Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Keying in

While admiring the brick-built houses in Bridgwater, I noticed this interesting bit of brickwork. It’s on one side of King Square, a development that was meant to form the climax of Lord Chandos’s work in the town, but was never finished. Many of the houses here are rather plainer than those in Castle Street, without the segmental-arched windows or fancy pilasters to the doorways, and quite a bit later. But they’re still admirable. What my picture shows are protruding corner bricks at the end of a facade, left like this so that when building work was resumed, the builders could ‘key in’ their courses to those that were already there.

People may think this all looks a bit untidy now, and indeed someone has grown some creeper up part of the corner to soften the effect. However, I think it’s interesting evidence of a bit of history. Lord Chandos sold off the redevelopment area of the town in 1734 and thereafter building in the square proceeded sporadically. Most of the square dates to the early-19th century, after which things came to a stop, rather as they did as funds dried up after the financial crisis of the late-18th century in places such as Bath. What’s left, though, is still some of the best town housing one could hope to see.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Bridgwater brick

I’m impressed by the quality of some of the houses in this Somerset town. This is an example, from maybe the best street of all, Castle Street, which Pevsner calls ‘one of the finest early Georgian streets outside London’. It contains ten well proportioned five-bay houses built of brick – lovely local brick, which became the material of choice in the town from the late-17th century onwards. The brick walls are set off with white-painted quoins and, visible in my picture, segmentally headed windows. These windows are surrounded by moulded architraves; bracketed sills are another pleasant touch.

The doorways, in particular, stand out. There are several variations – some have Doric pilasters, some Corinthian, some, like number 10 in my photograph, Ionic.* The illustrated doorway also has a Gibbs surround, that band of alternating protruding and recessed blocks that gives it special prominence and goes with the ornate keystone at the top of the arch. The Duke of Chandos, who built this street as part of a larger development also featuring many brick houses of this period, must have been pleased. It’s not known who the architect was, but Pevsner and others point to the involvement of craftsmen who worked for the Duke on his properties in London and his famous, long demolished, country house, Canons in Middlesex. The houses they produced in Bridgwater still deserve our admiration.

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* I recently posted this doorway and a couple of its neighbours using different classical orders on my Instagram page, @philipbuildings ; scroll down the Instagram page to find them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

In situ

Theme and Variations, 1969–72 is a sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth fixed to the facade of a building in the centre of Cheltenham that was originally the headquarters of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society. The 25-foot long piece was made especially for the building, has been part of the Cheltenham scene for well over 40 years, and was the artist’s last public commission. She made the sculpture to exploit the slightly curving frontage of the building – the relationship of the groups of semicircles is revealed more clearly as one walks along appreciating the artfulness of the way they are stacked. I think the work enhances the street and deserves to stay there.

However, a while ago the sculpture’s owner (not the same as the company that occupies the building) announced a plan to remove the piece and replace it with an exact replica. Many objected to this proposal, not because the appearance would change but on the grounds of integrity: Hepworth made Theme and Variations for the building and it should remain where it is. It is one of very few works Hepworth created to be attached to a building, which makes it still more important that it continues in situ.† Fortunately, Cheltenham Borough Council and the Twentieth Century Society agree. As a result of the Society’s work, the facade of the building with its integral sculpture have now been listed. It’s with pleasure that I report that this Hepworth is not going anywhere.

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† The Twentieth Century Society says that her Winged Figure from ten years earlier, attached to the facade of the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street, is the only other work by Hepworth designed to be fixed to a building and still in its original position. It is listed at Grade II*.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

London, Western Avenue, travelling westwards

A different angle

I’ve read two recently published books that mention the old Hoover factory in Perivale, West London. Both books were good ones, but neither author had had the chance to cover at any length the building’s fast-changing fortunes. After Hoover left, Tesco eventually acquired the building and ran a supermarket there for some years. This is the stage it had reached when I lasted posted about it in 2010. Tesco pulled out and in 2017–18 the building was converted into 66 flats.

