Category Archives: london

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

 

lammassu-1-1The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square was meant to have an equestrian statue of William IV, but funding could not be raised (this was in 1841, just four years after his death). Over the next 150 years, various proposals for permanent statues on the plinth came and went (and the space might still be used for HMQ when she eventually turns up her royal toes), then in 1998 the RSA commissioned three temporary sculptures (including a witty Rachel Whiteread cast of the plinth itself) and from 2005 there have been a succession of commissions.

These included Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (now outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich*), Hans Haake’s “Gift Horse”, and Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant”. There was also a wonderful Anthony Gormley project where, over 100 days, 2400 members of the public were each given an hour each on the plinth to do what they liked.

For the past two years (and due to be replaced early in 2020) the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has been displaying a piece from his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. This is an attempt by Rakowitz to recreate some of the more than 7,000 objects from Iraqi culture which have been lost forever:  some were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, others were destroyed at archaeological sites across the country during the Iraq War, still more were destroyed during the period of the Islamic State.

The Trafalgar Square piece is a lammassu, a protective spirit of ancient Assyria, a winged bull, with the head of a man. Rakowitz’s reconstructions are made from recycled packaging from Middle Eastern foodstuffs and this artwork is made from 10,500 empty date syrup cans: a once-renowned Iraqi industry now decimated by war. On the side of the Lamassu is an inscription in Cuneiform which reads: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, had the inner and outer wall of Ninevah built anew and raised as high as mountains.

lammassu-1In the British Museum you can walk between other lammassu, built as guardians to entrances to Assyrian palaces, including the biggest objects in the museum, the giant ‘Winged bulls’ from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (close to modern day Mosul, ironically the ‘capital’ of the Isis ‘caliphate’).

 

 *Poor William IV. He eventually got a statue, near the top of the old London Bridge, which was moved to the National Maritime Museum in 1935. This is now completely upstaged by Shonibare’s work.

Number One London

 

800px-apsley_house_1You’re likely to have been past this place several hundred times, because Apsley House is the big, honey-coloured building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, facing into the traffic with its back to the park.

Formerly the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo, Prime Minister under George IV and William IV, the house is still occupied by the current, 9th, Duke.

That particular corner of the Park is awash with Wellington monuments (it was once called Wellington Place). The Wellington Arch (through which the Household Cavalry ride each morning, and under which the cycle path runs) is in the centre of the glorified traffic island, and close by, facing the house, is a mounted statue (by Joseph Boehm) of the Duke himself, flanked by a grenadier, a Scottish highlander, an Irish Dragoon and a Welsh Guard. And in the Park, just behind the house is the actual ‘Wellington Monument’, a statue of Achilles by sculptor Richard Westmacott, cast in bronze from cannons capture at Waterloo and erected in 1822. Achilles was the subject of some controversy when it was unveiled as it is a nude (except for a fig leaf), and so felt by some to be an outrage to public decency.

The house was bought by the Duke (from his own brother, who needed the cash) with some of the £700,000 given to him by the state after the final defeat of Napoleon. That’s an amount of money worth about £90 million in today’s prices. The original house was by Robert Adam and was considerably smaller; Wellington commissioned Benjamin Dean Wyatt to extend and radically remodel the place – and had the classic client/architect relationship, in that Wellington fell our with Wyatt about time and cost overruns to the extent that he refused to speak to him. Continue reading

“One of the sights of London”

buzz-bingo-1Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this” wrote Ian Nairn in his 1966 guide, Nairn’s London. A Nash terrace? A Wren church? No – the inside of Buzz Bingo in Tooting.

Of course, Nairn din’t know it as a bingo hall, but as the Granada cinema, and it dates from 1931, a sumptuous expression of Art Deco design (interiors by the Russian-born director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky) that now has Grade I listed status.

It was a monster auditorium that could seat 3,000 patrons, the owner of the Granada chain, Sidney Bernstein, reckoning that the transport connections of Tooting Broadway’s multiple bus routes, underground station and the nearby overground would pull in customers from across south west London and beyond (at that time the border of the county of London and Surrey was close by, and Surrey did not permit cinemas to be open on Sundays, while London did). Continue reading

The Bomb Damage maps

st-pauls

During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.

Take a look at the example above, the area around St Paul’s cathedral showing the destruction caused by ‘the second great fire of London’ on the night of 29/30 December 1940, when huge swathes of the City burned and the firefighters struggled to contain the conflagration.

Generally speaking, the further east one goes the more the damage, the docks being a strategic target for the Luftwaffe, but there is hardly a district that didn’t have some bombs falling, regardless of whether they were close to ‘legitimate targets’ or simply the rows of residential terraces. (The ‘Bomb Sight’ project maps these.) As well as the damage caused by the main Blitz of 1940/41, the LCC also recorded the impacts of the V1s and V2s in 1944 and 1945, these terror weapons falling genuinely randomly across the capital.

The maps have been available in book form for some time, and each visit I make to the Cabinet War Rooms I leaf through a copy and wonder how to justify the thick end of fifty quid. However, today those lovely people at Layers of London made the map available online, but it’s even better than that.

Because the whole concept of Layers of London is that one can superimpose historic maps on those of the present, or merge two multiple old maps together, making the historic relatable to the present or to another period. So one can look at the bomb damage on a modern map, the maps of the 1960s, or even (should you wish to try it – and I have) in relation to 18thC maps of the city. Below is a screen grab of my street, with the bomb damage superimposed on the modern map (there is infill housing in both places).

