Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ham Yard, London

            Image courtesy John Nassari

Amara Interior Blog Awards

Last night I went to a very congenial awards ceremony at Ham Yard, the new, luxurious, and appealingly tardis-like hotel not far from Shaftesbury Avenue on the edge of Soho in central London. The nice people at Amara had told me a while back that this blog had been nominated for one of its Interior Blog Awards and, to my great surprise, it got on to the shortlist for the Best Architecture Blog. So it was, I thought, as a shortlister that I went along to the ceremony, to admire the interior, take advantage of the fine double-height bar (I'm propping it up in the picture above, but you have to be quite sharp-eyed to spot me), and give the winners of the various categories the applause they deserve.

So after some chatting, nibbling, and vertical drinking, we were summoned into the theatre (What has this hotel not got? A bowling alley? Wrong: it has one of those as well) for the award-giving. And imagine how my ghast was flabbered when the first award to be announced was in the Architecture category, and the winner was English Buildings. I staggered to the stage to pick up my award (a bit of modern design in its own right) and returned to my seat to take pleasure in the applause and clap in genuine enthusiasm the other 12 or so category winners.

The various civilized aspects of the event included meeting other bloggers and their representatives, chatting to some of the fine people who did the judging, and giving and receiving various congratulations. Another civilized thing was that I did not have to make a speech. That meant that I couldn't make public my thanks to those involved in making this event happen and bringing us all together – the people from Amara, the judges, the award sponsors (including G P & J Baker, sponsors of my award), and... I could go on, but I won't. Thank you all. Brevity is the soul of this blog: a picture, a couple of paragraphs with some personal observation and comment, then I move on. I sometimes think of my posts as Postcards from England. This one is more like a thank-you letter. A short one, but none the worse for that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Fleet Street, London

Getting your message across

I’m in the process of preparing a course about architectural ornament, and looking through my photographs to find examples of ways in which 20th-century architects turned against the modernist call in the 1920s for architecture that should be functional and devoid, or largely devoid, of the decorative elements that had so preoccupied their predecessors. There are numerous ways in which they made this turn, of course, one of them being the increasing use of ancient Egyptian design as a source: think various cinema facades and factories of the late-1920s and 1930s. To make this point in the past I’ve often used a personal favourite – the old Carreras tobacco factory at Mornington Crescent, with its Egyptian columns and wonderful black cats. Here’s another example, the former Telegraph building in Fleet Street.

The Telegraph building was designed for the newspaper of that name by Elcock and Sutcliffe with Thomas Tait and built in 1927–8. It has a very bold, ultra-imposing facade with a row of giant fluted columns topped by carved Egyptian capitals. Bands of abstract carved ornament run along cornices and over window lintels. The whole thing is designed to make a big mark, to overwhelm the passer-by.  And so it does – look at the way it dwarfs the pedestrians in front of it.

Further decorative touches make a big difference. The clock, itself enormous, lends colour to this stony frontage. Its design is full of the diamonds, jagged edges, chevrons, and radiating, sunburst-like motifs that Art Deco artists loved. The relief above the doorway, by, Alfred Oakley, is another such feature. With its sun-rays, compass rose, Britain at the centre of its hemisphere, and the two caduceus-bearing messenger figures racing out across the empire with news, it symbolises the newspaper’s business of communication, and sets it, and Britain, at a pivotal place in the world that would not have seemed inappropriate in 1927. On the bright day I passed by, some rather dramatic shadows were obscuring some of the detail of this carving, but it’s strong enough to make its point without the direct light of the Art Deco lamp above it.*

As ever, God (or the Devil, if you wish) is in the details. If this gigantic facade does seem over the top, the carving and that jewel-box of a clock give it different accents, and make one pause to look closely. Which is one of the things good architectural ornament can do so well.

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*As so often, the excellent Ornamental Passions blog has more about the carving on this building, with more photographs.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

Back and forth

I’ve been to the delightful village of Hook Norton in Oxfordshire quite a few times, although the fact that I drive there means that I don’t usually take immediate advantage of the place’s best product: the beer proceed by the excellent Hook Norton Brewery. I’ve visited the brewery though and taken beer away with me to enjoy. And I’ve been to the church, the Baptist chapel, and one of the pubs, as well as just just stopping and staring or passing though. It was on one such passing, in a friend’s car on a cloudy day and en route to refreshment elsewhere, that I first saw this sight: an interesting piece of motoring history to add to my virtual collection of old petrol pumps. I had to go back when the sun was shining, and have done so twice since, on neither occasion getting quite the photograph I wanted, although the one above comes close.

