The city awaits - from the top of St Pancras WaterpointFor the last 20 years, the Open House London organisation has arranged for buildings of all descriptions to be opened up to a curious public, for many of whom this will be the only opportunity to see places otherwise closed off to them. That public has been steadily growing in number, and this year, perhaps boosted by the publicity London has received in the Olympic spotlight, interest was at a peak. The online pre-booking system couldn’t cope with the volume of eager users hoping to get a place on some of the more exclusive tours, and packed up a number of times before giving up the ghost completely, to be replaced by a lottery system. This meant that my hoped for exploration of the refurbished St Pancras Grand Hotel was not to be. I had looked around it some years before on a previous Open House weekend when it was largely derelict and in the state in which it was left by British Rail, who’d converted it into offices – exuding a more Romantic and mysterious atmosphere, perhaps, than it does in its new bright and bustling aspect. A boat trip up the River Lea was also now out of the question, the lottery offering a slim chance indeed given its promised views of the new Olympic park developments. But the vast majority of places needed no pre-booking (more so than in previous years, in fact) and the lack of a restricting timetable allowed for a more relaxed and flexible criss-crossing of the city. Even so, some high-profile buildings attracted large crowds, who snaked out from their entryways in meandering queues, and which entailed lengthy waits. Over six hours in the case of St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin. Incidentally, having puzzled as to why it’s been given this now standard nickname, given that it bears no resemblance to the pickled delicacy in question, I recently learned that it’s because it was illuminated from within by green light when it was first opened, creating a memorably colourful vegetal contrast with the glassy City towers it now rose above. The idea of queuing for so long to get inside this admittedly iconic part of the post-millenial London skyline, whose architectural impact is almost wholly calculated to create an outward impression, must cause wry bemusement amongst the office workers who make the wearying journey every day to toil away in its fairly commonplace open plan interiors.
Looking out to Granary Square and St PancrasWe began our day within the environs of Kings Cross, a convenient step away from the station which was our point of disembarkation for the city. This is an area which has been transformed (and is in the process of being further transformed) in recent years. A curving avenue, slightly ostentatiously named Kings Boulevard, leads north from the station’s rear exit, bordered by barriers which are lined with pictures and information boards detailing aspects of local history, and drawing the attention away from the building sites beyond. There is a small viewing window about half way along so that you can keep an eye on progress, but from the looks of it there’s a fair way to go yet before the inevitable mix of office and retail space and residential flats springs up. Some of the housing will be ringed by the resurrected red and black Victorian ironwork of the old gas towers which have greeted people coming in to Kings Cross or St Pancras for so many years. The bruised innocence of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster gazes out at us from one of the panels, a reference to Mary Shelley’s link to the nearby St Pancras Old Church, where she used to rendezvous (when still Mary Godwin) with Percy Shelley beside her mother’s grave. We shall this pitiful face again later, in a much darker place.
St Martins - the outside insideThe avenue leads up to the new St Martin’s College of Art, housed in the old Great Northern Railway goods buildings – the old granary storage shed and two transit sheds where freight was loaded and offloaded. Granary Square in front has a patterned grid of pin-point fountains which spout out in shifting, rhythmic patterns and seem to cry out for a formation dance routine to burst out around them in order to complete the effect. The interior hallway is the old exterior façade covered over – the outside brought inside to enchanting effect. To the side, access is given via the canopy of the old goods siding where fish was unloaded to be carted over to Billingsgate market, with a further canopy angling on to the side of that where potato wagons once unloaded many a sackful. There’s easy access to the Regent’s Canal, with paths which will take you to Camden, Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park and London Zoo, Little Venice and Paddington. There’s also a promise that the sooty old brick buildings of the Fish and Coal Offices, which wall the waterway and in which GNR clerks once scratched away on parchment paper, will be converted for future use.
