Friday, March 16, 2018

Surbiton, Surrey

Southern Electric

A while back I renewed my acquaintance with Surbiton station, and was struck again by its white walls and its design that seems to exemplify what was seen as modern in the 1930s. What does it remind you of? An Odeon? A 1930s radio set? At any rate it’s a symbol of how the Southern Railway saw themselves in 1938: as sleek, forward-looking ’Southern Electric’, keen to tell you that the railways were the modern, convenient way to travel.

The station is the outstanding work of J R Scott and he threw the modernist works at it – flat roofs, white walls, tall window openings, fins, the very simple clock dial, the sans serif lettering – everything, as railway historian Gordon Biddle points out, except for concrete platform awnings.* If this white, flat-roofed building is an interloper in the middle of Surbiton (cliché adjectives: leafy, quiet, prosperous…) it stands back from the road and holds its own without intruding. As I hastened to the platform to catch the 0911 to Waterloo, I appreciated its light interior and generous circulation space too. And today’s equivalent of Southern Electric† got me to my appointment with time to spare.

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* Gordon Biddle, Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings (OUP, 2003)

† A good train but not in the smart green livery of 1938. For railway colours, see my post of long ago here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Soho Square, London


Last weekend I was due to drive down to Somerset to teach a course on Tudor and Stuart architecture. Somerset was one of the parts of Britain to receive the rare ‘red weather warning’, so the course was cancelled and none of us got stuck in the snow. One of the things I was going to talk about was the impact of the Great Fire of London and the fact that very few timber-framed buildings have been constructed in the capital since 1666.

Here is one exception, the hut in the middle of Soho Square. It might look like a survivor from the pre-fire era, but in fact it was built in 1925. Its original purpose was to disguise the entrance of an underground electricity substation, built for the Charing Cross Electricity Company. The substation is no longer active and the subterranean space was used as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Now the building is a gardeners’ hut, full of spades and the like. I’m not sure how the upper floor is used.

This little building feels visually generous – the arcades, pointed roof, bits of carving, and fancy bargeboards were hardly necessary, but provide just the right sort of fun for the centre of a busy square that’s now a popular place to relax. It’s here on the blog as a reminder – to me, to talk to the organisers about rescheduling my course, and to all of us, that after the snows, spring cannot be far away.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Wreay, Cumbria

Pinecones and ammonites

To mark International Women’s Day, I am posting today some pictures of what I think is one of the most outstanding and extraordinary buildings designed by a woman, the church of St Mary, Wreay. Here is what I wrote about the church in December 2012, when reviewing Jenny Uglow’s biography of Losh, The Pinecone:

St Mary’s Wreay looks more like a work of the Arts and Crafts period of the 1880s than a building of the 1840s. But not even the Arts and Crafts produced a structure quite like this, covered with carvings that are far outside the usual church orbit – a tortoise gargoyle, a crocodile, a dragon, lotus buds, gourds, and pinecones (the latter symbolic variously of creation, reproduction, enlightenment, the spirit of man, and the expansion of consciousness). There are carved angels, it is true, but otherwise you have to look hard to find much traditional Christian imagery. It is as if Sarah Losh, having daringly entered the male preserve of architecture, looked at the whole business from a different viewpoint, that of a kind of pan-religious perspective, where all faiths are as one.

By describing Sarah
’s church in such detail, Jenny Uglow also describes her somewhat elusive subject, Sarah herself and her concerns. The church is an act of making and also an act of mourning (for Sarah’s parents and sister and other family members); it is both a gathering together of diverse religious symbols and a very specific act of benevolence to the village of Wreay itself, to which Sarah also contributed a school and numerous hand-outs in times of need; it is both a display of traditional craftsmanship and an artistic bolt out of the blue. Uglow's book nails all this – but does not lose sight of the oddity of the place or the elusiveness of its creator.

The photographs (credits below) show the interior of the apse and one of the windows. The window surround is carved with ammonites and pinecones, two of the building’s presiding symbols.

Photographic credits: Apse photo by The Carlisle Kid; window photo by Rose and Trev Clough, both used under CC licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Fairford, Gloucestershire

Fashion and craftsmanship

The snow has come down and put a halt, for now, to architectural exploration. Here’s a memory of another year’s snow, just visible lingering in Fairford, on Gloucestershire’s and the Cotswolds’ eastern edge. This house is just to the north of Fairford’s great church and was built as the lodge at the entrance of Fairford Park, a notable house that was demolished in 1957. Fairford Park was a 17th-century house but was modified later and had interiors of 1789 by Soane. It’s a sad loss, although one or two elements from the interiors were recycled elsewhere – the staircase, for example, ended up at Corsham Court, in Wiltshire.

This lodge is dated by Pevsner to c. 1800, just after the Soane alterations to the main house. It was the Gothic windows at the front that caught my eye – and that was the point of them. Back in the early 1800s builders were still putting up traditional Cotswold houses with rectangular, often stone-mullioned windows. But if you wanted something to stand out, pointed Gothic windows with intersecting tracery were just the thing. So this is a striking facade for a building that’s meant to be recognisable, to announce the entrance gate to the Park. There’s also a bay window at the side, with a different glazing pattern – this multi-aspect bay clearly helped the occupant keep an eye on the comings and goings through the gate.

So the pointed windows help to make the house a landmark, as does the lovely Cotswold-stone-tiled hipped roof, rising to a single chimney. These hipped roofs are not the most common type on the Cotswolds, where most houses have gabled roofs, but they’re delightful, with their great cascades of stone slates. These slates are large at the bottom, progressively smaller as you go up. Their production and fitting was one of the great accomplishments of the traditional Cotswold builders, and a reminder that, for all its fashionable ‘look at me’ character, this house is also a repository of craftsmanship and skill.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Seven Springs, Gloucestershire

Silent springs

There’s not a lot at Seven Springs, in the parish of Cobberley not far from Cheltenham: a largish mid-19th century house now a school, and the tiny parcel office in my previous post, and, well, seven springs. The springs are a contender for the ultimate source of the River Thames, although Thames Head, near, Kemble, is more usually cited as the source. Seven Springs is strictly the source of a small river, the Churn, which flows into the Thames at Cricklade.

As I was looking at the parcel office I decided to walk a few yards further along the road and visit the springs. They were bubbling away quietly, sending water from the subterranean rocks out through seven small holes. But it wasn’t really the right time of year for a photograph. The place was looking muddy and dark and, apart from a fetching clump of snowdrops, rather dingy. So I had a look at the stone tablet, which asserts the place’s claim in bold Latin – ‘Here, Father Thames, is your sevenfold spring’ – and resolved to return to Seven Springs when the weather is better and the ground less muddy.