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.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

The Sentinel, or, odd things in churches (12)
In 1671, the justices of Oxford ordered all parishes in the county to keep a fire engine. This one is a survivor from that period – or at least from the 18th century – and is thought to have been made by Richard Newsom or Newsham of Cloth Fair, London.* Nowadays the church seems an odd place to keep a fire engine, but in the 17th ands 18th centuries it made a lot of sense. Everyone knew where the church was, it would probably have been left unlocked (or the key holder would be widely known), and churches were often, though by no means always, in the middle of the village. In any case there were few alternatives in most parishes: the church was the only public building. So fire engines, consisting basically of a handful-operated pump and tank on wheels, were often stored in churches, along with other equipment, such as metal hooks on long poles that were used to pull burning thatch off roofs.

Church records often show expenditure on maintaining a fire engine. At Hook Norton there’s also a record of money paid to buy a fire hook for the village. One wonders how effective these devices would have been. But in isolated rural parishes there was little alternative to whatever basic aid the locals could give. And in many places that no doubt involved a few men and a hand pump. This one at Hook Norton, known apparently as the Sentinel, was still in use in the 1890s. Now it seems to be used mainly as a stand for leaflets and hassocks. But at least it is still there, along with a fire hook and bucket, glowing resplendently red after a restoration a few years ago.

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* This engineer made a similar fire engine in Wiltshire that I’ve come across previously.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Domes and silk stockings

I make occasional trips to Somerset and sometimes, having left the house early, stop off for a coffee somewhere en route. Bridgwater is one of my occasional stopping places. To some, it’s an unassuming town with a rather nondescript High Street, but there are plenty of architectural discoveries to be made (one of the best early Georgian streets in Britain, a Victorian concrete house) for anyone prepared to look. This building, with its square dome, is a landmark at one end of the town and it quickly caught my eye. ‘An early-20th century theatre,’ I thought to myself, and I was partly right. What was originally the Empire Theatre opened in 1916 with a performance of a play called A Pair of Silk Stockings. But the venue showed movies as well, making it one of the first wave of cinemas in Britain, a wave that was turning into a steady stream by 1916, as more and more people began to want to see ‘moving pictures’.*

If some of the very first purpose-built cinemas were rather anonymous-looking buildings with little to identify them apart from large boards for posters advertising what was showing, some adopted a theatrical look, or were indeed converted theatres or dual-purpose buildings like the Palace. Already, some people were starting to realise that a showy or glamorous looking facade with features like the Palace’s tower and dome, and its round window, decorative swags, and classical pilasters, helped draw the eye and bring in the customers.† A good 700 people per screening were accommodated in the interwar period, followed by many members of the armed forces when it became an ENSA venue during World War II.¶ But afterwards it was less successful, as going out to a film was steadily replaced by staying in and watching television. After a long period unused in the 1980s and 1990s, the Palace became a night club, like many of its kind. It may look a little dishevelled, but it’s still an eye-catcher.

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* Britain’s first cinema opened in London’s Regent Street in 1896. By 1909 the wave was starting to break, with cinemas in places as diverse as Birmingham and Colwyn Bay.

† It was said originally to have been in the Moorish style; I wonder if that means the interior. The outside seems solidly Classical.

¶ ENSA: Entertainments National Service Association, set up to provide entertainment for members of the forces during the war.