Thursday, November 20, 2014

Savile Row, London

Well suited?

This elegant bit of lettering is an interesting variation on the capital’s standard black and red street name signs. By keeping the usual colours – black for the name of the street, red for the postal district  – the sign recognisably relates to London, but the letterform and layout are completely different from the London norm. The architect of this building, Gordon Jeeves, seems to have had the idea of integrating the lettering more closely than usual with the design of the building, setting the letters in a purpose-designed horizontal slot, and using this slot to mirror the strong horizontal lines of the rest of the design.

The building (essentially an office block, though meant to have shops on the ground floor) was designed in the late-1930s: the Survey of London says in 1937. On the opposite corner is the West End Central Police Station, a pale, stone-clad building of 1938–9, with modernist features (glass bricks, strong horizontals) and similar lettering. So it looks as if the architects of the Police Station (Burnet, Tait & Lorne) decided to follow the lead of their neighbour and include matching lettering.

I like the way the sign sits in its horizontal slot – although the fit isn’t exact: the ‘Savile Row’ and ‘Boyle St’ parts of the slot have been made the same length so there is more white space around ‘Boyle St’. The letterform is strikingly different, too, from the usual Univers Bold Condensed of London’s street name signs. Could it be Futura, or something very like it? My graphic designer readers will no doubt enjoy telling me. I hope the rest of you enjoy the sign too.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Loughborough, Leicestershire

The exemplary bee

I've noted before how bees have been used as symbols of co-operation for hundreds of years, and as symbols of the Co-operative Movement since its first inception in the 19th century. This plaque, which I came across on a building in Loughborough, no doubt marks the site of Co-op store. The motto it bears, 'Unity is strength', was also adopted early on by the Co-operative Pioneers, although they sometimes used the form 'Union is strength'.

Although this plaque is not quite as beautifully made as the one I spotted in Wiltshire a while back, it scores highly in one key respect. While the Wiltshire example showed just the hive, this one includes actual bees in flight. These long-enduring creatures, here, so the fancy lettering proclaims, since 1865, remain to remind us of their links with industry, cooperation, sweetness, and continuing pollination and life. Whether represented artistically, as in this Loughborough street, or in their living form, they deserve our notice and respect.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Angles and curves

This former seed warehouse, resplendent with glowing brick and gilded lettering, was built in the mid-19th century for seed merchants Alfred McMullen's and partly rebuilt in 1944 after bomb damage. Tucked away not far from the town’s Mill Bridge, it’s now I think used variously as offices and a store for Hertford Museum. Hertford Town Council also offers this part of the structure – the Mill Bridge Rooms – as a community facility for hire.

There's some lovely brickwork here – mainly yellow brick with some details including a diaper pattern and segmental arches above the windows in red brick. The way the brickwork curves to turn the corner* is striking, especially the way the curves contrast with the varied sharp angles and straight lines of the rest of the structure. This was the feature that caught my eye as I passed – that, along with the way in which the gold lettering shines in the sun.

It's not all brick, though. Typically of central Hertford, which exhibits a variety of brick, stone, stucco, weatherboarded, and timber-framed buildings, there are several different materials on display here – hammered sandstone around the doorway, slates on the roof and cladding the hoist chamber that sticks out above the doors to the right, even a bit of pebbledashing along the eaves course. It's a rich mixture that works, and is a tribute both to the flair of Victorian builders and the efforts of those who have conserved and maintained the building more recently.

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* Regular readers will know that I have a particular liking for buildings that turn tight angles with curved walls, as exemplified here and here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Didmarton, Gloucestershire

Two views

Thinking back to Ordinary Beauty, the Edwin Smith exhibition at the RIBA, and remembering Smith’s evocative 1961 black and white photograph of the church interior at St Lawrence, Didmarton, I recalled that I’d taken a photograph from a very similar viewpoint a couple of years ago. Perhaps the two images would make an interesting comparison – not in terms of photographic quality (Smith, of course, wins hands down on that front) but as an indication of how the building might have changed over the last half century.

Looking at the two images together, it’s clear that there have been some changes. Both the walls and the woodwork have been cleaned up and repaired. The walls are now white and smooth, in contrast to the rich, crumbly plasterwork of Smith’s time, and the beam in the ceiling looks healthier, if less picturesque. Both floor and stairs seem very similar. Sadly, the lovely curving candle brackets have gone, although the plates to which they were attached remain.

The furniture has changed too. The benches have disappeared, although the chair is still there and there is now a businesslike cupboard against the wall. On the extreme right, there’s an indication that the panelled box pews, a sliver of which is just visible, have been repainted – they’re now a fetching pale green (this goes for the box pews in the nave too).

All this suggests that the church has undergone some much needed repair and conservation work. In the process it has lost a little of its character – the character that comes from the unevenness in the worn walls and woodwork – although the pleasantly cracked and roughened floor, the window tracery, and details such as the hanging weights of the clock still speak of age, history, and use: this place still has plenty of atmosphere. Church-crawlers can be grateful that it has been cared for – but also grateful that the subtle and sympathetic scrutiny of Edwin Smith’s lens has put on record what it was like some 50 years ago.

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Top photograph: Edwin Smith, Didmarton, Gloucestershire
Smith's photographs are © Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is at the Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 6 December 2014.

RIBA's online archive of Edwin Smith's photographs is here.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The ladies, vanishing

At some point in the last couple of weeks – I’m not sure exactly when the last bricks tumbled – Cheltenham’s former Odeon cinema, long closed, was finally demolished. It was a rather plain building, on the cusp of Art Deco and modernism in style, and had served the town for decades (first as the Gaumont Palace then as the Odeon) before a more up-to-date cinema opened in the town. It then lay empty for several years and it seems to have proved impossible to find a new use for the building. I blogged about it back in 2008, when I wrote:

It’s an undistinguished Art Deco building, with the redeeming feature of these two naked women tangled in celluloid high up on the façade. Most passers-by see only the boarded-up entrance of the cinema, steadily becoming more and more of a blot on the townscape. I’d lay odds that most of them never notice the silver ladies, two of several reminders of the unregarded past of a quiet Cheltenham side-street.

These relief panels are by Newbury Abbot Trent, a prolific sculptor who produced many war memorials. He was the brother (or, according to some sources, the cousin) of the cinema’s architect, W. E. Trent. The panels are the kind of thing that often adorned cinema buildings of the 1930s, although they were often carved in stone, with a more neutral surface than the shiny metallic finish of these Cheltenham examples. Such sculptures often show female figures – always glamorous, often naked, sometimes, like these, with exaggerated proportions – and were meant to entice us into the magic and seductive world of the cinema, at a time when only a tiny minority had television and cinema-going was a regular weekly recreation for millions. When they were new, shiny, and properly lit, they would have reminded film-goers and passers-by alike of the magical, flickering world inside. It’s a shame they are no longer there.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Marylebone Road, London

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


Going somewhere

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.