thehuzzingsea

'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: London

After the Fire – the Great Fire of London

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This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (Credit London Fire Brigade)

There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.

In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.

In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.

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Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.

After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

The émigrés who built modernism

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Glasgow School of Art (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) Credit – John Peter Photography/Alamy

Finsbury Health Centre in London, De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank were important urban developments during inter-war 20th century Britain. Now rightly categorised as landmarks, each of them has a commonality worth pondering in the context of the social narrative dominating political discourse in modern-day Britain and Ireland (England, especially). Each building was designed, wholly or in part, by refugees or émigrés.

Reading Alan Powers’ excellent 100 Years of Architecture, which begins in 1914, it is striking to see the positive role played by immigrants in their new communities in an age defined by upheaval and mass movement of people. The book traces the path modernism beat through the 20th century; it is well written, smartly defined and put together, and a pleasure to leaf through (Powers disputes categorising all the building selections under the modernism label, but that’s a moot point).

The residual positivity and original thinking one finds in early- to mid-century modernism is remarkable, and its legacy remains in the buildings that are still relevant and used today. This era saw an England that welcomed Erich Mendelsohn as a refugee in 1933, when he began working with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff.

A year later they had won the competition to build De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, which created a space for the public to enjoy a seaside setting; a simple, but nourishing pleasure. The sweeping, cantilevered, glazed staircase inside is a modernist icon and thankfully the pavilion remains a concert and arts space, or simply somewhere you can rest your limbs in an Aalto chair.

Polish-born Mendelsohn served in the first World War and soon made his name in designing what became known as the Einstein Tower – a 1924 commission for an observatory to prove the scientist’s theory that gravity changed the colour of light. Mendelsohn also designed an exemplary shop style with the Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz five years later and after his time in England, he worked in Palestine (under British Mandate) where he produced the impressive Hadassah Hospital and Medical School at Mount Scopus in 1939, before eventually settling in the United States.

Work on Finsbury Health Centre began the same year De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935, and was based on plans by Berthold Lubetkin. An émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin arrived in England in 1932 and was soon creating waves in architecture with his newly-established partnership Tecton.

The health centre was ambitious for its time: doctors’ consultation rooms, a dental surgery, lecture hall, solarium and antenatal facilities were some of the features inside a markedly modern-looking building.

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Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, England, Dom. Paul Bellot (1876–1944) Credit – John Henshall/Alamy

German-born Peter Moro was also an émigré, and a former assistant to Lubetkin. As interior designer, Moro became one of the visionaries behind the Royal Festival Hall (alongside Robert Matthews and Leslie Martin as part of the London County Council). The opening of the new festival hall coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. As Powers notes, it came from the “pent-up ideas of 15 years of wartime austerity and its aftermath burst forth in a collaborative team effort”.

The building helped transform the Southbank area on the Thames into one of the main public arteries in the heart of London. Here, in one space, we find the openness and internationalism the city embraced, and which defines it today; the place pulses with energy.

The bestowal of buildings built by ‘foreigners’ is acknowledged long after the fact, although it can be lost in a present climate dominated by thoughts of getting rid of émigrés; preventing them coming in to our countries; building walls to keep them out.

A dominant right-wing political establishment and media in both Britain and Ireland has forced this shameful agenda. The debate on the Brexit referendum, for example, became a debate on immigration after it was hijacked and distorted with misinformation from the Leave campaign.

In Ireland a similar agenda was set during the boom and bust years, when the arbiters of power initially attempted to deflect blame towards foreigners for the country’s economic woes.

Context is everything. The ruling elites and hypocritical media moguls tell us that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is to blame for problems in society or any strains on infrastructure.

In the context of the last century we can say the left has won the argument. Gone are the slums, diseases, and impoverishment of the working classes; gained are universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights and a standard of living that means we are all living longer than any generation before. But the left has been shouted down by the bullying, contemptible, vested-interests of the rich and privileged.

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AN866F Leicester University Faculty of Engineering, England, 1959 – 1963. Exterior of workshops and office and laboratory tower.

Going back to Finsbury Health Centre, there is a pertinent poster designed by the talented Abram Games in 1942 that features in Powers’ book. The image shows a sleek new health centre being positioned in a grim bombed-out site that has a headstone and the word ‘disease’ scrawled on a wall. Above the building it says ‘Your Britain’ and beside it ‘Fight For It Now’. In the shadows lurks a child suffering from rickets. The poster was withdrawn though, after Winston Churchill deemed it would be bad for public morale during wartime. Context is everything.

Modernist architecture was winning the argument of the last century (on points at least), until it was stiffed by the moneyed classes. As Powers notes, it ‘converges through this 100-year period towards a greater sameness in line with globalisation’.

Years of property speculation, government deference to neo-liberal capitalism, and a dulling of public engagement by the infliction upon us of mass consumption means we no longer look to architecture for the betterment of society. We no longer think of architecture as something for us. Many new buildings have little impact on our communities; do not create spaces for public enjoyment. Instead we have cloistered office blocks, silly garden bridges, or hubristic high rises that offer little but a blot on the skyline, or ostentatious symbols of corporate greed.

