Saturday, April 28, 2018

Victoria Embankment, London

Streaky bacon

Looking at Google Earth on a relative’s mobile the other day and marvelling at how much of London we could see, we chanced upon the Victoria Embankment and I was reminded how, whenever I’m at that end of Westminster Bridge I turn away from the Houses of Parliament (magnificent as they are) and look at these two buildings by the river. They were designed by Norman Shaw as New Scotland Yard – the North Building (right) first, followed by the South. The Metropolitan Police moved into the North Building in 1890, and into the South Building in 1906, after which the two blocks remained the headquarters of the force until 1967. They’re now parliamentary offices.*

When the first building began to go up at the end of the 1880s, this style of architecture was still new. People were rather baffled by it. They’d spent much of the 19th century being told that there was a ‘battle of styles’ between Gothic and Classical. Nobody won the battle, but the Victorians built hundreds of Gothic churches and thousands of Classical secular buildings – plus a few buildings in other recognisable styles of the past, from Romanesque to Renaissance. This office block did not seem to be in a single recognisable style at all. It has Classical details around the windows; the roofs look like something from the French Renaissance; it has polychrome masonry but not of the type used on some Gothic buildings;  the gables have Jacobean decoration; the corner towers – what? – French or Scottish.

Contemporaries were worried by this and anxiously asked Shaw what style he was aiming for. He replied that he was not really interested in style, or in designing facades. What he was interested in was character.† So he produced a hybrid that nowadays is sometimes referred to as ‘free style’. Once people got over the bafflement, this way of building caught on, and there are plenty of well built, handsome, eye-catching buildings, put up in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in this hybrid mode. They often have a mix of brickwork and pale stone, so I think of them as ‘streaky bacon’ buildings. Shaw’s Scotland Yard also has a very solid-looking lower portion in granite, as if the designer wanted to ensure that the whole thing was on the strongest possible footing.

Nowadays we are not so fazed by a 19th-century building in a ‘free’ style. We can look at it and appreciate the artful patterns of the multi-coloured masonry (look at those chimneys), the ornate gables, the variety of window sizes, the relationship between the massive buildings and the corner towers with their delicate ogee cupolas. It’s a design that’s as effective now, after postmodernism and all, as it has ever been.

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* The Metropolitan Police, after various moves, now occupy the 1930s Curtis Green building on the Embankment, just out of my shot to the right. The Curtis Green building is now called New Scotland Yard, while the streaky bacon buildings are known as the Norman Shaw Buildings.

† For more on the buildings, and Shaw’s views on them, see the excellent biography by Andrew Saint, Richard Norman Shaw, Yale UP, 1976.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

What with this and the buildings around and including Westminster Cathedral, the streaky bacon effect seems to be a badge of honour for this part of London. We have to hope nobody knocks them down, as it seems unlikely that anybody could replace them by anything remotely as attractive. Why do these buildings make me think of a hearty breakfast?

Hels said...

As a young art history student I would have been appalled by mixed (or no) architectural style. And I still can't see what Norman Shaw meant by "character". But by calling the hybrid ‘free style’, or by my brain growing less inflexible over the last 25 years, I now quite like New Scotland Yard. The roof line really does look French Renaissance.

Peter Ashley said...

In the early 60s a black Riley Pathfinder roared out in to the Embankment from here in the opening sequence of No Hiding Place, starring Raymond Francis and Johnny Briggs.

Joe Treasure said...

I've passed this building often without giving much thought to its eclectic elements. I probably would have put it vaguely in the Keble category, but I see that it isn't that at all. Thanks for bringing it into focus and putting it in historical context.