Aesthetic engineering - the St Pancras WaterpointTo get to the old Victorian Waterpoint cistern, which is just by the Camley Street Basin of the canal, you have to take a small diversion along the Goods Way roadside, however, passing the charming and tranquil pocket oasis of the Camley Street nature reserve. The compact red brick structure of the water tower, a fine example of the Victorian brickie’s craft, was erected in 1872 alongside the raised platforms of St Pancras to provide a handy reservoir of water for the many steam trains coming into the station, built in 1886-8 as the London terminus of the Midland Railway line. It was saved from being knocked down by the incursion of the channel rail links loop round into St Pancras by being bodily moved, section by horizontal, sheared-off section, on a mobile transporting platform the short 750 yard distance to its current site. In a similar fashion (although intact and on a more primitive system of rollers) a 15th century timber-framed merchant’s house was eased downhill in Exeter in 1961 in order to save it from road-widening destruction, earning it the self-explanatory if prosaically unimaginative name ‘the house that moved’. The water tower now plays host to the St Pancras Cruising Club, a genial bunch, one of whom confessed that this was where they got pissed on a Friday night. They even made cake. The old cistern, with its swollen ballcock now permanently drooping at half-mast, is now a rooftop viewing platform which affords fine views along the canal in both directions, over the tracks to the old St Pancras churchyard, along the rails to the arching canopy of St Pancras station, from which the new javelin trains which shuttled people over to the Olympic site at Stratford periodically shot out, and south to the familiar outlines of the cityscape – the post-office tower, St Paul’s, the gherkin (and now, of course, the inescapable shard). It’s the kind of view (if at a rather more acute angle) that residents once enjoyed from the roof gardens atop the old Culross Buildings in Battlebridge Road, built for railway workers in the late nineteenth century and a recent victim of the new development of the area. Cinematic scenes in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and Michael Palin’s The Missionary, as well as Paul Kelly's video for the Saint Etienne single Hobart Paving, give a glimpse of the rooftop vista they once offered.
Top of the world - the Victorian waterpoint and gas towers from the Battlebridge Road flats in High Hopes (1988)Heading back past St Martin’s along Goods Road, we had a brief nose around the Kings Place arts complex, a cavernous space of cold stone with a very large atrium, one level above and one below the ground floor space, with concert halls and galleries opening off here and there. It was still fairly empty at this early hour, and you almost expected someone to walk briskly and purposefully towards you across the length of one of the polished floors, heels creating a ricocheting echo like Rachel in the Tyrrell building in Blade Runner. The glass doors at the back opened onto another basin of the Regent’s Canal, the Battlebridge Basin, this one housing the London Canal Museum, with a row of colourful barges neatly lined up around its perimeter.
Berthold LubetkinCutting across the once infamously sleazy Caledonian Road, we headed towards Collier Street and the Priory Green Estate, the first of three estates in the area built by Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton architectural collective for Finsbury local council in the immediate post-war period. Lubetkin had arrived in London in 1931, initially with the purpose of seeking out suitable architects for a competition to design the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. Born in 1901 in Georgia, then a part of the USSR, he had enjoyed a post-revolutionary education in Moscow and Petrograd before leading a peripatetic life of study and work which took him across Europe, from Berlin to Warsaw, Vienna to Paris. He lived in Paris for six years before moving to London, initially hired by the Soviet government to supervise construction of plans taken from Konstantin Melnikov’s drawings for a pavilion for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs which was held in the city.
The London Zoo Penguin PoolThis building had a formative influence on his own architectural ideas, its cylindrical form reflected in the first building he complete in England, the gorilla house in London Zoo, with its sliding outer frontage providing shelter or sunlight as the seasons dictated. He also got to know le Corbusier, the towering figure of modernist architecture, whilst in Paris and absorbed many of his ideas and theories. Le Corbusier would later express approval of Highpoint, Lubetkin’s elegant 1933-5 block of flats in Highgate which imported the continental moderne style in to North London, and he was not a man profligate in his dispensation of praise. Modernist architecture was treated with suspicion in Britain however. Lubetkin himself expressed the rather disgruntled view that it was ‘about fifty years behind, as though locked in a deep provincial sleep’. Having found Tecton (the Greek for carpenter, or builder) in 1932 with a group of enthusiastic and similarly minded young British architects (it was never in any doubt who was really in charge, however) he had initially to be content with housing the birds and the beasts. After the completion of the gorilla house in 1935, Tecton built thirteen more zoo buildings (and created the new zoo at Dudley in the midlands), including the innovative penguin pool in London Zoo. This was designed in collaboration with the Danish structural engineer Ove Arup, who showed Lubetkin how concrete could be used to create suspended, seemingly weightlessly unanchored curves and waves – as demonstrated by the theatrical double-spiral sweep of the penguins’ ramps, which provide a stage for the Chaplinesque birds to perform for onlookers. The clean, white, sun-reflecting surfaces favoured by European modernists, and adopted here by Lubetkin, also incidentally prove perfect for offsetting the black outline of the penguins’ plumage.
