Category Archives: Architecture

The London Mithraeum

Back when this blog was young, I wrote about the Temple of Mithras in the City of London, which was then embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House – an entirely unsympathetic treatment for what was one of London’s finer Roman sites.

The temple had been discovered by chance after the Blitz and became a hugely popular tourist attraction for a while but was then encased in concrete in a bizarre treatment, instantly turning something important and kind of heroic into the hopelessly banal. Here was a site that told several important stories about London and it looked like an unfinished courtyard.

Well the temple has now been restored to its rightful place, several metres below the street underneath Bloomberg’s new HQ on Walbrook. Bloomberg have not only restored the temple, they’ve also given it a new name – The London Mithraeum – and have opened it to the public free of charge. It now as all the solemnity and integrity missing from the old temple site.

It’s an almost minimalist space, stacked over three levels. The ground–floor introduction is a wall of Roman finds from the Walbrook valley, which are a tiny sample of the thousands archeologists have recovered. This is a currently rather popular way of cramming in a lot of visually arresting items from everyday life, and in this case includes toys, arrows, rings, amulets, wooden paddles, shoes and writing pads, one of which contains the first written example of the word London. They nearly all date from the very earliest Roman arrivals, as the Walbrook was culverted within decades of the city’s foundation and used as a rubbish heap. That partly explains why so much was found here, although god knows what has been lost in past reconstructions of the City. Apparently even after the Blitz, a huge amount of rubble from here was simply dumped without anybody sorting through it to find items of archeological significance. Incidentally, Bloomberg have also installed a rather nice sculptural reimagining of the Walbrook in the pavement outside their office, though I’m not sure how it will age.

The Temple itself dates to the 3rd century. Stairs take you down to the old Roman street level and a sparse atrium, where three digital lecterns allow visitors to explore the cult of Mithras. As part of the process, Bloomberg brought together various Mithran scholars and some of this information is fed into the audio-visual material. Shadowy interpretations of Mithran themes – the zodiac, bulls, wind –  are screened on the walls. The room also acts as a holding room before you go into the Temple site itself.

 

The Temple’s complete footprint has survived, which is part of what makes it unique in London. It has been pieced back together following the botched 1960s effort and then the entirety has been carefully reconstructed on its old site. Bloomberg have decided to work only with what they have – there’s no extraneous sculptures, no attempt to recreate an ersatz version of a reimagined interior. Instead, the columns of the Temple are cleverly evoked through light sculpture, while a slightly spooky tape of a Roman ceremony is played. Bloomberg haven’t even installed models of the sculptures from the site which are now in the Museum of London as they don’t want to use fabricated material and they can’t be entirely sure where they would have been placed. The exception to this is the clearly modern tauroctony showing Mithras slaying a bull, placed at what we think would be the altar.

Round the back of the altar there is also a rather prominent oyster shell buried in the brickwork. This was given to somebody who visited the rediscovered Mithras temple in 1954 and who returned it shortly before her death.

Bloomberg’s Mithraeum is slightly mysterious and sinister, but that’s not so much because the Mithran cult was particularly secretive, it’s just that we don’t know all that much about them. It’s also pretty tasteful – although the Latin incantations wobbled towards the theatrical side. But the drama is better than what was there before, and what’s particularly impressive is that Bloomberg didn’t really have to do all of this. They were always going to reconstruct the temple – it was a condition of their planning permission – but they’ve done a much more thoughtful job of it that many companies would. It’s probably nice for them to have such a striking slice of history in their basement – and it’s certainly good for the company profile – but it’s also a major commitment to provide such open access to the public.

It made me think of other London subterranean treasures, like the Tudor wine cellar that’s suspended underneath the Ministry of Defence. A fascinating and unusual space that the public never get to see. The London Mithraeum, by contrast, is now open for everyone.

All pictures courtesy of MOLA.

