Thursday, October 30, 2014
Going somewhere else
Here’s another example of the 1930s ocean liner style, but on a much larger scale than the little tram shelter in my previous post. This building is Dorset Court on the northern side of Marylebone Road, near Baker Street. It was built in 1935 to designs by T. P. Bennett & Son, with the prominent modernist architect Joseph Emberton acting as consultant on the project.
I often pass by this block and give it an appreciative upward glance. I like the mix of projecting sections that ensures not only that the vast facade is broken up agreeably but also that the rooms inside are well lit – although the block is south-facing those angled windows bring some eastern and western light into many of the rooms too: a thoughtful touch. The rectilinear geometry of window frames and flat top is offset by the impressive collection of curves displayed by the balconies: curved brickwork, curved concrete floor slabs, curved railings. I doubt that many residents take the afternoon sun on these south-facing balconies: the noise from the traffic in Marylebone Road would limit one’s enjoyment. This must have been less of a problem in the 1930s.
The bright green of the railings is a colour I particularly associate with 1930s buildings. White walls and green roof tiles was a popular colour combination in the period. A big pitched roof of green tiles could be rather strident, but these nautical green railings are more pleasing, especially as they’re combined with a mixture of bricks and white paintwork. An enjoyable effect, even though the balconies look down on the buses and taxis of Marylebone Road rather than a sandy beach and an inviting sea.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
I was once at a literary festival event where a panel that included Joan Bakewell and Jonathan Meades were discussing their favourite buildings. Joan Bakewell, eager to put in a word for Elizabeth Scott, the pioneering woman architect, was making the case for Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre (this was before its recent remodelling), her most celebrated design. Meades wasn’t convinced, and when Bakewell insisted, ‘Isn’t it like a glorious ocean liner?’ he delivered the coup de grace: ‘Well, maybe. But it isn’t going anywhere.’
‘Ocean liner architecture’ – long lines, strip windows, nautical-looking railings, curves relieving the rhythm of straight lines and right angles – was popular for all kinds of buildings in the 1930s. There are apartment blocks, hotels, and lidos in the style. Here’s a bus shelter (was it originally a tram shelter?) in Leicester that’s in a similar mode. The overall shape, the row of windows, and the overhanging roof give the shelter a strong horizontal emphasis and the lack of pillars at the corners is just the kind of thing modernist architects liked to do to show off. Look, no visible support! The natty angled glass panes at the corners draw attention to it.
Most striking of all, though, are the curvaceous ends of the overhanging roof. As well as providing some extra shelter, they give this little building an overall form not dissimilar to the round-ended city trams of decades gone by. I remember seeing shelters like this when passing through Leicester as a small boy with my parents on trips to visit family in Lincolnshire. Even then they seemed rather special, modern, new (in spite of the fact that they were already maybe 30 years old), and rather like the kind of thing I could build with LEGO. Although I would not have thought to put it like that in those days, they seemed, indeed, to be going somewhere.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
There’s a building there, somewhere
I often look at old photographs – postcards, pictures in mid-20th century books like those volumes about the regions of Britain published by Batsford, Victorian images – and I’m frequently struck by the way in which so many buildings are covered in vegetation. Ivy, Virginia creeper, and other boskage winds its way up walls, clings to window frames, aims for high battlements. Wisteria blossoms are blurred as they move in the breeze. Tendrils tap on window panes.
Today, conservation conscious, we’re more likely to strip away creeper and discourage this kind of threat to masonry and woodwork. Trees keep their distance. ‘Wisteria rhymes with hysteria.’* But flowers against a wall, even trailing ivy, can be good to look at. As the leaves turn in autumnal England, here’s an example I photographed a couple of months ago in Cookham, the town immortalized in the work of the artist Stanley Spencer.
Spencer, famous for his paintings of people, was also an exemplary painter of plants, flowers, fields, even of wisteria (‘Wisteria at Englefield’). I think he might have liked this display, with its splashes of colour that almost completely hide the building that supports them, a memory of summer as the nights draw in.
