Monday, October 12, 2015

Piccadilly, London

The Ais have it

I suppose if I added them up, I’d find I’d spent quite a few hours, over the years, in the courtyard of Burlington House, the Royal Academy's building in London’s Piccadilly. Waiting for friends, waiting in particular for a friend who’s a member and sometimes gets me in free as his guest, waiting for my son, queuing for a ticket. Fortunately, I always find something to look at: bits of relief carving, the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a memorable red telephone box, and the building itself, naturally. On Sunday all this was put into the shade by Tree, a large, site-specific work of art by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Tree is made up of sections of actual trees that have died in China. The artist buys these bits and then pieces them together to make whole trees. Except that they’re not, of course, whole trees: they consist of trunks and large branches, but have no roots, leaves, or twigs, and they are bolted together very obviously (how things are put together is a constant fascination of this artist’s work). And yet the forms Ai Weiwei has made are unmistakably tree-like, are the essence of tree as it were, and the trees thus made form an absorbing grove around the Reynolds statue, through which visitors wander, and look, and take photographs. The contrast between the classical architecture and this curious and woody construction is thought-provoking and when I was there, dozens of people were pausing, and looking, and having their thoughts provoked, and smiling in an engaged but rather wistful way.

It was much the same inside. Eleven rooms of Burlington House are full of Ai Weiwei’s work. A lot of it is assemblages of found objects – bits of trees, stools joined to one another that seem animated because they are set at such precarious angles, reinforcing bars from the concrete structure of a school destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, recycled masonry from Ai’s studio and gallery that was bulldozed by order of the Chinese authorities. All of this has huge visual power, as do some of the pieces made in other ways: 1 x 1 x1 metre cubes fashioned from rosewood or impacted tea, for example, like a standard measure of compressed Chinese culture, ordered from the sculptor’s yard and deposited in place on a beautifully crafted delivery palette.

As we walked around the galleries, alternately smiling at the loving way in which these items have been put together and frowning at the stories of trauma (the earthquake, Ai’s own imprisonment recreated in a suite of particularly disturbing dioramas that you view through tiny apertures*) evoked in these works, my son and I realised we were seeing something we’d always remember. It was partly that we were appreciating the material on so many levels – visual, constructional, in terms of its meaning, as metaphor of China, as objective correlative for Ai's life, and so on. And it was partly that this kind of art, conceived by the artist and then made or assembled by someone else, so familiar and sometimes so exasperating in art today, can take on a new meaning when it involved an artist who in the past hasn't even been allowed to leave China† and supervise the planning and assembling of his exhibitions. Stepping out into the sunshine and walking through the trees again, the world seemed a different place.

- - -

*Reviewers and writers keep mentioning Marcel Duchamp in terms of the Ai Weiwei’s readymade pieces. Fair enough: Ai does too. But has anyone talked about how the dioramas relate to Duchamp’s last, disturbing work?

†The artist has now been issued with a passport (and, finally, a visa for the UK) and was able to travel to London for the installation of this show. Thanks to the readers who have pointed this out and added links such as this one. I hope Ai Weiwei continues to be granted freedom of movement.

Ai Weiwei is at the Royal Academy until 19 December.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dungeness, Kent

Sunrise, sunset

It's National Poetry Day in the UK, a celebration of poetry in all its forms involving readings, national radio, and even (praise be) television. What to post on the English Buildings blog to mark these celebrations? Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere? Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford? I've decided on a reprise (with a different photograph) of a building I posted way back in 2008 when this blog was just getting into its stride: Prospect Cottage, the home of film-maker Derek Jarman, set on the shingle at Dungeness. I've chosen it, as the sun comes out here in the Cotswolds to illuminate the British autumn, because this wooden house is adorned with lines, themselves picked out in cut wooden letters, from John Donne's poem, 'The Sunne Rising': 'Busie old foole, unruly Sunne, Why dost thou thus, Through windows and through curtaines call on us? Must to thy motions lovers' seasons runne?’

The letters that make up the poem, the same colour as the black walls of the cottage, need strong sunlight on them to be clearly visible and readable, so that the sun itself enhances the effect of this poem about the sun. It feels right, not just because of today's sunshine, but also because it seems appropriate for Jarman, a man who lived for the effects of light on celluloid, for whom light, as it were, was meat, drink, and inspiration. Sadly, Jarman went blind towards the end of his life. Cruel as this was for a film-maker (as for who not?) he took his blindness bravely. Perhaps he knew the consoling words of the great blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges, a book-lover who landed the enviable job of head of his country's National Library, reflected in a poem about the 'splendid irony' that 'Granted me books and blindness at one touch'. Borges also told us that we should not fear blindness, because 'It is like watching a slow sunset.'