 

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Metroburbia – by Paul Knox

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METROBURBIA: The Anatomy Of Greater London by Paul Knox (Merrell)

London’s suburbia occupies so much space – 695 square miles according to Paul Knox – that it seems ridiculous people even try to summarise it with a single adjective, whether that’s “aspirational” or “banal”. The suburbs contain multitudes and are more like a network of a thousand individual towns then a uniform commuter-ville of identical streets. Knox describes them as “metroburbia”, which he defines as “a multimodal mixture of residential and employment settings, with a fusion of suburban and central-city characteristics”, which is a way of saying that there’s much more to London’s suburbs then large gardens and a fast train to Waterloo: they have shopping centres, office blocks, housing estates, schools, local governments and, critically, millions of residents who never dream of travelling to central London even if they benefit from being within its orbit.

Knox explored central London in his previous book for Merrell, London: Architecture, Building And Social Change, a glossy overview of the relationship between social change and architecture. That book focussed on 27 central districts, looking at how they were originally developed and then exploring in more detail a dozen key buildings. Here he again divides London into sectors, seven of them – Lea Valley, Northeast London, Thames Estuary, South London (all of it), Thames Valley, Northwest London and North London – as defined by the arteries of road, river and rail. Little, though, is made of these sectors once they have been established, with Knox instead taking a chronological overview of metroburbia’s growth and development.

The book is richly illustrated, with the historical narrative interrupted by numerous boxes that focus on individual buildings, trends, regions and housing estates. The story that unfolds is a useful way of understanding how the city has developed. At first, the suburbs were essentially used as a place to put the city’s problems. This is where you could place those big, ugly but necessary things such as cemeteries, asylums, prisons, sewage pumping stations and reservoirs. Housing at this time was just another problem to solve, and in the suburbs there was sufficient space to experiment with both social and private housing, whether in the form of domestic architecture or vast pioneering estates. The increase in population that came with the railways then created a need for further, more localised, infrastructure – libraries, police stations, hospitals, town halls. As a result, one of the joys of this book is the variety of styles it features. There are photos of 60s high-rise towers, modernist mansion blocks, art deco Golden Mile factories, neo-gothic Victorian asylums, Edwardian shopping parades and glitzy suburban villas, with tiny details picked over such as the subtle incorporation of postmodern motifs in domestic housing.

And it’s housing that ultimately dominates the story. The Green Belt is one factor behind this. A crucial reason for the attractiveness of suburbia, it is also a choke on growth with 14 outer boroughs giving more land to the Green Belt than they do to housing. A further complication is the continued fingers-in-ears approach to social housing, something the Government’s recent White Paper on housing suggests isn’t going to change any time soon. Knox picks over all this in a final chapters that analyses the current problem and possible outcomes. What is clear is that the impasse cannot be resolved without direct intervention, and that the fringe land of Metroburbia will be central to any solution.

Buy the book here – http://www.merrellpublishers.com/?9781858946511

 

Brief brutalism

There’s a passion for the architecture of Brutalism right now, as seen by the dozens of books that have recently been published showing erotically charged exposed concrete and right angles.

The Royal Academy has a short but interesting exhibition on the subject called Futures Found, open until the end of May.  This takes half-a-dozen different related aspects of post-war British architecture and investigates them with a mix of photos, books, film and objects – all set against the backdrop of fake concrete panelling.

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My favourite sections explored the architecture of car park and the role of architecture at the University of Essex, which was one of the country’s most radical campuses in the late 60s – and where the Angry Brigade had their roots.

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I liked also the section on an estate at Kennington, which included this example of how renderings and reality never quite overlap.

 

The final section looked at car parks, and also touched on the fetishisation of Brutalist architecture just as much as it has been demolished. Exhibits included a tote bag from Peckham and a certified lump of concrete from the old Trinity Square car park.

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Rain/Bridges

I have written two pieces for the Canal & River Trust.

The first is about what it’s like when it rains on a canal boat.Being on the canal when it rained could be a powerful experience, from watching a storm approach you across a basin to the sound of being woken by fat drumbeats of rain on a metal roof at night. I spoke to the writer Melissa Harrison, whose book Rain: Four Walks In The English Weather has just been published in paperback by Faber, and also quote this song by Pulp.

