Congress House :  An Overlooked Modernist Masterpiece…

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

p1140932Without doubt one London’s finest modern sculptural masterpieces is perversely, also one of the most difficult to find, hidden away as it is in a beautiful green mosaic tiled (originally Carrera marble) and glass enclosed courtyard at the heart of one of London’s least known modern architectural gems.

The sculpture is easily one of Jacob Epstein’s most powerful works: A mother stands cradling her dead son, staring forlornly up into the sky, the look of pain and anguish clearly etched upon her face. The building is Congress House, the headquarters of the TUC, a building conceived in 1945, but not completed until 1957, and the story of these two modern masterpieces makes for quite an interesting read.

Congress House on Great Russell Street, just opposite the British Museum, was the result of a 1948 open competition, one of the first and largest post-war architectural competitions to be organised, and at a time when the likelihood of such a large, totally new structure being completed were severely limited by the restrictions and rationing of building materials.

The brief for the project, developed by the TUC over a number of years, had to address two key objectives: Firstly it was to provide a fitting memorial to those Trade Union members who had laid down their lives during the two World Wars, and secondly it was to provide high quality conference, education and meeting room facilities suitable for the progressive aspirations of the Union.

With over 170 entries submitted, choosing an outright winner was always going to be a challenge. All entries were put on public display, and though it’s not clear if the public had a say in the final choice (unlikely I would suggest in 1948), the eventual winner was announced by the RIBA as the (still) little known 35 year old English architect, David Du Rieu Aberdeen.

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Du Rieu Aberdeen’s scheme had as its focus a large open courtyard surrounded on three sides by the offices, library and committee rooms that were key to the new building. The fourth side, against which the proposed memorial sculpture would stand, was the existing end wall of Sir Edwin Lutyens YWCA building, and which was protected by local building regulations.  The floor of the courtyard was finished in a large, hexagonal segmented glazed structure, which also formed the ceiling of the below ground conference center and allowed light to flood into the subterranean spaces. Wherever possible materials were sourced (and often donated) from other trade unions and overseas labour organisations and included marble, polished granite and cedar, all of which added to the quality of the building and kept the costs within budget.

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Getting the project started proved to be difficult. Narrow streets, height restrictions imposed by the historic nature of the site (previously a brewery and a warren of alleyways known as “The Rookery”), the protection afforded the adjacent Lutyens building and an understandably rather chaotic post war approach to redevelopment, resulted in a 5 year delay between Du Aberdeen’s appointment and works beginning on site. On the positive side, the delays did allow Du Rieu Aberdeen to work comprehensively through the scheme in detail, giving due consideration to all aspects of its design, especially key elements such as the feature main staircase, the glazed conference center roof and the composition of the external elevations.

The style of the building took its cues from a number of sources. The curving plan forms, pilotis (columns) and ribbon like exteriors of Le Corbusier’s modernism being the obvious one, but there are also hints of the more naturalistic interwar Scandinavian modernism of architects such as Gunnar Apsland and Alvo Aalto.

It’s no coincidence I might suggest, that the building shares similarities with the Royal Festival Hall, conceived as they were around the same time, 1947/48, and in a Post War atmosphere of optimism that allowed the younger members of the architectural profession opportunities to show what Modernism might begin to offer.

It is also undoubtedly true that the huge political will driving the success of the Festival of Britain, qresulted in the Royal Festival Hall being completed on time in 1951, i.e. some seven years before Congress House was officially opened, a success that arguably stole its limelight in the eyes of the public, forever relegating it to relative obscurity.

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Jacob Epstein’s commission for the memorial sculpture came around 1955, two years after construction on the building had finally begun and is a masterful display of carving. The composition is loosely based on Michelangelo’s extraordinary Pietà at St. Peters Basilica in Rome, and with a scale (it stands almost 6 meters high on its pedestal) that leaves you in awe of the memorials presence. Epstein’s ability to manipulate solid stone to express human emotion and fragility almost leaves you speechless, creating a a wholly fitting and moving tribute to the sacrifice of the Unionist soldiers of the two wars.

In acknowledgement of the success of the project, in 1959 the RIBA awarded Du Rieu Aberdeen its prestigious Bronze Medal London Architecture Award and in March 1988 the building received Grade II Listed status securing it and Epstein’s wonderful sculpture for future generations to enjoy, describing it in the Listing as “as one of the most important institutional buildings erected in London, and one of the most significant 1950s buildings in Britain”.

Well worth a visit next time Open House comes around….

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This post is an edited version of one that first appeared in issue 22 of The Shrieking Violet from 2014.

New Neighbours….