Monday, October 5, 2015

Earls Barton, Northamptonshire

A flower among towers

The tower of Earls Barton church in Northamptonshire is one of the most famous bits of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England. There aren’t many towers in England that were built before the Norman conquest and this is not only the most spectacular of them, but also one of the best preserved. Every part of the tower except for the very top is Saxon, dating from the decades before 1066. We don’t know exactly how people used church towers back then. Some think they fulfilled a mixture of uses – perhaps worship on the ground floor, a dwelling for the priest above, with possible defensive use too, in times of strife. Some churches in this period may also have had bells in their towers.* However it was used, the tower’s design is full of telling details – the long and short stones making up the corners, the lovely, if irregular, bulbous columns between the window openings (see the picture below), and above all the pattern of raised stonework (pilaster strips, in the trade) that extends across the entire structure.

This kind of artful combination of straight lines, curves, and diagonals is something the Saxons did quite a lot (I noticed something similar a while back in a post I did about a church in Bradford-on-Avon). Architectural history books tell us that this sort of thing was probably copied from the frameworks of wooden structures – after all, most Saxon buildings, from humble hovels to the grand halls that are the settings for Saxon poems like Beowulf, were made of wood. But I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this idea. The pattern isn’t really that much like a wooden frame – the strips are very thin, the diagonal ‘braces’ are positioned oddly, likewise the semi-circular arches. Maybe the idea of making such a pattern comes from wooden structures, but the actual pattern – well, it’s purely decorative and I can’t help thinking that it must be there because people liked it that way. I’m rather glad they did. 
Earls Barton tower, detail of window openings and pilaster strips

- - - - -

*The early history of church bells is unclear, but back in Saxon times having a tower didn’t necessarily mean you had bells.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Bake off

I know, I know. I don’t always pick the most obvious destinations for my architectural explorations. A while back, a neighbour of mine actually laughed when I said I wanted to go to Kidderminster, but I enjoyed looking at the carpet factories there nonetheless. The same went for Kettering, where I hoped to find shoe factories but, as usual, I found more than I was expecting.

Tucked away amongst the Victorian red-brick houses and shoe factories, for instance, and hemmed in by white vans and old mattresses, was this Co-operative Bakery. It seems to have been converted to flats, but it’s still a neat example of a medium-sized factory in brick, dating from 1900. It’s lifted above the commonplace with the eye-catching stripy design on the corners and up the walls, by the shallow relieving arches above the windows, and by a couple of stand-out details.
The most obvious of these is the lettering: huge capitals made up out of white tiles. They’ve clearly been specially made – look at the bespoke bits of the B and V – and they leave no doubt about what this building is, or about the Co-op’s pride in it. The other detail is smaller: the graphic devices, in cast iron, set along the side. They spell KICS, for Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society. A lovely touch, on which the raised outlines of the letters catch the sun.
Kettering Industrial Co-operative Society certainly left its architectural mark – there’s a factory and a warehouse in neighbouring streets, too, and its impact was reflected in numerous stores in the town and surrounding villages. And the Kettering Co-op was responsible for at least one major milestone in the story of the Co-operative movement: the town elected the first-ever Co-operative Member of Parliament, in 1918. If a lot of these buildings no longer fulfil their original function, their design very effectively reminds us of their history – and made my journey more than worthwhile.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Vincent Square, London

When brick works

I’m not usually a fan of yellow brick, but this building makes it sing. It’s part of the Westminster Kingsway College building on the corner of Rochester Row and Vincent Square in an area of London I suppose you’d call Victoria. When I saw it my jaw  dropped and, frankly, I just stood there and stared in silence while people walked past, eyeing me suspiciously as if they were wondering what on earth I could be looking at. I didn’t know what it was, but it was obviously a modern building – 1950s – and was unashamedly decorative without trying too hard to make a point. The result, with its crosses and diagonals of brickwork, its pierced parapet, and its tower (stairs, presumably) with those slanting glazing bars) is enjoyably and inherently brickish, as if the building has learned what the Victorians could do with its material, shaken this up in some sort of imaginative kaleidoscope, and come up with something modern.

The architect, I learned when I got home and loped the building up, was Harry Goodhart-Rendell, designer of St Olaf House in Tooley Street, a wonderful church in St Leonard’s, Sussex (a favourite of mine), and other churches, and a great defender of Victorian architecture back at the time when defending such a thing was neither profitable nor popular. His building in Vincent Square has a steel frame, and indeed mostly very utilitarian metal-framed windows, but wraps these in this attractive, and no doubt efficient, brick covering, which looks as comfortable as the textile that it reminded me of. People say that this building is as good to use as it is to look at. Why didn’t we learn?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gloucester Cathedral

Tallis Fantasia

On A September evening in 1910 a few hundred people gathered at Gloucester Cathedral for a concert that formed part of the Three Choirs Festival, the longest-standing music festival in the world, which rotates between the three cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester. The main work on the programme was Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, long enough to fill a programme in itself. But on this occasion it was accompanied by a new work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer was in his late-thirties but was not yet well known. The Tallis Fantasia must have come as a wake-up call for the audience that night: a major work by an English composer and a piece with a sound-world of its own, and very different from what most of its audience would have been used to. Two younger composers, locals Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, spent a long time after the concert wandering around the dark streets of Gloucester in a daze, mulling over what they’d heard.

