Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Whose austerity?

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ministry-Nostalgia-Consuming-Austerity-Carry/dp/1784780758/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461924171&sr=8-1&keywords=Owen+Hatherley
The next in my Springtime clutch of book reviews is something different: a polemic about how the past is being misused. It’s by a writer who always has something interesting to say about architecture...
 
Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia
Published by Verso


‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’. The slogan is everywhere: mugs, tea towels, post cards. It has spawned punning variants and look-alikes too. It’s so ubiquitous that we often forget (if we knew) that the original poster was never actually used by the government – the fact that we know about it at all is due to the chance survival of a single printed proof discovered and reproduced (and badly imitated)…ad nauseam. Owen Hatherley, for one, is nauseated by it because for him, as he explains in The Ministry of Nostalgia, its revival is part of a falsification of history perpetrated in order to bolster the austerity of our own times. The ‘austerity years’ of the 1940s and 1950s, the ‘make do and mend’ ethic (and aesthetic), are being repackaged, he argues, and offered to us as a consolation for neoliberalism’s violence, the deprivations of today, and ‘the privatisation of our common wealth’.

It’s not just the poster of course. Hatherley finds traces of this sort of misuse of history in all kinds of places, from retro-chic to Jamie Oliver’s The Ministry of Food (the latter, he opines, one of a succession of examples of members of the middle classes condescendingly telling the lower orders how to run their lives). He sees it in books like Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns, which he views as sanitizing the interwar and mid-century periods with its appreciation of artists such as John Piper and Eric Ravilious and its inclusion of writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Evelyn Waugh, conservative writers whose love of country houses comes in for particular scrutiny.*

Hatherley makes some good points in the course of his polemic. The 1940s and 1950s austerity years were very different from our own. While recovering from a world war, the country constructed a welfare state and, growing up in the 1960s, I for one have reason to look back gratefully to the housing and educational provisions that it created. To sum up the 1950s as all bland art, sans-serif posters, stylish but old-fashioned clothes, and a bit of suffering, and to identify it with the very different austerity of today, with its selling off of public assets and its increasing (rather than decreasing) gap between the rich and the poor, is crass, and Hatherley is right to point that out. He's interesting, too, on the way both ‘blue Labour’ and ‘red Tory’ movements have drawn on the sort of selective nostalgia that this view of the post-war period represents.

I reserve my right, however, to look back at the good aspects of the period with a clear conscience. Eric Ravilious, of all people, was continuously portraying the hard edges to country life – the chalk downs with their thin soil, bare cottage rooms, tin huts, junk in corners, telegraph wires. And interwar graphic design was often outstanding – even if it was, as Hatherley revealingly explains, not just put to the service of fine organizations like London Transport but also made to serve the sometimes racist agenda of the Empire Marketing Board.

And then there’s the architecture. As one has come to expect from Hatherley, there’s an enthusiasm for post-war concrete buildings created by people who wanted to bring good design to the masses. But there’s also a willingness to see the good in ‘austerity’ building – and I’m impressed that he admires not just the rebarbative constructions of the Brutalists but also neo-Georgian LCC flats, civilized and durable as they are. There are well designed Brutalist buildings and decent neo-Georgian ones: if we can only see good in one or the other we should get the blinkers off. Hatherley also has important points to make about the revamping of formerly public housing for sale to private owners – while architecture enthusiasts cheer at the preservation of blocks such as Denys Lasdun’s Keeling House, he mourns their passing out of the public sector as yet more of the less well off find it impossible to get a toe-hold in London.

So I’ll offer three cheers to Hatherley for raising these points, while also lifting a glass to the things from the 1940s and 1950s that we rightly admire: the Penguin book covers, the better council flats, the good state schools, the paintings of Eric Ravilious, London Transport’s graphics, the health service. Let’s see all these things clearly – and not let go of the good that still survives.

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*I must say that when I read Alexandra Harris's book I did wonder what Bowen and Waugh were doing in it. By concentrating on the rather obvious target of their country house writing I think too that Owen Hatherley misses a lot, from Bowen especially.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Notable towns



John Minnis, Katie Carmichael, et al, Boston, Lincolnshire: Historic North Sea Port and Market Town
Jeremy and Caroline Gould, Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73
Published by Historic England

These are the latest two volumes in Historic England’s Informed Conservation series, which zooms in on areas of historic interest, highlighting their particular value and the pressures of change and development that they face. The current books focus on places that aren’t high in the public consciousness when it comes to historic buildings – Boston, out on a limb in south Lincolnshire, and Coventry, famously bombed during World War II and rebuilt afterwards. But both contain much that is valuable, not just in terms of particular buildings, but in townscape, planning, and local character.



Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73 first. Apart from a brief opening chapter, the whole book is concerned with the developments after the city was comprehensively and devastatingly bombed on 14 November 1940. The authors describe the pivotal role of city architect Donald Gibson, who was already replanning the city before the bombs fell, the various adaptations of his plans to create a striking modern city centre with zoning and a serious-minded kind of modernist architecture, influenced by contemporary developments in countries such as Sweden.* Gibson’s successor, Arthur Ling (and his successor Terence Gregory), continued this work through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, coping with Coventry’s expansion on the back of an economic boom. The boom produced demands not just for factories and commercial buildings, but also for houses, schools, hospitals, and old people’s homes – and for better roads, as car ownership shot up.

The story of the replanning, rebuilding, and expansion of Coventry is a complex one, involving varying needs, adapting visions, and changing plans. The book does a good job of describing this development and showing its lasting impact. This impact is important in more than one way. Firstly, it transformed Coventry’s centre, creating buildings and townscapes that are increasingly seen as valuable. Broadgate House, City Market, the Belgrade Theatre, and of course the cathedral – all these are widely recognised as important and central to any kind of informed conservation of the city; so too are some of the outstanding pieces of public art such as William Mitchell’s relief panels and Gorden Cullen’s tile mural. Second, the suburbs deserve attention. As the author’s say, their consistent architecture, local shops, and generous greenery could be a formula for sustainable communities elsewhere. What’s more, the authors recognise that it is possible to upgrade houses to modern standard without compromising the architecture; possible too to extend buildings such as the Belgrade Theatre without destroying it – as Stanton Williams have indeed done. Coventry was once seen as a beacon and it could shine again. This book lends it some light.


Boston Lincolnshire has a rather different focus, with a longer historical view, reflecting the rich heritage of the town. Trade has always been at its heart. The book describes its importance as a medieval wool town, hence the large and famous church of St Botolph and its medieval Guildhall in locally made brick – a strikingly early use of this material; its expansion as a port after the improvements in drainage and navigation in the 18th century; and its further growth in the 19th century, with docks and industrial buildings – of which grain warehouses and the former feather works are among the survivors. The 20th century reveals a less upbeat story, with regrettable demolitions and a population surviving in a low-wage economy, but the book also highlights some of the architectural upsides, from the Edwardian baroque Post Office to some memorable 1930s shops. The final chapter, on ‘The Present Day’ shows how regeneration has already had a beneficial impact on the town and looks forward to a positive vision for Boston’s future, ‘tantalisingly within reach’.

The book does an excellent job of describing and illustrating Boston’s built environment – guildhall, houses, warehouses, pumping station, and more: the pages glow with red brick and pantiles. Joys in other materials – the Egyptian-style masonic hall, a stuccoed hotel, chapels and Session House faced in stone – fill out the picture. There’s also a good sense of how the place fits together as a whole, helped by some very clear maps, including one of the Market Place area and one of South Street and South Square. Boston, Lincolnshire should attract visitors, inform locals, and inspire conservationists to preserve the best of this fascinating place. Hats off to that.

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*More serious indeed (some would say less frivolous) than the style that developed around the Festival of Britain in 1951 and that has come to seem the essence of British mid-century modernism. Swedish modernism, incidentally, was widely covered in the British architectural press during the war.




Monday, April 25, 2016

Around the house

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Houses-Architectural-Pevsner-Guides-Introductions/dp/0300215541?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Spring has been in the air for a while now, albeit on and off (my Facebook feed seems to alternate between images of bluebells and snow), so it’s the time of year for English Buildings to turn temporarily into a book blog. In the next few posts, I’ll be offering my thoughts on a number of books that have struck me in the last few months, mostly new publications, but also a couple that have come my way recently even though they’ve been out for a while. I start with the beginning of a new series: Pevsner Introductions…

Charles O’Brien, Houses
Pevsner Introductions: Published by Yale University Press


The name Pevsner needs no introduction to readers of this blog. The Buildings of England series, county guides to England’s buildings by the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, now revised and expanded by a team of scholars, is the bible for anyone looking at our buildings or writing about them. The Pevsner team have already developed the series, adding the counties of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and creating the Pevsner City Guides. Now come introductory architectural guides on specific building types.