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading about the recently announced Santiago Calatrava designed centerpiece of the Greenwich peninsular development, now named somewhat prosaically as Peninsular Place…

The beautifully crafted image below shows not only the magnificence of the River Thames meandering its way peacefully along, but if you look carefully you can also see our little flat, just over the river at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs…

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And then if you look again at the Peninsular itself, you will see what looks like thousands and thousands of new homes, in fact 15,720 new homes. Now, I don’t consider myself to be a nimby, far from it. I’m an Architect after all, involved in some pretty large residential and mixed use development schemes across London. We need homes, we need tens of thousands of affordable new homes going forward (the general feeling is about 200 thousand by the year 2020) so developments like this are both exciting and necessary…

And yet, and yet…

Is the image below really what we think future residential ares of London should look like? My partner quite rightly points out that this could be Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or Dubai… not saying that’s bad for them, but there’s not much that speaks of London about these rather ungainly shapes.. Calatrava is without doubt a gifted architect, but this to me looks very much misplaced, out of scale and borrowed from somewhere with an altogether different climate…

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And as for affordability, only 200 of the first phase of 800 new homes will be affordable, so whilst at 25% that’s an improvement on the average 10% that Boris managed, its still much lower than the 40% that good old Ken insisted on and the likely 60 to 70% that we really need if the upcoming generations are to have any hope of home ownership..

And then of course there’s the definition of affordability itself.. One beds over here on the Island are between £350K and £500K at the moment, and I can’t help but wonder how much similar homes will cost in 5 years time when they start to become available, probably not very affordable for your average Londoner…

Finally as you watch the video, try and image what the Jubilee Line will be like first thing on a Monday morning once its complete…

 

Jacob Epstein: The Immigrant bringing morals to the Oval Office

February 1, 2017 Leave a comment

An excellent piece by Jonathan Jones from the Guardian about the bust of Churchill by Jacob Epstein that seems to move in and out of the Oval Office in Washington depending on who’s in charge…

Trump has put it back center stage little realising  (or caring more than likley) the history that lies behind both the work and its creator.. Just goes to show how subversive sculpture can be.

Click the picture to read the full text…

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Shepard Fairey’s Posters of Hope (Again…)

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Shepard Fairey, the graffiti artist responsible for the immediately recognisable Obey and Obama Hope posters, has done it again and crafted some fine additions to his impressive cannon of work…


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Funded by a crowd sourcing campaign and printed and issued in their many thousands in time for the inauguration of the Bigoted One, they are, like most of Fairey’s work, simple and highly effective. Powerful images of diversity and equality with a hint of insurrection thrown in (the star spangled hijab is a powerful twist…)

God only knows the world needs needs something positive to hold on to after yesterday’s speech full of fear, intolerance and narrow mindedness…. American Carnage is a trully awful phrase that I hope comes back to haunt him when “the American people” realise he’s got no interest other than himself

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For the record, my prediction is that he’ll be gone within two years… either through impeachment, or via a move to oust him from within his own Republican Party, or through assassination by some disgruntled red neck who thinks the wall is not going up quick enough and there are still too many immigrants. Or even more likely, because I don’t believe he ever really wanted the job in the first place, he’ll get bored and engineer some event or some situation that will enable him to step away without losing any of his precious face, whilst blaming everyone except himself….

Project A119 : A Study of Lunar Research Flights…

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment

va-cold-war-modern-6In light of the imminent inauguration of the real life American Idiot, and his rather troubling views on Nuclear weaponry, I thought I’d dig out this post I drafted a couple of years ago but never got around to posting.

I’d been re-reading the book that accompanied an excellent exhibition that the V&A organised a number of years ago. Entitled “Cold War Modern” it looked at the influences on style and design brought about through the increasing political tensions and exceptional bursts of creativity that defined the post war period between 1945 and 1970. A creativity that, despite being born from challenging and difficult times, undoubtedly benefited society in the long run through an improved understanding of materials, science and technologies.

With one notable exception, and this is a tough one to believe, but for a period of time, America were genuinely looking into the practicalities of exploding a nuclear bomb on the Moon… A terrifyingly over the top and stupefyingly ridiculous act that was justified by the argument that if Americans using American technology could make such a thing happen, then it would leave the Communist Block countries in no doubt as to how powerful a nation they were dealing with…

450px-study_of_lunar_research_flights_-_vol_i_-_coverCodenamed “Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”, this top secret plan was first conceived in 1958, but did not become common knowledge until around 2000.

In October 1957, The Soviet Union had shocked the West with the huge success of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. America desperately needed to regain the upper hand and set about developing plans (little knowing that they would once again be beaten into second place, when in April 1961 Yuri Gagarin would be the first human to leave the earths atmosphere).

I digress. Back in 1958, various ideas were considered and a certain Carl Sagan became attached to Project A119, a name familiar to my generation as the brilliant and charismatic Astronomer and Astrophysicist who later brought the ground breaking TV show Cosmos into our living rooms in the 1980’s. The team concluded that a nuclear bomb, rather than a more visually impressive hydrogen bomb would be best, however this was due only to considerations relating to payload at take off, as hydrogen bombs are apparently significantly heavier.

The maths were fiendishly difficult, however the principles were straightforward enough: put the bomb onto a rocket, launch the rocket from a secret base in the US, fly it to the moon, crash the rocket into the moon and detonate the bomb. At the same time (once the rocket was irretrievably on its way of course) let the world know and make sure it was watching when impact occurred. One up manship at it’s most insane..