I’m all for finding new uses for old buildings – it’s often a way of saving therm from demolition. But when I passed the other day on the coach from London to Oxford, I thought the price of this change of use was a rather intrusive alteration – it seemed that the developer had very slightly increased the building’s height by adding a pitched roof behind the original sleek, white parapet. Looking into the history of the Hoover Building, however, I discovered that the roof line has been changing almost since the beginning. The Hoover factory was built in 1932 as a two-storey building with a front topped by a long white parapet, with a centre portion slightly taller than the rest. As early as 1935, the building was enlarged by adding another storey, its front windows set well back from the parapet. Soon after that, a gently pitched glazed roof was added, to let more natural light into the top storey, and some time later still, this roof became more substantial, reaching the form it takes today. Various photographs exist of these stages, and the first version of the pitched roof was there early on. But it’s not clear to me quite when the roof reached its current form.

The fact that I could see this roof so clearly, its grey slope detracting from the effect of the original white parapet, was due mainly to the fact that I was looking at it from an elevated position on the top deck of the Oxford Tube,* when I took the photograph above. I’m much more used to seeing it from the position of the driver of the silver car, or from pavement level. When the Hoover factory was designed in the early-1930s by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, the last thing the architects were thinking about was what their building looked liked from the top of a bus. Their main thought would have been for the result when seen at ground level – that and the host of other things that preoccupy the designer of a large industrial building: everything from getting the interior spaces to work for their intended purpose to making sure the building is completed on time and within budget. They might even be surprised that their building, years after Hoover moved out, having undergone two changes of use, is still, triumphantly, there.

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*The name of a coach service that runs between Oxford and London

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

London, on the overground, southbound

Scene with cranes

Back in October 2008 I wrote a post about Battersea Power Station, then in sore need of care, which I spotted as I passed it on a train. I began my post with these words:

It would take a Piranesi to do justice to the shell of London’s Battersea Power Station, vast, roofless, and decaying by the side of Chelsea Bridge. I was reminded of it recently as I crossed the bridge in a train from Victoria on my way to a meeting, and I photographed it hastily through the dirty window of the carriage. Hence this picture, as far a cry from Piranesi as possible.

After lamenting the building’s condition, I described it and its history very briefly, dwelling on the huge size of its brick structure, the role of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in designing its Art Deco details, its influence on later power stations, and the various schemes that had been hatched to restore it.* The other day I passed it again on the overground and aimed the camera of my mobile through the window. This time my photograph was a little brighter, even though the weather that day was far from sunny and I had just missed being drenched in a downpour.† As I looked at the building with the various bright new structures appearing around it, all surrounded by a forest of cranes, I wondered if its prospects were similarly bright.

What I could make out as the train accelerated towards Clapham Junction was the power station’s four fluted chimneys, made of pre-cast concrete blocks, and one stretch of brick wall, recessed in a pattern of verticals. Everything else is hidden by scaffolding and other buildings, completed or under construction. I was glimpsing a work in progress then, which will see the power station as the heart of new ‘mixed-use neighbourhood’ incorporating shops, offices, and apartments, a mega-scheme that is clearly proceeding apace. The power station itself is being redeveloped by architects WilkinsonEyre (no relation) to provide some of the most prestigious apartments in the complex. Many of the essential elements of the building will be preserved, others will go, but the new work will, we are told, “pay homage to its history”. A lot will be different – there’ll be a bit poking out at the top, for a start§ – but the corner towers and chimneys will remain, at least, and buyers are promised interiors that “resonate with [the original building’s] irrepressible character”.

Well, I hope the character won’t be repressed. We’ll see. But looking at the plans and the buildings that are already up, it seems unlikely that I’ll be seeing much of it from the train, though I might from a river boat. In the meantime I’m crossing my fingers that the noble structure is not totally subsumed by new build, and that the resulting flats are bought by people who actually live in them.

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* There had been a clutch of such schemes, involving everything from flats to a theme park.

† At least some of the brightness is due to the better quality of smartphone cameras these days.