Houses by Charles O’Brien is the first of these introductions to come my way. It covers the history of the English house, working chronologically from the Middle Ages to the present. All the key phases are described, concisely but in enough depth to give the reader a real sense of the character of each period – in the way houses were planned, in their architectural details and embellishments, and in the overall look of the architecture of each era. The book features a good sample of the great houses, but covers more modest dwellings too, from cruck-frame buildings in Herefordshire to weavers’ houses in Macclesfield, council flats to 1960s SPAN houses. There’s useful information on structures (for example medieval timber frames) and on key developments in architecture and building (the ‘great rebuilding’, the orders, the way leaseholder development worked in the Georgian period, and so on). 

Houses is an excellent primer of architectural styles through the ages, but it’s more than this. At certain key stages, it gives a real sense of the ideas and turning points that drove architectural change. To take one example: the increasing use of chimneys in Tudor houses is explained and the book points out how this not only benefited the comfort of the inhabitants but also led to changes in the way houses were planned, to accommodate the chimneys and fireplaces. Or another example: an extended caption on houses in Essex Court, in London’s Temple, neatly summarises the new type of house built after London’s 1666 Great Fire: the point at which brick-faced, stone-quoined houses with modillion cornices and narrow bands of stone separating the storeys became fashionable, defining a kind of house seen widely in the following decades. Or yet another: the way in which the ‘Mock Tudor’ style became fashionable in the 1920s, in part because of its promotion by builders and by the newly expanding building societies, which made mortgages more widely accessible and brought this brand of domesticity to a growing band of buyers. Developments such as these are explained with great clarity, although the process does entail the use of specialist architectural terms. The author defines the key ones as he goes along, but non-specialists might find it helpful to get a copy of Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary, which provides more detail. There’s a concise bibliography to help you follow up specific areas.

In short, this is an ideal book for anyone with an interest in historic houses – for the country house visitor looking for some architectural background, or for the lover of historic towns and villages who wants a clearer sense of the ways in which cities like Bath or London or Birmingham came to be the way they are, or for the owner of a period house who is on the lookout for guidance on the relevant styles and fashions. It’s written with admirable clarity and is highly illustrated with well chosen examples, informatively captioned. And coming from the Pevsner stable, the book makes you feel you are in a safe hands.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire


For all time

As Shakespeare is being widely celebrated at the moment, here's a brief Shakespearean interlude. It's a terracotta panel from the Old Bank in Stratford-upon-Avon, a building of 1883 designed by Martin and Harris. The facade is festooned with scenes from the work of Stratford's most famous son.

The panel in my photograph (click on it to enlarge it) shows scenes from four of the plays, from left to right: As You Like It (with people of the Forest of Arden on the left, presumably); Two Gentlemen of Verona; A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bottom with the ass's head); and Twelfth Night (Andrew Aguecheek and Viola, dressed as a man, nearly coming to blows). Culture as the common currency of Victorian England. Lovely.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cheltenham. Gloucestershire




The heart and the honeysuckle, revisited

Walking around Cheltenham this afternoon I was reminded that I was going to post an example of the town’s iron balconies – specifically one using the ‘heart and honeysuckle’ motif I also spotted a while back in London. These iron balcony fronts, produced by the Carron ironworks in Glasgow, seem to have become very popular in Cheltenham because they were stocked by a local builder and because they seemed to exemplify the classical sophistication that Cheltenham’s developers wanted. This was a place, after all, that was marketing itself, with some success, as a country spa and resort for the upper and middle classes who wanted a break from London.

The trouble is, there’s a tendency to paint this ironwork either black (which blends with the window glass) or white (which blends with the stuccoed walls), which makes clear photography difficult. I see now that I must get up early and go around with my camera while the white shutters are still closed, then the black ironwork at least will be clearly visible. Here’s one house with some closed shutters, together with a clearer detail below.

