Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rushey Green, London

We are amused

'Give us more architectural cats,' requests a friend, in the wake of Shugborough's classical maritime mouser and Fairford's ecclesiastical feline. This is not, I suspect, quite what she had in mind. But the Catford Cat, a fibreglass sculpture poised above the entrance to a small shopping centre opposite the green in this southeast London town centre has long been a treasured landmark. The shopping centre was built in the early 1970s to designs by the Owen Luder partnership, which had also produced the more architecturally famous office block Eros House nearby. Owen Luder and his brilliant architectural partner Rodney Gordon, who did most of the actual designing, were Brutalists. The cat is a surprising prelude to a Brutalist building and has elicited responses that range from, 'What could they have been thinking of?' to 'Why not?'

It's my imagination of course, but in my mind's ear I can hear the discussion in the meeting when the architect came up with idea.
'Catford. It's a bit anonymous. And the place is rather, well, stiff these days.* It needs an identity. What better than a gigantic statue of a cat? Right over the entrance to the shopping centre.'
'A gigantic cat? Come on.'
'Yes. The place needs a bit of softening up. But not too soft. Not a Persian or a Siamese. A street cat. Black and white. After all, the area is a bit of a mixture of…'
'All right, all right. And how do you propose to get a whacking great sculpture up there and support it?'
'Easy. We're not talking the Burghers of Calais. Make it out of fibreglass. And we could call the parade of small shops Catford Mews.'

However the original decision was made, the Catford Cat, reaching down from its lofty perch to take a swipe at the pigeons and pedestrians on the pavement below, has been a familiar and well loved landmark on Rushey Green for around 40 years. And for all those who say that Catford, the butt of comedians from Billy Cononlly to Doon Mackichan, deserves such kitsch, there are as many who smile fondly as they pass by, and even a few who, making a pause for thought, reflect that such an outsize dose of humour wouldn't be likely in the glassed-over, gated-in, hyped-up malls of more recent vintage, and that the Catford Cat is not altogether a bad thing.

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* Ian Nairn, revered architectural critic (see foot of right-hand column), had said in his book Nairn's London that the main street of Catford had been given some much-needed 'stiffening up' by Owen Luder's Brutalist Eros House.


Emma said...

Amazing what a bucket of paw lickin' good KFC chicken can do for a cat!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Emma: Indeed. It sure beats a diet of feral pigeon.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Context is all: a 1970s shopping centre normally wouldn't inspire affection, but in that street with the pale brick buildings a comic cat sticking out might at very least stop you getting lost, as I did near the Edgware Road. City planners have a vested interest in not making their districts into same-y conformist streets all like one another, especially for some "vurriner" who might switch off to the details of unfamilar urban architecture.

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: Indeed. Some of these bits of London, with their brick fronts and standardized shop signs, cry out for a good landmark.