On the day I took the photograph, the workshop door was open, so I peered inside and was greeted by the owner, who told me that the globe once belonged to a garage tucked not far behind this building. After it closed, the man I was talking to swapped the globe for a decent bottle of whisky and mounted it on his wall, where it remains near the old pump as an ornament to the street and a reminder of a bit of village history. The red colour on the shell-shaped Dieso-Shell globe has almost gone now, but its very fading quickly alerted me to the fact it was an original and not one of the many reproductions that are about, good as these are. How heartening that there are people around to save these scarce traces of the past.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Strand, London

Green and gleaming: Illustration of the month

‘Have you seen how “VITROLITE” has brightened the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel London?’ That’s the headline of a full-page advertisement in the August 1936 issue of The Architectural Review. The artwork, which I've chosen as my illustration of the month, shows a bathroom of great Art Deco elegance. The walls are clad mainly in eggshell green Vitrolite, a form of opaque pigmented glass that was especially popular between the two world wars, with strips of Wedgwood blue here and there to provide accents. The Vitrolite is fitted to different heights in different parts of the room, giving a stepped effect (partly visible in the reflection in the mirror) that’s typical of this decorative style. The chromium-plated fittings, angular basin and bath, and glass shelf complete the picture.

Everything is shiny and reflective (easy to clean and dazzling to look at), and the anonymous artist of this illustration is at pains to capture these mirror-like surfaces in the picture – a rug with a zigzag pattern is revealed reflected in the Vitrolite that surrounds the bath. The image is full of telling details: those reflections, the green soap, the glassware on the shelf. Everything works together, and everything is shiny and modern. The design was by Stanley Hall, Easton and Robertson, and perhaps this glamorous illustration was done in their office. It brings back the period and the style as perfectly as the Art Deco cinemas and factories of which I’m so fond.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Piccadilly, London

Red face, red box

Having coffee in Notting Hill Gate before calling my son to arrange our visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, I take out my mobile…to discover that the battery is completely drained. As I search my memory (I did put the mobile on charge, didn’t I?) I’m sure that there’s a public telephone in the underground station…but I’m equally sure that I can’t remember my son’s number. Well, who needs to know phone numbers? They’re in the mobile’s memory, are’t they? The problem requires the ingestion of more caffeine….

As I stare into the coffee lees and try to turn over the compost heap of my memory I somehow uncover part of my son’s number. By the time I get down into the underground and a blast of fresh air and particulates has further invigorated my system, I have managed to recover all of it – I really don’t know how – and my problem is solved. Later, walking into the gateway of the Royal Academy I see the origin, as it were, of my salvation: the prototype red telephone box, the very first K2 box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott as an entry in a competition in 1924 and built, this experimental one, out of wood.

One or two of my steadfast readers will know that I am occasionally an advocate of kicking a building, but this one I tap, and yes, it gives off a woody sound. Looking at the prototype, it’s very similar to the final iron K2 design. Differences include the precise proportions of glazed to solid area in the door (the prototype has a slightly larger solid area at the bottom) and the pierced lettering of ‘TELEPHONE’, which was replaced by the glazed panel in the final version. The pierced lettering has the added advantage of providing ventilation – the old boxes could get rather stuffy inside. Both prototype and finished designs are again subtly different from the later and more common K6 box, which is slightly narrower and shorter and has a different glazing pattern. The K2, by comparison, is grander, larger, more imposing, truer perhaps to the origins of the design in the neo-classical architecture of that master of shallow domes and ingenious lighting effects, Sir John Soane. Dignified yet brashly coloured, classical yet practical in a modern world, the K2 is, quite simply, a lovely design.

I was grateful, the day I stopped and looked at Giles Gilbert Scott’s little masterpiece, that London still has some public telephones. They’re too often seen, in these days of the ubiquitous mobile, as useless ornaments fit only for tourists to pose in. But they’re still admired as elegant bits of ingenious design, and inventive souls, I’m pleased to say, are busy finding new uses for some of the redundant ones, from miniature art galleries to libraries. Whether used for its original purpose or not, hats off to the red box.