Classical sophistication? That’s because the honeysuckle (aka anthemion) was much used as an ornamental pattern in ancient Greek architecture. In Cheltenham, instead of running round cornices, it’s most common in the ironwork, inside the heart, as you can see here: it looks like a fan of sylized petals. The balconies themselves cantilever out from the walls in such a way as to make it unlikely they’d take a lot of weight. They’re there mainly to make it safe to open the glorious floor-to-ceiling windows, and to accommodate plants. Real honeysuckle to complement the iron version? Perhaps that’s unlikely.  But something green and flowering, at least.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Essex road, London


The reel world

My recent trip to London found me within a couple of streets of Essex Road, so a short detour took me here. I knew there was a former cinema in the street, and had read that it was a good example of ‘Egyptian art deco’, but even this didn’t quite prepare me for this street frontage. Welcome to the former Carlton Cinema in all its glory. A fine work of 1930 by George Coles, an architect best known for the art deco cinemas he designed for Oscar Deutsch of the Odeon chain. Here, though, he was working for the independent cinema company C & R Theatres; the Carlton later became an ABC cinema, then a bingo hall, then a church.*

A vast expanse of white Hathernware ceramic cladding is given the Tutankhamun-accents that cinema (and also factory) designers loved in the late-1920s and early-1930s: elaborately-topped columns,† brightly coloured triangles, striped concave cornices rounding everything off at the top. Looking a little closer there are also decorative relief details around the window openings and a colourful zigzag strip running above the central row of windows.
I alluded to the boy-king Tutankhamun knowingly, because it’s said that the fashion for Egyptian decoration was given a boost by the opening of his tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. Egyptian was also attractive to cinema owners because it was seen as ‘exotic’, and the exotic, romantic, and otherwise unfamiliar and lavish were the kinds of look that they liked to cultivate when taking their customers to another world. Entering the ‘reel’ world of the movies usually entailed leaving the real world outside in the street. But for art deco cinema designers, facades like this were a way of advertising the exotic riches within, and giving even passers-by a taste of movie magic.

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*There’s more on the Carlton, Essex Road at the Cinema Treasures site, which reveals that the venue opened in 1930 with Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger and closed in 1972 with Reg Varney in Mutiny on the Buses. O tempora o mores!

†Readers who click the factory link will see how the column tops on the Carreras tobacco factory in Mornington Crescent are more lotus-like than the rather stylized ones on the Carlton cinema. The same goes for the more leaf-like decoration on the bases of the factory columns. Since there's nothing ‘authentic’ about these Egyptian buildings, however, this doesn’t detract from the cinema’s design. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Highbury and Islington, London


An afternoon on the tiles

To London for the day, to have a look at Historic England’s excellent exhibition Out There (post-war public sculpture in England, just ended) and to catch up with my son and his girlfriend. As usual when I visit London, there were incidental architectural discoveries and a few passing glances towards buildings and features I’ve admired many times before. As my son lives in Islington, one of these admiring glances was in the direction of the tiles on the platforms of Highbury and Islington Underground Station (above), which were designed by Edward Bawden.

Each of the Victoria line stations has its own distinctive tile artwork in the seating recesses on the platforms, and each one reflects, comments, or riffs on the station’s name or locality. So there are crowns arranged crosswise at King’s Cross (a design by Tom Eckersley), a maze (or warren) at Warren Street (by Crosby Fletcher Forbes), a grid of dots (modern art, you see, chez the Tate) at Pimlico (by Peter Sedgely) and so on.* Bawden did the designs for three stations. His cameo of Queen Victoria at Victoria station is unexceptionable but also unexceptional I think and not especially Bawdenesque. His other two I really like: a castle for Highbury and Islington and a woman being ferried across a river for Tottenham Hale.† The first is to represent the ‘High Bury’, or borough, or castle, in the locality; the castle was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The second commemorates the old ferry, alluding to the theory that the ‘Hale’ in Tottenham Hale derives from either ‘Haul’, which is what the boat did, or ‘Hail’, which is what you did to attract the attention of the ferryman, I suppose.
Both designs have a clarity that reminds me of Bawden's work as a printmaker, particularly his linocuts. The Tottenham Hale image reminds one of Bawden’s skill in capturing figures in a few strong lines, and in getting in telling and affecting detail – the dog, a box of chickens, and an egg basket. The Highbury and Islington picture combines some key elements of a castle (solid masonry, towers, a portcullis, battlements) into a strong symbolic design: the essence of a castle. It’s on a mound too, a miniature city (or borough at least) on a hill, ripe for our examination, and admiration.

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•The Victoria Line Tiles website shows all of the designs on the line, from Brixton to Walthamstow Central.

†Tottenham Hale is a station I’ve only ever stopped at once, so I’ve taken the picture from the internet. It’s by Oxyman, and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Highbury and Islington picture is my own.