Powers remains impartial and admirably restrained throughout his book; it is certainly not polemical. One has no sense that he feels deflated by modernism, or that the movement is defeated, despite being tarnished by all the -isms of the 20th century. There is no inkling that he has a pining for a return to classical forms either.

It is telling that the buildings selected in the last quarter century of the book are mainly cultural centres: galleries, opera houses, museums etc. All worthy ventures of course, but again they are buildings that are usually monetised – enjoyment of them is linked to cash – and it’s unlikely they will draw in people outside of the middle- or upper-classes.

Modernism now means that for every conscientious project such as the Student Centre Building at Cork Institute of Technology or FAT’s New Islington Houses in Manchester, we must suffer a Shard or Cheesegrater (The Leadenhall Building) in London. This is the pay-off. We know which of these types of buildings shouts the loudest. We also know, and must not forget, which buildings give people a say.

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers (Laurence King Publishing) is out now

  • Article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/

Great London Pubs: One Princess worth fawning over

 

An impressive lady, the Princess Louise. She discretely catches your eye as you pass on a relatively drab stretch of High Holborn, where you will find that her beauty lies within, rather than without.

The exterior is a paint-by-numbers pub, but inside is where all the magic and charm happens. Here we have the remnants of Victorian craftsmanship at its finest: beautifully cut and gilded mirrors (Richard Morris of Kennington); default atmosphere, whatever the time of day, from the gentle gloaming of tulip and snowdrop-shaped lights. Add in some tasteful abstract tile work, detailed and decorated borders, and the Princess Louise may as well whisper in your ear to stop a while.

The elongated, circular dark-oak bar cleverly runs the punters’ energy around both sides of the house, creating a smart circuit of comfort. As a result, the staff are like buses when you are looking for a refill – you always knows one should be along shortly.

The Princess Louise does another smart thing: it divides and conquers. The front and back of the pub are opened up, allowing for larger groups to gather and sup, while a series of snugs feature on both sides of the bar. One always feels connected to the place, wherever you may be sitting, yet the snugs allow enough detachment so that you will never blow a fuse when it gets very busy (which can always be the case at knocking-off time for nearby workers).

 

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The great writer (and legendary imbiber) Ian Nairn said that any long bar implies serious drinking and the Princess Louise has lots of leg. But this is a sturdy, meaty leg, not some dainty Victorian ‘church-bell’ flashing glimpses of garter. This is a pub that pumps its legs all day, every day, and is always sensitive and alive to performance, which makes it most pleasing on the eye. My favourite feature is the tall clock-tower in the middle of the bar, where time literally stands still. Here, it is always noon. High noon in High Holborn, with high praise attached.

  • The Princess Louise is a short skip from John Soane’s house/museum, so why not pop in there first for a tour to clarify the eye, before calling at the pub to lubricate the gullet.

Great London Pubs: A mighty Oak

The Royal Oak44 Tabard Street, Borough, London SE1 4JU

Everything about the Royal Oak pub in Borough has a hand-covered-cough quality to it – from the moment you step in through its doors, you are aware of being in the presence of quiet greatness; it’s up to you if you wish to acknowledge it or not.

Understated beauty runs throughout the bar, from its dark oak to the chandeliers; there is evident pride in all its tradition, but not to the point of stuffiness. Spending a few hours here feels like getting reacquainted with an old friend: one feels at ease right away thanks to Paul and the well-trained staff (finding a London pub with staff that prides itself in their trade is as refreshing as a cool draught of lager on a balmy August afternoon). There are comfortable seats by large windows, while there is ample room to lean at the bar too. The bar is split between two rooms, which gives the Royal Oak one of its most charming features: a kind of cubbyhole, with a latch that allows a third bar. Punters in for a swift one can order and sup standing here, with the option of perusing the second-hand books for sale stacked by the walls (I picked up a Saul Bellow novel for £1.50).

The Royal Oak is owned by Harveys, so the ale (Pale, Mild, Best) is excellent and a great price for London. The food menu is impressive too – it would be hard to better the Sunday roast – and there is a discerning wine list as well. The absence of any music, TV, or cursed fruit machines is welcome and puts conversation front and centre stage in the style of many of the great Irish pubs. This place is an ideal spot for the elbow-touching chats converged over a few jars, or if you are a solo traveller, it is a happy setting to while away the day with a newspaper or book. The rocking chair set in the corner is a fitting symbol of the pub: its metronomic motion is a happy measure of time well spent; your troubles or strife will soon be set back on its heels after an hour or two here.

In the Royal Oak, you are more than happy to abandon the day to the notion. 

From its modest exterior, the Royal Oak could appear to have little going for it to the unknowing eye. But step across its threshold and you will discover a depth and delight that will have you dragging friends here time and time again.

The Royal Oak sits in the vast shadow of St George the Martyr church, and although it may bow its head in deference to its much grander neighbours, it need not have any feelings of inferiority. The pub’s well-preserved heritage and, for want of a better word, sober charm will find plenty of converts for years to come. Here is a pub to salve any soul that passes through its doors for a sup and a seat.

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