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This is a stupendous and wonderfully generous piece of work, and I for one will be wasting several hours on the map over the next few days.

You can find Layers of London here.

Michael Fagan and Buckingham Palace

buckingham palace with lifeguardsThere might be red-coated soldiers from the elite Guards regiments standing sentry around it (not to mention large numbers of coppers with Big Guns), but Buckingham Palace isn’t quite as secure as you might think.

Queen Victoria suffered from the attentions of ‘The Boy Jones‘, who broke in on numerous occasions (stealing some of Victoria’s underwear at one point – insert “not amused” gag here). In 1981 three German backpackers, mistaking the palace gardens for Hyde Park, scrambled over the back wall of the gardens and camped out for the night.

But the most significant intrusion of recent times was that of Michael Fagan a 31 year old unemployed painter and decorator, who, in 1982, not only got into the main part of the Palace at least twice, but also managed to find the Queen’s bedroom and woke her up to ask for cigarettes. Continue reading

Billingsgate

img_3945It’s five a.m. – 5 o’clock in the morning – in a misty Canary Wharf. You can’t see the top of 1 Canada Square and there are few lights on in the HSBC HQ, but where I am is buzzing with workers and shoppers.

I’m at Billingsgate Fish Market, one of London’s historic wholesale produce markets, the places – like Smithfield, Covent Garden, Spitalfields – that used to feed London.

And, despite the supermarkets and the chain restaurants, they still do to a certain extent. Around Billingsgate you’ll see buyers for fishmongers and restaurants, notebooks in hand, buying boxes of fish that are then loaded onto big steel trolleys by the white-clothed porters and taken out to the buyers’ vans. (“Your legs. Your legs” is the warning shout of the porters as they hurtle down the aisles.) Continue reading

The Development Plan for Greater London

lonsoc-london-plan-e1406632951632Before Abercrombie and Forshaw, with their 1943 and 1944 plans for modernising London , with new ring roads, ‘zoned’ areas and satellite new towns, there was the London Society‘s Development Plan.

Put together between 1914 and 1918 (the coincidence that both plans were the product of wartime is interesting), the Society’s plan grew out of a widespread feeling in the early part of the 20th Century that London had grown too much, too rapidly and without any overall supervision. At the RIBA Town Planning Conference in 1910, William Riley, architect of the London County Council, said that London was “one of the most costly examples of the evils resulting from the lack of proper [planning]”.

From the 1910 conference came the London Society,  its founder members including Riley, Sir Aston Webb (architect of the front of the V+A and the processional route along the Mall), Raymond Unwin (the architect-planner of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Letchworth Garden City) and a wide array of other architects and planners (including the splendidly named Arthur Beresford Pite)., politicians, newspaper moguls and businessmen.

Identifying transport infrastructure as key to the capital (plus ca change) the Society proposed that one body should be responsible for developing the arterial roads into and across the city, and its 1918 plan proposed a whole new network of main roads, by passes, the north and south circular and a new orbital road way that prefigures the M25 by several decades.

Allied to this were proposals for “new parks, parkways and waterside reservations”, connected by belts of green parkways, and the nationalisation of the railways to better control and coordinate the passenger and goods traffic coming into and through London.

The Plan was incredibly influential. In practical terms its concept of the ‘green belt’ was accepted and many of the roads it suggested were built, but more broadly, its idea that the growth of cities could be planned and managed with a view to making these developments better places to live and to work was widely embraced. Further plans and activity followed, and it’s fair to say that this work formed the foundation of Abercrombie’s vision.

You can buy a copy of the original plan, along with descriptive notes and context of the London plans at the London Society website.

Bye bye bonfire night

Over 400 years of tradition is coming to an end in London:- the public celebration of Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night.

Of course there are still some fireworks shows to go to, but these are now (with one or two exceptions) tightly-controlled, ticket-only, paid events. And they are displays of fireworks, disassociated from the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ of the rhyme; Guy-less, ahistorical.

Ten years ago one could – and I did – watch the free fireworks on Clapham Common and see in the distance the rockets from Lambeth’s other free shows in Brockwell Park and Tooting Bec. After cutting back these shows from three to one, this year Lambeth have axed the fireworks completely. In Wandsworth the free fireworks across the borough were condensed into the expensive Battersea Park event years ago, and it’s a similar story in Wimbledon and across the rest of the capital. Continue reading

The Monument

dsc_0100Climb the 311 stairs today to the top of the Monument and the view lays out the 21st century City. To the north the Walkie Talkie seems close enough to touch, and behind that are the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, Heron Tower and the other towers of skyscraper alley.

To the south the view is dominated by the Shard, but the Elephant and Castle developments are now starting to block that horizon; the east has the packed legoland towers of Canary Wharf.

The west gives some relief with a great view of St Paul’s and down the river to Westminster, but look down into the City and one can see the current building boom with cranes and construction sites all around. Continue reading

London in Miniature

IMG_0657They don’t make as big a deal of it as they should, but at the Building Centre in Store Street (off Tottenham Court Road, and just round the corner from the British Museum) there is the most fantastic architectural model of London.

You can see the capital stretch out in front of you, from Stratford in the east right across to Old Oak Common, and from Primrose Hill in the north down to Nine Elms.

There are the clusters of skyscrapers in the City and Canary Wharf, the new developments at Battersea and Paddington. You can take in the ordered streets and quiet squares; notice the Eye, the Orbit, the Post Office (Telecom) Tower and the way the river weaves along, and appreciate the extraordinary amount of green space with which London is blessed. Continue reading