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Looking back over my posts, I see I’ve blogged about telephone boxes several times before. For readers who like this kind of thing, here are some links to these older posts:
A telephone box in Yorkshire re-used as a miniature art gallery
Another, in Hertfordshire, that has become an art gallery
A memory of the time when kiosks gathered together in sociable little groups
A more recent KX100 box with Banksy graffiti
A ‘vermillion giant’ box, with added facilities

Monday, October 12, 2015

Piccadilly, London

The Ais have it

I suppose if I added them up, I’d find I’d spent quite a few hours, over the years, in the courtyard of Burlington House, the Royal Academy's building in London’s Piccadilly. Waiting for friends, waiting in particular for a friend who’s a member and sometimes gets me in free as his guest, waiting for my son, queuing for a ticket. Fortunately, I always find something to look at: bits of relief carving, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a memorable red telephone box, and the building itself, naturally. On Sunday all this was put into the shade by Tree, a large, site-specific work of art by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Tree is made up of sections of actual trees that have died in China. The artist buys these bits and then pieces them together to make whole trees. Except that they’re not, of course, whole trees: they consist of trunks and large branches, but have no roots, leaves, or twigs, and they are bolted together very obviously (how things are put together is a constant fascination of this artist’s work). And yet the forms Ai Weiwei has made are unmistakably tree-like, are the essence of tree as it were, and the trees thus made form an absorbing grove around the Reynolds statue, through which visitors wander, and look, and take photographs. The contrast between the classical architecture and this curious and woody construction is thought-provoking and when I was there, dozens of people were pausing, and looking, and having their thoughts provoked, and smiling in an engaged but rather wistful way.

It was much the same inside. Eleven rooms of Burlington House are full of Ai Weiwei’s work. A lot of it is assemblages of found objects – bits of trees, stools joined to one another that seem animated because they are set at such precarious angles, reinforcing bars from the concrete structure of a school destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, recycled masonry from Ai’s studio and gallery that was bulldozed by order of the Chinese authorities. All of this has huge visual power, as do some of the pieces made in other ways: 1 x 1 x1 metre cubes fashioned from rosewood or impacted tea, for example, like a standard measure of compressed Chinese culture, ordered from the sculptor’s yard and deposited in place on a beautifully crafted delivery palette.

As we walked around the galleries, alternately smiling at the loving way in which these items have been put together and frowning at the stories of trauma (the earthquake, Ai’s own imprisonment recreated in a suite of particularly disturbing dioramas that you view through tiny apertures*) evoked in these works, my son and I realised we were seeing something we’d always remember. It was partly that we were appreciating the material on so many levels – visual, constructional, in terms of its meaning, as metaphor of China, as objective correlative for Ai's life, and so on. And it was partly that this kind of art, conceived by the artist and then made or assembled by someone else, so familiar and sometimes so exasperating in art today, can take on a new meaning when it involved an artist who in the past hasn't even been allowed to leave China† and supervise the planning and assembling of his exhibitions. Stepping out into the sunshine and walking through the trees again, the world seemed a different place.

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*Reviewers and writers keep mentioning Marcel Duchamp in terms of the Ai Weiwei’s readymade pieces. Fair enough: Ai does too. But has anyone talked about how the dioramas relate to Duchamp’s last, disturbing work?

†The artist has now been issued with a passport (and, finally, a visa for the UK) and was able to travel to London for the installation of this show. Thanks to the readers who have pointed this out and added links such as this one. I hope Ai Weiwei continues to be granted freedom of movement.

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy until 19 December.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dungeness, Kent

Sunrise, sunset

It's National Poetry Day in the UK, a celebration of poetry in all its forms involving readings, national radio, and even (praise be) television. What to post on the English Buildings blog to mark these celebrations? Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere? Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford? I've decided on a reprise (with a different photograph) of a building I posted way back in 2008 when this blog was just getting into its stride: Prospect Cottage, the home of film-maker Derek Jarman, set on the shingle at Dungeness. I've chosen it, as the sun comes out here in the Cotswolds to illuminate the British autumn, because this wooden house is adorned with lines, themselves picked out in cut wooden letters, from John Donne's poem, 'The Sunne Rising': 'Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windows and through curtaines call on us? Must to thy motions lovers' seasons runne?’