I’ve also written about Eric De Mare, a photographer who explored the dying canal network on a makeshift boat just after the Second World War. His photos, collected in the classic book Canals Of England, were instrumental in reigniting interest in the canal. As an architect, he particularly admired their functional beauty, the simplicity of “architecture without architects”, and the way the bridges, locks and towpaths blended with the natural landscape. He photographed all aspects of the canal, but my favourites are his images of weathered bollards, which he describes as accidental sculptures.

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His bridges are beautiful.

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He would later repeat this sort of work with photographic surveys of the Thames and then the rest of the country’s industrial infrastructure – the breweries, warehouses, docks, factories and, of course, power stations.

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Fiddling with the ingredients at Battersea Power Station

When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, chief executive of the Battersea Power Station development, for my book Up In Smoke, he went to great lengths to explain why the plan would be a success, not just as a business but as a new piece of city.

Well, he actually used the words “urban village”, but let’s try not to blame him for that.

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Tincknell enthused about how carefully they had worked out the exact mix of residential-commercial-leisure space in a way that would create the perfect “place” – a real destination that people wanted to visit. This was the social science of “placemaking” and the developer had published numerous reports and beautiful but boring books to explain their position.

He proudly told me the precise numbers: “57% residential. Of the remaining 43% that’s about 3.4m sq ft, 1.2m retail and restaurants, 1.7m sq ft of offices and the balance  in hotels, leisure and community space.”

These numbers, he insisted, were sacrosanct – they were the recipe that made the cake rise.

“It’s an appropriate density for the centre of the city,” he said when I questioned the scale of the residential aspect. “This level of density has been proved all round the world as a density that works. It creates a critical mass so the shops function, the public transport works, there’s a buzz and that’s what people come for. You create this mix of uses, this cocktail that you really believe in, you have to stick with it, you can’t fiddle with the ingredients.”

Guess what?

That’s right, the ingredients are now being fiddled with. According to an interview with Ticknell in the Financial Times,  the bottom has fallen out of the luxury flat market, causing problems for the power station model. But riding to the rescue are Apple, whose decision to move into the power station’s vast office space in 2021 has undoubtedly been a gigantic coup for the developers. Now, with Apple proving such an attractive hook, Tincknell is talking about turning over more of the residential aspect to offices. He told the FT that at least one planned building in the third phase of the scheme, designed by Frank Gehry and Foster + Partners, was under consideration for a change of use.

“I could easily see us adding another million square feet [of offices],” Tincknell says. “The great thing about a long-term scheme like this is we can adjust with the markets. If there’s no residential market and a very strong office market then we will build offices.”

It looks as if that perfect cocktail is being shaken not stirred.

For Up In Smoke, Tincknell promised me “that we are genuinely committed to creating a brilliant community. We feel very passionate. It will only make the place better. We have a responsibility to London. We are doing things way beyond the remit of the site so it fits in with London and genuinely improve the quality of life. If we succeed in that goal the value of the commercial and residential assets will rise and it will be a great place to live and visit. You can’t just develop it and run away, it has to work.”

On that latter promise, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

 

Read or Dredd: 2000 AD at the Cartoon Museum

Everything I love about British pop culture is encapsulated in 2000AD, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in February 2017. There are several birthday events planned, including an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury that runs until April 23rd. I had a look around in the company of the curator Steve Marchant, who enthused about the gorgeous clarity of the original artwork from Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra (“At times, the comic looked like it was printed with mud on toilet paper,” he said), while I reacquainted myself with the world of Dredd and Rogue Trooper.

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As a kid, my comic-reading progress went something like this: BeanoTransformersRoy Of The Rovers2000AD. It wasn’t quite that simple – the first comic I ever read was Beezer, and I was a big fan of Whizzer And Chips. When I was reading Transformers, I was also regularly reading Batman and Superman. And for a while, I got really into a horror comic called Scream!.

But in this journey, 2000AD always seemed like the inevitable destination. Even when I was reading the playful pranks and japes of Dennis and Minnie, I’d see 2000AD on the rack at WH Smiths and quiver in confused anticipation at the cover, and the weirdness and violence it promised.

I knew one day I’d be ready.

