter Cunningham (eds), The Decorated School (Black Dog Publishing, 2013). I hope to return to this fascinating book when it reaches the top of my ‘to read’ heap.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fownhope, Herefordshire

Wood and stone

Heading towards the church in Fownhope, I was distracted by this interesting house. I’m attracted by Herefordshire timber-framed houses and this is a substantial one, probably of the 16th or 17th century, with later additions. As is often the way, there are stone chimneys stacks at the end, and these have been extended in brick, probably in the 19th century. It all adds up to a satisfying mix of materials, even if the brick is a bit harsh and industrial in appearance compared with the rest of the building

After admiring the timber frame and the stone stacks I was struck by the low stone structure between them. What is this? A large inglenook? Bread ovens? I don’t recall noticing this type of structure before. No doubt now I’ve noticed it, I’ll be seeing them everywhere.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Getting the point

A couple of years ago I did a post about a sign in London with one of those wonderful pointing hands, the index finger straight and the wrist delineated with a cuff (both jacket and cuff-linked shirt visible). Although my London example was probably 20th century, the post provoked several interesting conversations (online and off) about the earlier history of graphic pointers, both fingers and arrows, and the ways they’ve been used. I was reminded of this when I came across this winning combination of old signs in Bridgnorth.

The street sign is a lovely cast-iron job, presumably Victorian. It has nice clear Clarendon letters that exhibit a pleasant balance of thick and thin strokes, but what makes it stand out is the pointing hand. From a frilly cuff emerges a long, elegant hand with a slender pointing index finger. I’m not sure the way the little finger bends backwards is very accurate – or even anatomically possible: I can’t seem to make my own finger do this. But the effect is pleasing and sends the pedestrian in the right direction.

Below are much later signs, aimed at the motorist, of a kind I remember from my youth. Clarendon letters have been replaced by the sans serif capitals popular in the mid-20th century and a big black arrow indicates the direction. Signs along these lines came in during the 1930s. There were slight revisions in 1944 and 1957, the latter featuring an improved alphabet designed by David Kindersley. As far as I can see these Bridgnorth signs are pre-1957. There was a major change after 1963, when British road signs were completely redesigned and the style still used today was adopted.

But a few of the old signs remain, like these in Bridgnorth. They still do their job, although, when one looks closely, it’s clear that these examples have not been helped by a rather hasty white paint job on the surrounding wall. The wall paint has messed up the black edges of both the street sign and the directional signs slightly, but all three signs still manage to stand out.

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Succinct information on the history of British road signs is available in Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, Signs: Lettering in the Environment (Lawrence King Publishing, 2003); the 192 highly illustrated pages of this book comprise the best visual presentation of signs that I know.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


Warwick in progress

In Warwick recently, I thought I’d walk a little way out of the town centre to have a look at the gas works, a building of 1822 that was said to be one of the oldest and best preserved early gas works in the country. I found that the builders were in, but that I could still make out the outline of the original building above their bright blue protective fencing.

To say that the gas works is preserved is true, up to a point. The gas holders, once contained in the octagonal towers at either end, are long gone, but the walls that contained them are still there, together with the connecting office building in between, so that one can get a good idea of the front of the original building. The whole is stuccoed and the facade has those concentric semicircular arches that Regency builders so liked. Gothic glazing bars are being replaced in the windows, those in the tower originally being false.

The original builders seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to wrap their gas works in elegant clothing – it’s all a far cry from the more familiar exposed gasometers, all girders and rust, that have an attraction all their own. The result is that the building, now it is a gasworks no more, can have other lives. It was converted to offices, but is now being made over once more to provide housing, with a scheduled completion time of spring 2015. It seems a good solution for a building that has outlived its original use but whose facade and exterior form is certainly worth preserving. A worthwhile work in progress.