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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…

 

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

December 11, 2016 2 comments

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…)

George Shaw – My Back to Nature

May 30, 2016 Leave a comment

A trip to the National Gallery (NG) yesterday to see the work of one of my favorite artists…

In a show entitled “My Back to Nature”, George Shaw’s new work has moved on from the seemingly humdrum Coventry urban scenes that earned him the Turner Prize nomination, and he now seems to be using his trademark Humbrol enamels to paint trees…

Lots and lots and lots of trees.

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After his two year studio residency at the NG as an Associate Artist supported by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation, Shaw has produced a series of paintings, sketches and studies that take inspiration from other works held within the collection.

As he walked through the galleries every day on his way to the studio, Shaw noticed that trees and woodland played a large part in many of the pieces that he liked, echoing his own fascination with those often forgotten, neglected and sometimes dodgy places he remembered from his youth.

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Nicolas Poussin especially seemed to include trees in many of his paintings either as allegory (three trees in a painting will ALWAYS refer to the crosses at Calvary) or simply as a backdrop. There’s a very enlightenin video that accompanies the show in which Shaw refers to the painting below in particular, as embodying the essence of what he was trying to capture.

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Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan from 1636 depicts satyrs, nymphs and animals indulging in all sorts of debauchery and naughtiness. Shaw suggests imagining the scene once all the action has finished and the characters have all shuffled out of view… What remains would be all the rubbish and detritus, the left over stuff that no one wanted, but that at some point in the earlier proceedings had seemed important enough to bring along.

Shaw felt that this resonated with his own idea that “something out of the ordinary could happen there at any time away from the supervision of adults”…

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I have to admit that at first pass, the work on show didn’t grab me in the same way that his Coventry landscapes had. Being an architect, I don’t know whether it was a subliminal preference for buildings over trees, the urban over the rural, but the pictures were all a bit samey and the style of this new work seemed less focused, the lines less crisp and defined, more an impression of things found, rather than a visual record of them.

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But after spending time in the exhibition, watching the accompanying film and then revisiting the work, I left with a feeling of great satisfaction., the work is accomplished, playful and thought provoking all at once. The three large paintings at the end are especially excellent and beautifully made, full of what I imagine are intentionally dark and deliberately ambiguous iconography including rood/ rude screens, porn mags littered in front of dark mysterious openings and red paint/ blood spattered trees…

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Whether this work represents a maturing of style or simply a measured response to the NG collection, time will tell, but I like it very much… Fingers crossed George brings this new found confidence to his next series of urban landscapes…

Talking of confidence, Shaw has taken the decision to populate his works, as this self portrait of the artist doing what we’ve all done in the woods at one time or another attests..

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The Cenotaph by Edwin Lutyens: Entasis in Action…

November 15, 2015 Leave a comment

With this years Remembrance Service at The Cenotaph in central London being somewhat hijacked by the shamefully childish and pathetic (but sadly typical of the right wing press here in the UK) “how respectful was the bow” debacle, I thought it might be worth thinking about the actual monument itself, highlighting an aspect of its design of which you may not be aware…

Orighinal wood and plaster versionOriginally commissioned by the then prime minister David Lloyd George just two weeks before the London Victory Parade (or Peace Day Parade) planned for 19 July 1919, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ design was necessarily simple and quick. Famously taking only six hours from that initial meeting to acceptance of sketch proposals, the appointment of a suitable contractor followed within days, and a full size temporary timber and plaster structure was constructed in time for the event (see photo to the left).

It was the simplicity of the design, a 35ft (11m) high, unadorned stepped block with an empty tomb at it’s summit and wreaths and flags around the perimeter, that visitors found so moving. Everyone who saw the monument (and by all accounts that was millions over the summer months) was able to project their own feelings of loss and grief onto the clean, unadorned planes, resulting exactly a year later and after huge public pressure, in the unveiling of an exact replica in portland limestone…

Very few people however knew that this permanent version, was not in fact an exact replica. Lutyens had used the intervening months to refine his original ideas, and although not immediately visible to visitors, the principles of entasis were in full effect…

Drawing by Andrew CromptonEntasis is the “application of a convex curve to a surface for aesthetic purposes” which at The Cenotaph, results in no parallel verticals and no flat horizontals. The base in fact forms a small segment of an imaginary 900ft (275m) diameter sphere buried below Whitehall, whilst the sides of the monument taper inwards and upwards meeting at a point 1000ft (300m) above the street.

So why would Lutyens go to so much trouble? Firstly he was supposedly something of a Theosophist, that is someone who seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe in terms of both the human and the divine. One key tenet of this belief is that everything is part of an eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration.

The curved bands of the Cenotaph’s base form part of such a circle, one that not only embraces us all, but whose center is rooted deep in the earth. At the same time the extended vertices of the upper block high in the air, create a direct connection between heaven and the grave.