§ There is so often a bit poking out at the top. Sometimes, aesthetically, it is a disaster.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Further into the past

Space, time and wallpaper, 2

If the Architectural Review was often looking forward, in January 1947 it also allowed itself a backward glance. That month marked the magazine’s 50th anniversary. A long article summarizes its editorial approach throughout this period, and then switches its gaze forward to how it might look at things in the new half century. Over those first 50 years, the Archie Rev had welcomed the opportunities provided by new technologies, chronicled the rise of modern design, and praised the work of pioneers such as Perret, Loos, and Le Corbusier. But it had also paid tribute to the great figures who were in a different tradition: Gothic revival architects or Cuthbert Brodrick – or William Morris.

So it is that this issue of the magazine has a William Morris wallpaper on the cover – or at least one produced by the Arts and Crafts leader’s firm, Morris, Marshall and Faulkner; the actual designer of the paper was Morris’s friend Philip Webb. After all, as the caption to the cover points out, it was high time in 1947, that Morris’s firm became the subject of proper historical research, and the magazine contributes to this with an article on the firm’s work at St James’s Palace. This very paper, in fact, was produced, in olive green and gold, for the Armoury at the palace. Often looking to the future, sometimes shocking the bourgeoisie, but generally offering hope, the Architectural Review could also pay tribute to tradition.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Into the past

Space, time and wallpaper, 1

Stuck at home meeting a deadline, I found myself taking a break by looking through some of the old copies of The Architectural Review that had been passed on to me by a friend, who’d found them during that melancholy but necessary process of clearing her parents’ house. The magazines’ original owner had already done a discerning job of removing the parts of the magazine that didn’t interest him – the casualties included many of the advertisements, which in retrospect is understandable but a pity: some of the ads that survived are fascinating.

What struck me in this ceaseless journey into the past was the feeling of hope that kept emerging in the early-1940s, a sense that in spite of the bombing, the deaths, and the relentless destruction of buildings, there was a future that architects could plan for. Indeed many architects must have been fighting or engaged in other war work, and those left in their offices would have been shoring up tottering structures or designing shadow factories or buildings on air bases.

To some, the idea of producing an architectural magazine at all must have seemed like a luxury in such troubled times. And what got printed was sometimes austere – the printing was in black and white, and the contents presented a telling blend of hopeful reports on new buildings in places like Sweden with stark – though often hauntingly beautiful – photographs of bombed buildings, from Hove to Hull. Occasionally, they were allowed a splash of colour on the cover, though even here it could be a single colour, meaning just one more plate on the press.

And so it was that readers in July 1945 were greeted with this striking cover when their Archie Rev flopped on to the doormat. Some of them must have wondered what parallel universe they strayed into now. This unusual pattern (yes, it is a pattern, although the cover is not big enough to show this), commemorates an exhibition of wallpapers held in London. A caption inside the magazine answers the reader’s bafflement:

Four pages of this issue are devoted to the Wallpaper Exhibition recently held in London. One of its major sections consisted of designs for post-War wallpapers and several of these were by Graham Sutherland. This month’s cover is a full size reproduction of one of his designs – a pattern which combines the strange animation of root or cartilage forms with the pleasant liveliness of traditional all-over designs. It is good to see that we can have busy, unostentatious, small-scale pattern without having to rely entirely on the chintzy flora of the past. The colouring on the cover is one of several suggested by the artist and shown at the exhibition.

Inside are more images – in black and white, alas – of other recent patterns on display. They are mostly made up of stripes, spots, and other abstract elements, some arranged in regimental columns, others more freely drawn. A couple of the more successful foliage designs are also illustrated. In 1945, none of these papers had much chance of getting produced. There were tight controls on the production and supply ofd paper, and few people, I’d guess, were papering walls. The designs were a glance towards a better future. People needed something new to look forward to, and in 1945 hopes that the war would end soon were at last realistic. But it would take another six years, and the Festival of Britain, for Lucienne Day’s bright and popular fabric designs to lead the way towards brighter interiors.