I actually thought it might be a good idea. It was certainly an idea worth exploring, and perhaps wacky/left field enough to work; plant a hill in the centre of the city, with flowers and trees. Bring a spot of the old rus to the very urbe Oxford Street. Give Nash’s poor, lost, isolated Marble Arch a bit of company.
Mind you, I thought it was going to be an actual hill – several thousand tons of soil compacted into a new knoll/tor/hillock. I didn’t think it would be just a web of scaffolding covered in rolls of sedum and sparse saplings. Nor did I know that the budgeted cost was £2 million (with an actual cost of £6 million: Six. Million. Quid).
There are quite a number of ‘Holland Houses’ in the capital – the remains of a Jacobean country home in Holland Park, Kensington; a school in Edgware; a student hostel near Victoria – but it’s only outside Holland House in Bury Street in The City (a stone’s throw from the Gherkin), that they still fly the Dutch flag.
This Holland House dates from 1916 and is sometimes called the first modern office block in London. Designed by the Dutch modernist architect Henrik Petrus Berlage, it was the first steel-framed building in Europe, with walls of green glazed terracotta bricks (shipped in from Delft) rising from a black plinth. (It is also said to be the first office block in Britain to have an atrium.)
Let’s be clear about that from the start; it’s not a moat – it’s a lake. Well, that’s according to the US Embassy.
We’re talking about the stretch of water that separates the main embassy building (or, more properly, the ‘Chancery’ of the Embassy) from the road. There’s a patch of green space that one can walk through and a cascading fountain. It doesn’t surround the building, but its purpose is for security, a further level of protection from anyone driving a car or truck from the road towards the main structure. That makes it a moat in my book.
The effect is reinforced by the cuboid nature of the building, one which echoes the medieval keeps of castles – think of William the Conqueror’s White Tower – and one can even see aspects of Iron Age forts in the earthworks that hide protective concrete bollards.
The Victorians loved the medieval. The ‘gothic revival’ actually started earlier – in the late 1700s/early 1800s as a reaction to classicism – but it was mid-century that saw it flourish.
For many, this architectural style is far too ‘fussy’ – there is just too much detail, colour, decoration, too much of everything. But despite the best efforts of many architects, planners and developers in the mid-20th century, much of the Victorian Gothic survives. Think of the work of George Gilbert Scott – the Midland Hotel at St Pancras; St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington; the Albert Memorial – or Street’s Royal Courts of Justice, or the elaborate detailing outside and inside the House of Parliament.
“Miss 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 ““One of the sights of London””
I’ve tried hard to like the Walkie Talkie, Rafael Vinoly’s skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. The thing dominates the surrounding streets, blocking out the whole sky from the narrow cobbled alleyways that lead up to Eastcheap, and its solitary position away from the cluster of tall glass and steel buildings that form the new vertical City means it intrudes into views from Waterloo Bridge and along the south bank, as well as seeming to loom over the Tower of London.
It is blessed, though, with a wonderful, free viewing gallery – a couple of floors of space some 150m up – higher than the London Eye – and with a 360 degree view of the capital.
This is the Sky Garden. The architect’s plans (of course) were for a mini-Kew, a verdant ‘public park’ accessible to all; it hasn’t quite worked out like that (of course). The accessibility involves navigating a clunky website to book tickets (which are released every other Monday), queuing to get through ticket barriers, trudging through airport-style security, and then queuing for the lift. Continue reading “Up on the Roof”
Before 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.
In 1978, the year after architect Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, construction started on his first major London project, The Lloyd’s Building in Lime Street.
Built to house the London Insurance Market, this was the first “high tech” building in the UK and there is still nothing quite like it.
The building is “inside out”, with the service functions placed on the exterior. The pipework and air conditioning ducts wrapped around the outside, the glass lifts scooting up the outside walls, the corner staircases like corkscrew metal are all still a delight to behold. But the concept is not decorative per se: it allows for easy replacement and maintenance of the facilities, and it means the inside can be open and flexible, with uninterrupted activity on each level. Rogers has designed other buildings in London since Lloyd’s, but none provoke the same sense of looking at something otherworldly. Continue reading “The Lloyd’s Building”
Climb 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 “The Monument”
They 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 “London in Miniature”