The exhibition at the Cartoon Museum starts by showing how 2000AD was created and how it developed. I learnt that the initial hero was soppy space curate Dan Dare, in whose blue-eyed banality I saw as the very opposite of what 2000AD stood for. Several other strips – often loosely based on popular movies or TV series – were given a turn until Judge Dredd inevitably took over. And it was Judge Dredd who most fascinated me. He is a brilliant creation, this square-jawed, deadpan, literal-minded, licensed thug who you can never be sure is good, evil or amoral. Sure, America had Batman but he was a playboy billionaire who frequently expressed moral conflict. Dredd, by contrast, was a foot soldier with no exterior life who always knew what he was doing was right because he was law incarnate. In that lack of doubt, he had more in common with supervillains than superheros.

But what made Dredd sing was the universe around him, and especially the surreal, sinister Mega-City One, which had its own architecture, slang, fads and culture. The world of Mega-City was often very funny and satirical – giant tower blocks named after some of the most insignificant 20th century personalities and politicians – and Dredd was this single-minded avatar plodding through it, trying to erase difference and make sense of it all.

The combination was fascinating: a strip could be at once nihilistic, surreal, smart, sarcastic, joyful, violent and morally ambiguous. One strip at the Cartoon Museum illustrates this neatly: Dredd is spending Christmas Day on the beat, by the end of which he has deported an illegal immigrant, shot a fellow judge and punched a well-wisher in the face. And this was the good guy.

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Much less ambiguous was my other favourite character, Rogue Trooper. The exhibition looks at several long-standing strips including Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog and the wonderful Halo Jones, but it was Rogue who I adored. He was weird – taciturn and blue, with a talking gun, back pack and helmet – but he at least provided some moral clarity after Dredd. The concept was simple too, a sort of future war Fugitive, with Rogue out to hunt down the man who betrayed his unit – the classic quest that could be strung out for as long as possible.

It’s heartening to see 2000AD is still popular today. When it was formed, it was assumed it would last around six months, as that was the usual lifespan of new comics – indeed, the aforementioned Scream! folded after 15 issues. That it is still relevant is testament to the skill of the artists and the writers, who continue to ensure there are sufficient parallels with the real world for plots to be relevant. A couple of strips at the Cartoon Museum showcase this perfectly: in one, a patriotic, racist robot sings Rule Britannia and whines about foreigners as it goes on the rampage amid the skycrapers of Brit-Cit; in another, Chief Judge Caligula has taken power, a deranged, rambling permanently enraged narcissist with a huge ego and lustrous hair who insists on building a giant wall around his crumbling empire.

Remind you of anybody?

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Podcasts, radio and Ray Davies

bps-ray-daviesI have recorded a podcast with N Quentin Woolf for Londonist about Battersea Power Station. It covers the full history of the site, looking at the history of the power station, the property battles, failed dreams and possible future.

On Friday, I will be a guest on Wandsworth Radio at around 6.30, again talking about Up In Smoke and the power station.

The image above, incidentally, is a screengrab from Ray Davies’s excellent 1984 film Return to Waterloo, starring Tim Roth and Ken Colley, which is set largely aboard the 8.52 from Guildford to Waterloo. Recently released on DVD, I review it in the forthcoming edition of Uncut.

 

 

 

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Spitalfields Life reports that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close. This is one of London’s oldest companies, founded in 1570 and based at its present site for 250 years. I met the owner of the foundry in 2015, and wrote this piece for Completely London magazine.

“The world is full of bells,” says Alan Hughes, and he should know. Bells are in his blood. Hughes is the fourth generation of his family to be master bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. Operating since 1570, the foundry has cast some of the most famous bells in the world. Big Ben was one of theirs, as were the bells at Westminster Abbey, the cockney bells of St Mary-le-Bow and America’s Liberty Bell. “I feel more like a caretaker than the owner,” says Hughes. “It’s so old. It was started by somebody walking these streets when Shakespeare was alive and Elizabeth I was on the throne. The world was unrecognisable. Yet it’s the same business, doing the same thing, essentially the same way.”