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia with the acoustic of the cathedral specifically in mind. It’s based on a tune by the English Tudor composer Thomas Tallis that was originally composed as a setting for a psalm and was recycled as a hymn tune by Vaughan Williams when he edited The English Hymnal. The composer clearly saw then that there was much more he could do with this theme.

The composer created the piece’s distinctive and striking sound by writing for strings alone (no woodwind, no brass, no percussion) and by using harmonies more often associated with folk or Renaissance music than with orchestral scores of his own time. Above all, he got the effect he wanted by dividing up his orchestra into groups and arranging them spatially in a particular way.

Vaughan Williams arranged his strings in three groups: orchestra 1 (a full band of first violins, second violins, cellos, and double basses); orchestra 2 (one desk from each group of strings, making up a group of nine players); and a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) whose members also play solos. Vaughan Williams specified that if possible orchestra 1 and orchestra 2 should sit apart from one another, their spatial separation emphasizing the dialogue between the two groups, with its developments of the Tallis theme, and its echoes, responses, and layers of sound. 

Space being at a premium in concert venues, conductors often have room for only a slight separation between  the groups of strings. Andrew Davies, in his 2010 centenary recording, had the luxury of an empty cathedral. This is not quite how Vaughan William could have imagined the first performance of course, with its large audience, but it does give a wonderful impression of the way the two groups work together, just as the video gives a visual impression of the cathedral’s architecture. Moving past the dizzyingly intricate lierne vault of the choir, with its network of stone ribs, past the choir screen and organ, to the empty nave, its rows of massive round Norman piers, the video reveals not only something of the diversity of Gloucester’s architecture, but also of the cavernous quality of the space. As the groups of strings converse across the Romanesque spaces and their sounds reverberate against the Gothic masonry, one can appreciate how well Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece fits the building for which it was written.

Monday, September 21, 2015


As your lordship pleases

Eyes that look along High Pavement in the middle of Nottingham are naturally drawn to this imposing classical frontage, with pediment, pilasters, short Doric columns on the ground floor and some of the tallest sash windows you could wish for. It’s strong Greek Revival stuff. Redolent of the way in which architects of the early-19th century could use the plainest of classical details to make a facade that stands out, it has imposing proportions  – and it is far from bland or boring.

So whatever is it? Some sort of Assembly Room? A gentleman’s club? No. It’s a house, which has a history going back to the late Middle Ages but was remodelled in 1833, specifically as judges’ lodgings (there are law courts in the Shire Hall, on the opposite side of the street). The unusual proportions are at least in part due to the fact that this front was attached to an older building. The big room behind the enormous sash windows is the judges’ dining room, where they could eat in grandeur. The architect was Henry Moses Wood, a prominent Nottingham figure, active as a banker as well as the designer of numerous buildings in Derbyshire and Notts. I find it difficult to dissociate this severely grand frontage from the image, summoned up by the writer John Mortimer, who put it into the mouth of his immortal character Horace Rumpole, of members of the judiciary passing death sentences and then retiring to their lodgings to enjoy muffins. Traditional and severe as it is, though, this facade makes use of what in 1833 was modern technology. Those columns on the ground floor are made of cast iron, like some similar ones in London I wrote about long ago in a post called Kicked a Building Lately?
Walk a couple of yards along the street, immediately to the left of my first photograph, and you find the rest of the frontage, done in another kind of Regency architecture. It’s still classical and most of the front is very plain, with rows of sash windows and a deep cornice, but the centrepiece is very different from the formality of the front of the dining room. This is a more delicate style, with a curving balcony and a door with a rather feminine fanlight like something Robert Adam might have designed. The balcony is held up on brackets with stylised leaf decoration, the balcony has elegant ironwork that might be at home in Brighton. And the iron overthrow with its fitting for a lamp is another impressive bit of the blacksmith’s art, all scrolls and flowers and buds. This facade too is part of the judges’ lodgings and its combination with the dining-room part makes for a rather split architectural personality. But the fact that both are classical helps them live together peacefully, revealing the versatility of the classical style.

- - -

Note The right-hand part with the big windows dates to Wood’s remodelling of 1833. Authorities are rather imprecise about the left-hand part. It looks Regency too, and feels like a different phase, but also looks too late to be from an earlier remodelling of the building in 1742.