Monday, January 18, 2016
Kennington Road, London
Just when we think it’s all concrete boxes, post-war architecture surprises us again. This concrete screen, with its surface that bends organically in and out and up and down, is set within a five-storey building in Kennington Road, not far from North Lambeth underground station. Most of the building, a standard modernist flat-topped box, all straight lines, is an office block. The screen signals a different function: this part of the structure is a church and was built in 1958–60 to replace an earlier bombed-out building. The architect of both the box and this extravaganza set within it was Peter J Darvall. When I shared this picture on Facebook, one friend said it made him feel slightly queasy. Perhaps the facade’s fluidity induced a seasick feeling; or maybe it just seemed to resemble a sinister growth. It does, it’s true, combine an organic quality with a weirdly mutant one. The veined twisting and turning forms make me think of a hosta gone wrong; the way the structure ducks and dives under and above itself is also faintly disturbing. A bad trip?
And yet. There’s something compelling about it, something that makes your eye follow the facade up and down, in and out, and something that makes you admire the architect’s use of concrete to create more than just another box. It made me look twice at it – made me turn round, go back, and look a third time, actually. It’s a reminder, too, that at around this time architects were experimenting with all kinds of fluid forms in building. A reminder that this is a period when anyone who writes about buildings needs to resort to metaphor: sails in the harbour, or nuns fighting (Sydney Opera House), a pair of wings (New York’s TWA Flight Center), Paddy’s Wigwam (Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral). The last is woefully inaccurate, of course, and all these descriptive attempts are limited in their usefulness. But they remind us that buildings can both define places and suggest other places or things entirely, creating paradoxes that twist and turn like the undulating surface of this facade.