Monday, June 17, 2013

What's this?

When I've been thinking about it all, my ambitions for this blog of late have revolved around an ambitious photo essay about the city of London, a kind of off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip, don't-bother-doing-any-research Pevsner meets Nairn rip-off. The fact that Pevsner has already met Nairn in the form of their jointly authored guides to Surrey and Sussex (of which more, hopefully, later*), is but one barrier to this enterprise. Another is having, y'know, a job and a family and all that. So the project has limped along as a vague ambition and a growing collection of iphone snapshots for some time now.

In order to make something happen and to help get back to an idea of blogging that is enjoyable, incidental and relatively low-maintenance, I've decided to just post photos of buildings that I pass in the City more or less one-by-one in the hope that it might all add up to something more substantial. A week-by-week, cut-out and keep photo-essay by default**.

Why the City? Well, partly because I have recently moved there and therefore spend a lot of my weekends wandering its enjoyably deserted streets and squares. And partly, because as a friend observed to me the other day, the City is what architecture does. Architecture is ultimately the expression of institutionalised power (whether public, private, benign or despotic) and there are few institutions as powerful historically as the City of London. No wonder then that it is home to so many extraordinary buildings by so many famous architects; Wren, Hawksmoor, Soane, Lutyens, Berlage, Stirling, Rogers, Foster and Koolhaas as well as almost home to Mies van der Rohe.

Alongside these there are many oddities, one-offs and eccentricities as well as numerous lumps of unremarkable corporate power, some of which are going up as I speak. The City, unbearable in so many ways, is a very pleasant place at the weekends especially on summer days when its deep streets and alley ways provide shade and its little parks and church yards are nearly empty. 

As a consequence of recent wanderings, I've been reading various architectural guides to the City's architecture, not just Pevsner and Nairn, but Christopher Woodward and Ed Jones and one or two others as well. So, in an informal way the posts will hopefully comment on previous comments by more illustrious commentators whilst allowing me to be more partial,  biased and badly informed than any of them. 

I'll start with this strange collection and the building at the centre of it all. McMorran and Whiby's Wood Street Police Station sits surrounded by a jostle of taller later buildings by Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell and Eric Parry and one much earlier one, the tower of  St Alban's by Christopher Wren. 

McMorran and Whitby were architects so out of step with their time that their buildings only started to make any kind of sense several decades after they were finished. Wood Street Police Station, built in the mid-1960's - and featured in The Jokers, one of that decades classic caper movies starring Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford - was described by the architects' biographer Edward Dennison as "an Italian palazzo in the heart of London serving the needs of a nuclear age". And it is fair to say it is pretty peculiar. It employs a stripped-down classicism but with exaggerated rustication and all manner of mannerist twists in the form of blank windows, sculptureless niches and giant, mysterious chimneys. It has a miniature stone high-rise at the top and a deep basement containing a nuclear fall-out shelter at the bottom. 

As naive as it is to equate classicism with fascism, Wood Street has an unmistakeable whiff of Mussolini's EUR about it. Like the work of Aldo Rossi, the deep shadows of its openings seem to deny occupation, as if the building is a hollowed-out shell. The blank muteness of the facade gives it the air of a mausoleum. Or more appropriately, a place of incarceration, which it in fact is, albeit temporarily. Perhaps this is what Nairn meant when he correctly described it as "creepy".

Woodward and Jones are predictably sympathetic to its mid-20th century attempt at classicism, but also sniffy about the lack of 'proper' stone detailing. It's sooty moustache-like stains around the parapet and windows are - like the nearby Barbican's - part of its appeal for me, Someone should write something about how British buildings are meant to be stained and musty, But much of the rhetoric around the correctness of classicism is that it suits the climate of this county better than (Mediterranean inspired) modernism. So a mid-twentieth century neo-classical building that wilfully omits coping stones and projecting lintels manages to offend all parties.

Whatever, it's a fabulous building; strange, compelling and deeply ambiguous. Its present state, marooned by high-rises and hanging off the edge of London Wall, only increases its more peculiar characteristics which is also perhaps unfair. As in their other buildings, particularly their very decent council housing in Holloway, McMorran and Whiby attempted a humane, robust updating of classical elements for a very different era and construction industry. It is only other people who found this intrinsically unnerving. 

Talking of which, just opposite the police station and is if keeping an eye on it is a little bright red sentry post of a service duct by Richard Rogers, part of his London Wall building. It is a diminutive and vaguely comic throwback to his Pompidou days, a self-conscious homage to his younger self. More about that to come........

* Having read these lately with the zeal of the recent convert, I am now officially a huge fan of Nairn. A post on the odd pairing of him and Pevsner is therefore highly likely.

** Speaking of which, an old photo-essay of mine on the architecture of Tayler and Green will shortly be appearing in Volume magazine, along with others by pioneers of the format Owen Hatherley and Douglas Murphy. 


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Alan Benzie said...

I was walking past Wood Street last weekend, looking at the tower of the Police Station from Aldermanbury Garden. I made a mental note to look up the architects, which I had forgotten about by the time I walked home, so this is a beautifully timed post for me.