Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bishopsgate, London

Stop and research

My photograph shows part of the façade of the Bishopsgate Institute in London. This building, opened in 1895, provides educational facilities including courses and a library and was but one of many institutes set up in this period by charities and communities to fulfil cultural and educational aims – in the words of the Institute’s website, ‘for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions, and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts’. The Institute is fortunate to be housed a stunner of a building, one of three major buildings in London (the others are the Whitechapel Art Gallery and South London’s excellent Horniman Museum) designed by the great turn-of-the-century architect Charles Harrison Townsend.

Townsend’s work, as is widely acknowledged, combines wonderfully the traditional values of the Arts and Crafts movement with the decorative flair of Art Nouveau. That decorative element is shown in the ornament on the Bishopsgate façade, created by architectural sculptor William Aumonier. There is an additional influence on Townsend’s style (noticed by the authors of the revised Pevsner volume on the City of London) – the work of the great American architects of the late-19th century, especially Henry Hobson Richardson. That generous entrance arch is a very Richardsonian touch.

I especially wanted to share the decoration on this building, but standing on the opposite side of Bishopsgate pointing my camera at it reminded me of something else. Back in 2004, when Peter Ashley and I were doing preliminary work on The English Buildings Book (see right), I asked Peter to take a photograph of the striking police station up the street from the Institute. This simple, but perhaps naïve, request led Peter into a long and rather sticky ‘conversation’ with the police: ‘You nearly got me arrested,’ he said to me the next day.

This all came back to me the other day when I read in the paper complaints by photographers who had been stopped and questioned for photographing apparently much less sensitive buildings in London (for example, St Paul’s Cathedral, another Wren church, a fish and chip shop, and 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin). It made me think that the authorities are taking things rather too far if photographers – professional or amateur – cannot stand outside a building in London and aim their camera at it without being questioned and, in some cases, required to delete from their memory cards the images they have made.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that the police need to go about their business, and part of that business includes measures to combat terrorism. As someone who knew one of the victims of the London bombings of July 2005 this is very much in my mind. But we also need to preserve the freedoms that terrorists would take away from us, and one of those freedoms, a significant one I’d argue, is to be able to stop, and look, and take photographs of our glorious built environment – and disseminate the resulting images and the fruits of our research for educational and cultural purposes. The founders of the Bishopsgate Institute would, I hope, have agreed with that.


Zoe Brooks said...

It reminds of an experience I had when I was organising a community planning exhibition in Vauxhall, south London in the early 1990s. A photographer was taking photos for me of major buildings around Vauxhall Cross, when a policeman approached him. "What do you think you are doing?" he asked " You can't take a photo of that" and he pointed at the large Terry Farrell building that fronts on to the river.

"Oh why not?" said the photographer.

"Because, because it's sensitive."

At this point then policeman found himself in difficulty. MI5, whose headquarters the building was going to be, at that time did not officially exist. So the policeman blustered and had to let the photographer continue.

How things have changed! If you go to the official MI5 website there on the front page is a photo of the building.

Chris Partridge said...

I got interrogated by a security guard for taking this:
I find that a courteous 'I have an interest in architectural sculptor and write a blog on the subject' usually fobs them off. I have noticed that real policemen immediately accept that, whereas 'community support officers' or whatever they are called this week tend to take much more convincing. Sadly, they are not very clever.
Oh, and the Bishopsgate Inst. I spent many miserable hours there in the last century failing my professional exams, so I've taken agin it.

Hels said...

Now I know the point of the article is about allowing or forbidding photography, but I want to examine the building.

Providing educational facilities and a library in 1895 at Bishopsgate Institute reminds me of the Victorian passion for self improvement and non-university education. A bit like the Mechanics' Institutes in Glasgow and later all across the Empire. See

I understand it was just one of many institutes set up by charities and communities to fulfil cultural and educational aims and for the advancement of literature etc, but I am extremely impressed by the building. Do you think it was built specially for the Bishopsgate Institute? It must have cost a fortune.

Our Mechanics Institutes ranged from the "cheap and nasty" to the "solid and functional". But your building looks as though it was aiming at a more up-market population.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Potok and ChrisP: Thanks for the reminiscences. These shared anecdotes are one of the interests of blogging.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: We too have (or have had, they don't all survive) many of these workers' institutes, often named for the trade that set them up - miners' institutes in Wales, mechanics' institutes in Midland England, etc. Funding sources varied and often, as you say, they are very basic buildings. The Bishopsgate Institute is a bit of an anomaly. In the City of London, the capital's mercantile and financial centre, many charities and endowments were set up over the centuries. Some of these throve, providing schools and fulfilling other important social functions; others, usually small ones, declined in value so that they provided little benefit to the community. There were many of these in the parish of St Botolph's, Bishopsgate, and someone had the idea of combining them to make one large endowment, to fund the building of the Institute. I'm not sure exactly how this worked (it would have necessitated some legal wrangling, I'm sure, to redirect money left for one purpose so that it could be used for something different), but that's the story in outline.