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* ‘Wisteria (Rhymes with Hysteria)’: the title of an essay by John Russell, The New York Times, 1980
Friday, October 17, 2014
The last pump*
I have faint distant memories of the hamlet of Ford, tucked in a fold of the Cotswolds by the River Windrush, from my youth. I remember it as a rather bleak place, with stone cottages that seemed to be hunkered down against the wind, a transport company called Bowles (buses and coaches I think), and an inviting pub, the Plough. Those were the days when people with cottages in the Cotswolds mostly had their work and their lives among the hills – farm workers, artisans, those offering local services. The outsiders who had cottages were mostly bohemians and people who lived up lanes with fires in a bucket† – a far cry from the retirees and celebrities one trips over today.
Back in the 1960s, many of these locals didn’t run a car. They walked to work across a yard, or cycled, and took the bus to Stow or Winchcombe or Cheltenham to do their shopping. If they did have four wheels, there might still be the odd roadside pump at which to fill up, like this one, surviving thanks to the care of the proprietors of the pub at Ford. My distant memory linked it to the bus company, but here it is by the Plough, together with an old ‘Ring for service’ sign, to suggest that this is where’s it has always been.
The wedge-shaped top and the lines of the pump’s body are straight out of the Art Deco school of design. How good a pump like this would look outside an Art Deco garage. But it looks good here too, against a stone wall and framed by flowers. The top to the pump brings back memories: of Shell pumps topped with shells, Esso’s oval “globe”, National’s diamond, BP’s shield – a whole form of advertising design that’s gone now, save from the world of museums and private collectors with space to spare. It’s nice to see this one still in its original home, even though the only thing that’s pumped hereabouts now is beer.
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*For now, at least
†Phrase copyright Philip Larkin, “Toads”
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
One of my readers reminded me, after the previous post about corrugated-iron garages and roadside petrol pumps, that such structures were widely disliked and criticised when they appeared back in the 1930s and 1940s, much as we might appreciate them now. He is of course quite right. These makeshift structures are a good example of the way attitudes and fashions and the ways in which we see things change, sometimes radically, over time.
In the 1930s there were frequent protests about the unchecked rise of shacks, garages, and other unplanned buildings. These structures were often seen as unpleasant to look at, badly built, and part of the inexorable ribbon development that threatened to swamp the countryside around Britain’s towns and cities, joining settlements together so that no countryside would remain at all. Quite a few people wrote about this, attacking plotlands, garages, and ribbon development as part of the same problem. Take Sheila Kaye-Smith, for example, writing in the 1937 collection Britain and the Beast, edited by Clough Williams-Ellis. Here she compares modern buildings with the much-loved traditional buildings of Kent:
Compare [Kent’s traditional buildings] with the modern villa set up stiffly like a match-box on end, with the bungalow coloured a pink that can be seen nowhere else save in boiled crustaceans, with the garage of corrugated iron, the catsellated shop-front, and then address yourself to time, in your hopes no longer the preserver but the destroyer.
J B Priestley also had a go at such things in his book English Journey and the CPRE even suggested that motorists should boycott garages made of corrugated iron or sporting “garish, multi-coloured petrol pumps”. A whole world of sorry roadside development was captured in an illustration in another book by Clough-Williams-Ellis, The Adventure of Building, which I reproduce above: as well as corrugated iron, ubiquitous overhead wires and intrusive advertising posters are also part of the view.
Even back then, the objections were inspired by all kinds of motivations. For many, it was a genuine anxiety about the countryside and about the way our settlements were being planned – or not planned, but just thrown up, willy nilly along the highways. For others, it was snobbery about low-status building materials, discontent with structures that could be erected by unskilled labour, or a dislike of untidiness.
As far as corrugated-iron garages went, they got their way in the end – most have long vanished. Ribbon development, too, has been controlled by the planning system, as have, by and large, big advertising hoardings. And now, encouraged by writers like Jonathan Meades and Iain Sinclair, we are more likely to find something to admire or interest us in old garages, plotlands, and sheds. it might be the ingenious bricolage practised by their amateur builders; it might be the layers of history the represent. It might be – and this is where I come in – their contribution to, and absorption in, the character and life of specific places: a plotland bungalow softened by cow parsley or surrounded by shingle, a corrugated-iron roof turned over to nature, a barn rusting in the summer sun. Such things encourage us to look, and think, unearth stories about the past, and reassess what is still there in the present.