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In 1738, Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved to their present site on Whitechapel Road, having been founded up the road at Aldgate. The shop front is discreet and the Georgian offices modest. A display area depicts highlights from the past 445 years, such as cuttings from the Queen’s visit in 2009 and, hanging above the door, a gigantic moulding gauge, which looks like a pterodactyl’s wishbone and was used to create the mould for the 13.5 tonne Big Ben. They are proud of their history at Whitechapel, but past a small internal courtyard comes a clanging reminder that this is a living enterprise. Here is the foundry’s workshop, a large space filled with old bells, new bells, castings, moulds, metal dust, furnace bricks, and the damp thick smell of clay. In one corner, a tuner stands turning a bell on a lathe, gradually shaving off the rough interior metal by millimetres until he gets the right tone. It’s a busy, dirty, noisy place, which is why the foundry’s popular tours don’t take in the factory floor. “It’s lovely to be involved in a company that actually makes things,” says Hughes. “Here we are surrounded by bankers and financial services and I’m sure that’s very necessary and profitable but there’s nothing tangible, there’s no nuts and bolts.”

The foundry makes around 35 tonnes of bells each year, of varying sizes and for all occasions, exporting as far as Australia. They make church bells, hand bells, tiny bells for instruments like the calliope (a sort of steam organ) and ornamental bells using methods unchanged for centuries. “The fundamentals haven’t changed in 4,000 years,” says Hughes. “You create a mould, which means you make a space, the shape of which is the exact shape of the cast you wish to create, and you pour in liquid metal. That cools and the mould is then broken. Our moulding material – called the loam – is sand, bound with clay, hair and horse manure. What has changed is that we have far tighter control of technique and purity, and greater understanding of acoustics. We can produce bells that sound better, are better tuned, are better made and will last longer.”

That’s some claim given that even old bells are extraordinarily durable. “The demand for bells has been falling steadily since the 19th century and the fundamental problem is that once you have a well-made bell, you never need to replace it,” says Hughes. “There are two at Westminster Abbey that we cast in 1583. They are rung once a day every day and there’s nothing wrong with them. The oldest bell we’ve worked with are in North Kent and from the 1200s. There’s nothing wrong with them. Providing they are used sensibly, a bell will go on forever.”

Hughes was introduced to the family business – his great-grandfather purchased the company in 1904 – at a young age, going on tower inspections with his father during school holidays. “I’d sit at the top of the tower and write down measurements that he shouted out at me,” he recalls. Hughes “drifted” into working at the foundry, starting in the workshop in 1966. Now office based, he still keeps his hand in. “Nobody here can do everything,” he says. “We have loam-moulding, sand-moulding, tower bell tuning, handbell tuning, leatherwork, carpentry, joinery, fitters, turners, blacksmiths, bell hangers, steel fabricators. I started in the loam shop and still have the record for the greatest number of loam hand-mixes in one day, I did eight – the closest anybody has got is six. I have done frame building and bell hanging and I am currently the blacksmith’s mate. I enjoy the physical work. You end the day thirsty, dirty and exhausted but can fix it with a beer, bath and bed.”

Running the bell foundry is, Hughes suggests, tiring but satisfying work. “I like the idea that I am involved in creating things that will still be operating not only years after I have died, but possibly centuries,” he muses. “Not many people are in such a fortunate position that they will leave something behind that will outlive them so long.” No wonder the foundry seems timeless. Back outside, the 21st century continues. Upon leaving the foundry, a tiny bell above the door chimes clearly and with pride.

http://www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/

Funding film about Tin Pan Alley

I’ve written about Denmark Street before – that strangely old-fashioned almost Brooklyn-style street on the border of Soho and Covent Garden that for decades has been home to various aspects of the music industry in the UK.

Tin Pan Alley Tales is a film that plans to tell the story of this small but vitally important street but it needs funding. Made by campaigner Henry Scott-Irvine, the film will tell the stories of the 22 buildings that make up Denmark Street and trace its progression from home of pre-war publishers and songwriters, through skiffle, pop and rock, punk and to the present day.

It will provide an important and fascinating document of a London street that has been at the forefront of popular culture for decades but which is now under threat from London’s rampant development.

To make a donation, go here.