Note also that the upper mass of the cenotaph could be seen to resemble the hilt of a sword. Andrew Crompton (whose article here fired my initial interest and from where the above drawing is borrowed) suggests that lines from Rudyard Kipling’s 1922 poem “The Kings Pilgrimage” (written two years after The Cenotaph was unveiled and after Kipling’s tour of the Cemeteries of Northern France) comes closest to capturing this aspect of the design…

And the last land he found, it was fair and level ground

About a carven stone

And a stark Sword brooding on the bosom of the Cross

Where high and low are one

This sentiment also links into the idea that Lutyens may have been influenced by that most English of heroic tales, King Arthur, with echoes of a hilt referencing Arthur’s legendary sword Excalibur, whose magical powers and ownership came to define the rightful sovereignty of Britain. Looking at the photo below, there could be something in the sword iconography…

Or maybe it was more mundane than either of these two concepts. When asked to explain his use of entasis, Lutyens replied that it was for aesthetic reasons, explaining that “The difference is almost imperceptible yet sufficient to give (The Cenotaph) a sculpturesque quality and a life that cannot pertain to a rectangular block of stone”

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind as to whether one of this countries foremost and gifted architects was playing clever games or had deeper, more secret intentions….

Going to the Dogs…

November 8, 2015 4 comments

CoverA couple of years or so ago, I was looking through one of the many second hand shops on the Walworth Road when I was working down in that neck of the woods, and came across a box of old magazines published in the early 1970’s by the Architectural Association, a highly regarded institution based here in London.

11One magazine in particular caught my attention as it contained an article about my own bit of London, The Isle of Dogs. So I handed over my 50p, read the article on my way home that evening, told And all about it, agreed that we should follow the route the first sunny Sunday that came along, and then promptly forgot all about it…

Until recently that is, when I was asked about my island life, and whether I thought the place was worth visiting. After I’d said yes of course, it’s a brilliant place, I remembered the magazine and scanned the article for this post.

Spread out over 10 pages was a fascinating walk through the Isle of Dogs. Written originally back in early 1972, it describes the island as I can only now imagine it, a fact brought home by the opening paragraph which reads..

“The Isle of Dogs shares with Tibet and Timbuctoo, the reputation for being one of the least inhabited parts of the habitable globe”..

Obviously the opinion of an architectural academic and not one of the local islanders, the writer (Hubert Murray) begins his introduction to the walk with reference to a recent Tower Hamlets Planning survey that recorded the most common complaints of the people who lived on the Island (poor bus services, poor shops, lack of schools and too many tower blocks being the most common) and ends it with the bombshell that nothing was likely to happen in the short term until a decision had been made about whether to build an urban motorway across the IoD, a drastic and disastrous sounding solution to relieve traffic problems in  Greenwich and Blackheath… Remember this is nearly 10 years before the LDDC was set up in 1981 to create the success/ wonder/ hell hole/ expensive/polarised/ integrated/ etc. etc. (delete as appropriate) place that the Island has become today…

The walk starts at the top of the island on the east side in Poplar at the recently completed Robin Hood Gardens (a big favorite of the architectural profession at that time), heads down to Island Gardens before heading up around the west to Limehouse. Sights and landmarks on the way include: The Gun, Kelson House, The Watermans Arms, Edies Cafe, various allotments and the Globe Ropeworks building (now sadly long gone).

It makes for interesting reading, describing an area that has, for better or worse, long since been polished up, and one day I’d like to think we really will get round to following the route, finding some of the locations of these photos and seeing what still remains 43 years later…. 14

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The Kensington Air Terminal…

March 18, 2015 5 comments

 

My And is currently reading a Miss Marple novel, one of the last ones that Agatha Christie wrote I think. Entitled At Bertram’s Hotel, it was published in the mid 1960’s and tells the tale of the now elderly (was she ever anything else…) detective’s stay in a swish London hotel, and the usual fatalities that seem to follow the redoubtable detective like a bad smell…

wlat-k65-108-aerial-view-1965I digress. The reason for this post is that in the story, reference is made to The Kensington Air Terminal… Intrigued, And went off to the internet to investigate and sure enough such a thing actually existed, moreover, it would seem that it is now almost totally forgotten..

Situated overlooking the Cromwell Road, on the site of what has been a Sainsbury’s since the 1980’s, and almost equidistant between The Albert Hall and Earls Court, was a group of buildings that together formed a direct link between Heathrow Airport and the city.

Before the rail link was completed in 1977, getting to Heathrow could be a time consuming business by all accounts. BEA (British European Airways) hit upon the idea of creating a central hub where travelers could check in and relax before being transported along with their baggage by luxury coaches to the airport proper, making good use of the recently opened M4 motorway.

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Cut away illustration of temporary terminal from The Illustrated London News

The first temporary two storey building (above) was completed in 1957 and proved so successful that a more permanent solution was soon being planned. Designed by Burnett, Tait & Partners, this new facility included additional parking (via some impressive circular access ramps) restaurants and retail opportunities, airport style waiting areas and departure gates, along with a residential tower above. It was finally opened in the early/ mid 1960’s to great fanfare and excitement…

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Sadly due to increasing security regulations, land prices and airline takeovers, the building was only in operation for around 15 years or so before being redeveloped by Sainsbury’s.

There is very little online about this intriguing building. The excellent post at The Library Time Machine by Dave Walker is where I found all of the images and much of the info.

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How the building (now known as Point West) Looks today

How the building (now known as Point West) Looks today

 

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