Highpoint OneA child of the Russian revolution, Lubetkin was a lifelong communist, but his social ideals were not fulfilled in his grand interwar buildings, Highpoint One and Two (built in 1935 and 1938 respectively). The wonderful Highpoint flats (which I’ve visited a couple of times on previous Open House days, and are probably my dream home) were initially commissioned by office furniture magnate Sigmund Gestetner as potential low-cost accommodation for his workers, but they ended up housing a more affluent, middle-class breed of city worker. Highpoint Two was designed for luxury and for the well-heeled from the outset, with tradesmen’s entrances and a separate system of stairways and access corridors for servants (whose quarters were hidden away on the ground floor, with access at the rear) to keep them out of sight as much as possible. Lubetkin also built a spacious penthouse spanning the top of the block, which he promptly moved into himself with his wife, designing its furnishings to provide a model of expensively modish living. An Open House guide in Highpoint 2, an architect to judge by his use of language, got rather tetchy when I asked about the contradiction between Lubetkin’s design of a separate circulatory system for servants in a building and his provision of penthouse luxury for himself and his wife and his communist beliefs. Don’t question the infallibility of the architectural guru, his terse manner seemed to imply, but it seemed a fairly obvious point to bring up.
The Finsbury Health CentrePerhaps his work for the Labour Finsbury Council immediately before and after the war can be seen partly as an act of expiation for these materialist sins, an attempt to reassert the fundamentals of his social and architectural ideals. The socialist leader of Finsbury Council, Alderman Harold Riley, proposed to radically restructure his borough, which was hugely overcrowded and blighted by extreme poverty and the kinds of sicknesses which both brought. He developed what came to be known as the Finsbury Plan, which envisaged the area as becoming ‘the housing centre for London’, with integrated health, educational and communal facilities easily accessible for all. Riley had admired Lubetkin’s work on Highpoint, and hired him as the architect to give the plan concrete realisation (literally so). The first step was the building of Finsbury Health Centre from 1935-38, a place which was designed to make the whole process of going to the doctor more informal and less intimidating – just a part of the everyday routine. This was done by having a large and open entrance space with no reception desk, fronted by a glass-tiled wall which let in plenty of light; a place where people could mingle and meet. This drew on Lubetkin’s entrance space in Highpoint, which had a similar informal communal aspect, and expressed his belief that buildings should have a more generous transitional area between inside and outside – a place halfway between the private and the public. Murals on the wall were both cheerfully and colourfully decorative and served as a pictorial guide to gaining and maintaining a state of good health. Doctors’ surgeries were incorporated to the sides, with a lecture theatre in the centre and, on the roof, a solarium to bring local residents the benefits of sunlight denied to them in their crowded back to back housing, and thus counter the effects of rickets and other diseases caused by the lack of vitamin D.
Dreaming of the new Jerusalem - Abram Games' 1943 posterThe Health Centre is another building I have visited in previous Open House years. It’s still used for its original purpose, and the murals are still extant, although the lecture theatre has been turned into offices and the solarium closed down. The upper floor now pays host to the Michael Palin centre for stammering children, a new addition which is wholly in keeping with Lubetkin’s design for flexibility of use over time, his anticipation that some facilities would be superceded and demand for others created incorporated into his plans. The ideals behind the Health Centre and the Finsbury Plan in general are summed up in Lubetkin’s pre-emptive response to potential criticisms of the extravagance and expense of the building, ‘nothing is too good for the ordinary people’. They are given powerful graphic form by Abram Games’ 1943 poster in which the clean white curve of the Health Centre’s glass-tiled façade is depicted as a protective screen covering and by implication bulldozing aside slum ruins with their abject, stooped and sickness-hollowed inhabitants which lie behind. It’s a piece of progressively minded propaganda of the highest order, the visual language of advertising put to a noble use. And, of course, to some this was seen as a dangerous threat to the prevailing order (Churchill hated, and initially banned it).
The Priory Green EstateThe Priory Green Estate was the next stage in the realisation of the Finsbury Plan, a mass housing development drawn out by Lubetkin and Tecton in consultation with Riley and his fellow councillors in 1937. It was designed to replace the dilapidated Victorian back to back housing of Busaco Street with a complex that would incorporate all the amenities needed by its residents: A communal laundry, a refuse system, central heating, bicycle and pram parks, a playground, a nursery and, of course, a pub. There was even the adaptive addition of a deep shelter between the blocks of flats for wartime, which could be converted into a car park when the war was over. The Slum Clearances Act of 1936 allowed for full subsidising of new buildings only if they provided an equivalent population density to that which they replaced. The Busaco Street area had been greatly overcrowded, so the Priory Green Estate had to accommodate a significant number of flats within its limited area. The local Labour news circular The Finsbury Citizen announced the scheme in 1938, declaring the plans for ‘227 flats on Busaco Street site…all modern conveniences…maximum sunshine: separate access: up to date amenities’. Not all of the promises of the plans survived the stringencies of post-war austerity, although the premature slum-clearance carried out by wartime bombing provided an increase in the extent of the proposed site.