The letters that make up the poem, the same colour as the black walls of the cottage, need strong sunlight on them to be clearly visible and readable, so that the sun itself enhances the effect of this poem about the sun. It feels right, not just because of today's sunshine, but also because it seems appropriate for Jarman, a man who lived for the effects of light on celluloid, for whom light, as it were, was meat, drink, and inspiration. Sadly, Jarman went blind towards the end of his life. Cruel as this was for a film-maker (as for who not?) he took his blindness bravely. Perhaps he knew the consoling words of the great blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, a book-lover who landed the enviable job of head of his country's National Library, reflected in a poem about the 'splendid irony' that 'Granted me books and blindness at one touch'. Borges also told us that we should not fear blindness, because 'It is like watching a slow sunset.'

Monday, October 5, 2015

Earls Barton, Northamptonshire

A flower among towers

The tower of Earls Barton church in Northamptonshire is one of the most famous bits of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England. There aren’t many towers in England that were built before the Norman conquest and this is not only the most spectacular of them, but also one of the best preserved. Every part of the tower except for the very top is Saxon, dating from the decades before 1066. We don’t know exactly how people used church towers back then. Some think they fulfilled a mixture of uses – perhaps worship on the ground floor, a dwelling for the priest above, with possible defensive use too, in times of strife. Some churches in this period may also have had bells in their towers.* However it was used, the tower’s design is full of telling details – the long and short stones making up the corners, the lovely, if irregular, bulbous columns between the window openings (see the picture below), and above all the pattern of raised stonework (pilaster strips, in the trade) that extends across the entire structure.

This kind of artful combination of straight lines, curves, and diagonals is something the Saxons did quite a lot (I noticed something similar a while back in a post I did about a church in Bradford-on-Avon). Architectural history books tell us that this sort of thing was probably copied from the frameworks of wooden structures – after all, most Saxon buildings, from humble hovels to the grand halls that are the settings for Saxon poems like Beowulf, were made of wood. But I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this idea. The pattern isn’t really that much like a wooden frame – the strips are very thin, the diagonal ‘braces’ are positioned oddly, likewise the semi-circular arches. Maybe the idea of making such a pattern comes from wooden structures, but the actual pattern – well, it’s purely decorative and I can’t help thinking that it must be there because people liked it that way. I’m rather glad they did. 
Earls Barton tower, detail of window openings and pilaster strips

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*The early history of church bells is unclear, but back in Saxon times having a tower didn’t necessarily mean you had bells.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Bake off

I know, I know. I don’t always pick the most obvious destinations for my architectural explorations. A while back, a neighbour of mine actually laughed when I said I wanted to go to Kidderminster, but I enjoyed looking at the carpet factories there nonetheless. The same went for Kettering, where I hoped to find shoe factories but, as usual, I found more than I was expecting.

Tucked away amongst the Victorian red-brick houses and shoe factories, for instance, and hemmed in by white vans and old mattresses, was this Co-operative Bakery. It seems to have been converted to flats, but it’s still a neat example of a medium-sized factory in brick, dating from 1900. It’s lifted above the commonplace with the eye-catching stripy design on the corners and up the walls, by the shallow relieving arches above the windows, and by a couple of stand-out details.
The most obvious of these is the lettering: huge capitals made up out of white tiles. They’ve clearly been specially made – look at the bespoke bits of the B and V – and they leave no doubt about what this building is, or about the Co-op’s pride in it. The other detail is smaller: the graphic devices, in cast iron, set along the side. They spell KICS, for Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society. A lovely touch, on which the raised outlines of the letters catch the sun.
Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society certainly left its architectural mark – there’s a factory and a warehouse in neighbouring streets, too, and its impact was reflected in numerous stores in the town and surrounding villages. And the Kettering Co-op was responsible for at least one major milestone in the story of the Co-operative movement: the town elected the first-ever Co-operative Member of Parliament, in 1918. If a lot of these buildings no longer fulfil their original function, their design very effectively reminds us of their history – and made my journey more than worthwhile.