Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

 

 

Purley and dementia

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the dementia-friendly town concept, which is currently being rolled out in Purley. It is one of many initiatives being considered for towns and cities as the average age of the population continues to rise.

 

Curiocity – the book

Way back in 2011, I wrote this blog post about something I’d been sent in the post. It was called Curiocity and was a tiny fold-up magazine that featured arcane trivia on one side and a weird map on the other. I think I was one of the first – if not the first – to write about the project. The first editions were numbered and then they began to appear in alphabetical order, with each letter indicating the theme, often wilfully obscure and tangential. It was a wizard wheeze, and I even contributed to later editions but Curiocity the magazine only got as far as G, when they stopped. I was miffed, partly because I’d not got round to asking how it should be pronounced – “curio city” or curiosity”?

That’s because the pair behind Curiocity – Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose – had been approached to write a book. I remember them announcing this to a bunch of us London nerds in a pub in Farringdon. How, we wondered, was this fascinating map concept going to make it into a book? Well, the answer arrived earlier this year with the publication of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London. If it wasn’t for the publication of Up In Smoke, it would probably be the best London book of the year.

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I’m not sure when bookshops started having London sections, but I know that I first became aware of the concept of “London writing” in 1999, when Granta published a marvellous London special. Ackroyd’s biography appeared shortly after and a genre was defined. Since then, the concept has exploded. People have always written books about London, but now it has developed into a mini industry all of its own. My bookshelves groan with London books, many brilliant, others less so. There is, in these London bookshop sections, perhaps an over-reliance on ‘secret/eccentric” London-type books, which all seem to contain pretty much the same information just with slightly different covers. But there are also gazetteers on London place names, London maps, London statues, London rivers, London animals, London graveyards, London pubs, London murders, London folklore… my house is packed with these specialist tomes, the best of which are rich in detail and lovingly compiled.

Even so, I’m tempted to chuck them all out because all this information and more can be found in Curiocity. Ostensibly divided into 26 alphabetic themes, the book basically contains all the London trivia, information and history you’d ever require in one place. The esoteric nature is hard to grasp and harder to describe but for example G is for Grids,  a chapter that takes in everything from bollards to bikes – and the bike page includes entries on velodromes, cyclist cafes, Queen videos, mass transit cycling events, recumbent hire and the serial number of the most ridden Boris bike. It’s a mix of trivia, history and listing information that reminds me of peak-era themed issues of Time Out crossed with The London Encyclopedia and then given the Burroughs cut-up technique. 

What’s particularly edifying is there is no attempt to thin out or dumb down  – it’s a total mind dump, with the editors throwing every possible piece of information they can have at the pages and then worrying how to make them stick later. It’s also beautifully illustrated, with special maps created and conceived for the occasion. And while the gargantuan size takes it a long way from the flimsy fold-up map I first received in 2011, it’s gratifying that the spirit of the project has not only survived but been allowed to expand and prosper to the benefit of anybody fascinated by London books and with space enough on their bookshelves for more.

Curiocity: In Pursuit Of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose.

 

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/

On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

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Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

Miss World and the ruin of London

I have two events coming up where I will be discussing Battersea Power Station in collaboration with other writers. At the excellent Bookseller Crow shop in Crystal Palace I will be teaming up with Rob Baker of Another Nickel In The Machine for a London Night, where we will talk about low culture and high jinx in London. My talk will focus on some of the finer pop culture moments associated with Battersea Power Station, while Rob will talk about his blog, his book (Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics) and the Miss World protest of 1970.

This will take place on Thursday September 15th at 7.30pm, £3.

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This will be followed by a London Society event with Owen Hatherley, where we will discuss the redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea, and debate the limits of preservation and conservation in a talk titled The Ruin of London. This takes place at the Gallery on Cowcross Street on Sept 20th from 6.30pm.