Amongst other factors, Sagan and his team had to consider trajectories, possible debris and gas dispersion in the low gravity of the moon, the likely effect of radiation on any future manned missions and the affect of the explosion on the moons orbit, not to mention any potential affects such actions might have on our own planet.

Thankfully, driven primarily by fears of negative publicity should something go wrong during take off and the bomb explode on US soil, and a general reluctance to begin the overt militarization of space, this harebrained scheme was abandoned in 1959, with NASA concluding that sending men to the moon and bringing them safely home would be a far more effective political and popular “weapon”.

So there you are, a true and sobering story. Let’s hope the incoming 45th President of the USA doesn’t read this post and decide that Project A119 might be resurrected as a way of demonstrating to the world how suitable a candidate he really is for his new role in the world….

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Concrete Frieze, Rochester Row, SW1 : Definitely a William Mitchell…

December 11, 2016 1 comment

My good friend the artist Bill Mitchell was contacted recently by yet another of the growing band of admirers of his work. An email arrived from someone who works near Emanuel House on Rochester Row, SW10 and who had in passing it regularly, come to love the work. Spanning the entire front elevation of Emanuel House is a narrow, but perfectly formed concrete frieze, which undoubtedly has the tell tale style of a Mitchell…

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The reason the admirer made contact however, was to try and ascertain who the originator of the work was. As with much of Bill’s work, online references are few and far between and those that can be found are not always correct. As indeed was the case with this piece, which according to the email, was attributed to someone else even in “official” records.

Bill and his wife Joy have asked if there was anything I could do to help, and so in my own small way, by posting this here, I’m hoping to set the records straight for anyone else who notices and wonders at this little gem of a sculpture and tries to find out more…

In the words of the great man himself…

“This was the first integral piece of concrete art ever produced. It’s a ‘ring beam’ which linked all the columns and on which the remainder of the structure depended. I designed it, made the moulds and the builder poured the concrete.

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When I recall all the rows with structural engineers, and architects, plus the criticism from the art establishments of the time (including the Art’s Council) and the broadsides from the press – it was apparently obvious to everyone except me, why this work shouldn’t be made. Afterwards of course once it was finished, everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do, giving interest to this and many other, bleak concrete buildings thereafter, both through my own work and via the many copies.

Now I understand that the ring beam at Victoria has been attributed to someone else. This is astonishing, my work at Emanuel House was a piece of history and because of it many art critics made their names and fortunes whilst I and the builder lost money.

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I continued to produce public works of art and now and then when I find that some of my works have been attributed to other artists, it only serves to illustrate for me the philosophy of the time, that ‘art’ should only be in frames, and hung on the walls of London West End galleries…”

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(Apologies for the images, they’re screen grabs cobbled together this afternoon from Google street view.. I’ll update the post once I’ve been and seen the work for myself…)

Kraftwerk at the Royal Albert Hall

November 5, 2016 Leave a comment

99c3f134-cf55-4980-acc4-da0d3acf7d23A couple of weeks ago my very good friend Danny heorically did the tedious cyclical internet thing that is sadly now standard for these big events, and managed to get tickets for the Kraftwerk gigs next June at the Royal Albert Hall.

Despite it being more than 8 months away, to say I’m excited would be an understatement, and the show will hopefully go someway to making up for the frustration of not getting tickets for the Tate gigs a few years ago.

It won’t be the first time I’ve seen Kraftwerk with Danny, although that didn’t quite work out as we’d hoped…

Back in 1996 (which I’ve just realised was 20 years ago…) we were at The Tribal Gathering Festival at Sutton Hoo, where along with a hugely impressive line up of artists including Orbital, Daft Punk, Gus Gus, Digweed, Sasha, Jeff Mills, Hardfloor, Marshal Jefferson, Masters at Work, John Peel, Fabio & Grooverider etc etc, the mysterious Dusseldorfers were down to play their first live set in the UK for five years…

2bolptgUnfortunately we got carried away with the quality and excellence of the day, misjudged the number of people that were there specifically to see Kraftwerk, and headed rather belatedly to the Trans Europe tent only to find it was super rammed. The closest we could get was behind about ten rows of people outside the entrance to the tent. Amazingly (and I honestly don’t think this would happen nowadays) the organisers took down half of one side of the tent, so that people outside could at least see the lights and hear a bit better…

I think we stayed for 4 or 5 tunes before giving it up as a bad job and heading off elsewhere. Orbital as I remember were absolutely outstanding that day…

So, fingers crossed that next years shows in the wonderours surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall will go some way to addressing the paucity of my live Kraftwerk experience…

The only slightly nagging doubt is the description of the concerts as 3-D. This could mean that we’re all wearing funny specs and in for a stunningly visual treat, but it might also mean that the single remaining original Werker, Ralph Hutter, might not actually be there in person, opting instead to send the bands robot avatars to enteratin us…

We shall see, but regardless, when that car door slams shut and the VW Beetle ignition turns over, I for one will be a very happy man….

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