The Finsbury Plan evaporated in the chilly post-war climate, and Alderman Riley quietly ousted from his position. But whilst the ambitions he and Lubetkin had harboured to create a supportive and socially cohesive environment had to be scaled back, with budget cuts imposed by the supervising Ministry of Health, his Finsbury estates still carry some of that spirit of pre and immediately post-war optimism and progressive intent. The two larger eight storey blocks of flats and four smaller four storey ones are arranged around a central square of tree-dotted gardens, with looping paths guiding you around a circular well containing a small playground. The blocks are positioned so that they can each catch the maximum amount of daily sunshine, and follow the lines of the old streets. The entry space used to be decorated with murals by the artist Feliks Topolski depicting scenes of London history and local life, but these have unfortunately not survived. There’s now a new gateway building with a communal space above, in which a group of young girls were enjoying a lively dance class whilst we were there. The place has a pleasant and relaxed feel, sheltered but not entirely disconnected from the streets beyond, with the buzz of life going on all around the central area, but unobtrusively so.
A brief alliance - bringing Lenin back homeAcross busy Pentonville Road, you come to the next of Lubetkin’s Finsbury estates, Bevin Court, just off the neat and picturesque Georgian surrounds of Percy Circus. Bevin Court was built on the site of Holford Square, where Lenin once lived at number 30 during his brief period of exile in London at the turn of the century. From here, he presumably walked south to Clerkenwell Green, where he worked on his revolutionary paper Iskra (The Spark) from an office upstairs in the old Welsh charity school building in which the socialist Twentieth Century Press had set themselves up. Lenin’s shared office is now reverently preserved more or less as it would have been in what is now the Marx Memorial Library. Lubetkin was commissioned to design and build a memorial to Lenin to be erected on the site; not by a collective of well-connected radicals, but by the Home Office. When it was unveiled, important establishment figures attended, including foreign secretary and future Prime Minister Antony Eden. The reason for this sudden and momentary official concern for the London legacy of the founder of Russian Communism lay in the ongoing siege of Leningrad in 1942, and the desire of the government to make some gesture of solidarity. Lubetkin set a bust of Lenin within a sheltering, freestanding frame, a canopy extending over his balding bonce to protect him from the elements. It didn’t protect him from vandals, however, who defaced it shortly after its unveiling. Worries over the cost of guarding the memorial against the further attacks which would inevitably ensue (some of them coming from the lingering rump of the British fascists) or of the need for constant repairs and renovations led to suggestions that it should be removed. In the end, Lubetkin took matters into his own hands, he and a few colleagues digging the whole thing up and ceremonially burying it in Holford Square. Lenin’s head is probably there still, exerting a talismanic aura like a latterday King Bran for trenchant lefties. Lubetkin suggested developing an estate on the Holford site, which was bombed during the war, and naming that after Lenin as a permanent and less easily damaged memorial. The estate was built, but under the name of the Labour foreign secretary in Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government Ernest Bevin, whose bust stood in for Lenin’s (who, it’s fair to say, hardly lacked for iconic representation elsewhere).
The front of the building presents two white-painted blocks set at a welcoming obtuse angle facing Holford Street, linked by the entrance hall. Another block extends from the central hub to the rear, so that the whole structure has the shape of a three-bladed rotor from above. The flats are embedded in the pleasant green surrounds of Holford Gardens. One of the most impressive features of Bevin Court is its central stairwell, which translates the lessons Lubetkin learned from Ove Arup in his creation of the winding, cantilevered penguin pool ramps. It hangs down like the suspended peel of an apple peeled in one go, spiralling around with graceful, lightly anchored weightlessness. This, along with the white paint in which everything is washed, makes it the estate which most closely resembles Lubetkin’s 30s buildings and animal houses, even though it was the last to be built (opening in 1954). Even the red-lettering above the entrance door spelling out Bevin Court has an oddly 30s look to it, a period font. The building wasn’t actually included in the Open House weekend this year, but it seemed a shame not to pay it a brief visit and include it in the Lubetkin set. Of course, we couldn’t get into the lobby, which is accessible only via a resident’s electronic fob, and quite rightly so. Peering in, we could see that the stairway is currently undergoing renovation (this is now a grade II listed building), its curves obscured by a rectilinear cage of scaffolding. We could get a glimpse of the mural, painted by the East London-born artist and architect Peter Yates, which stretches along the wall of the entrance hall, rooting it in a particular period with its muted 50s colours and pictorial style. It’s an odd, surrealistic assemblage of distinct and seemingly unrelated images with mythic resonance: a grail-like cup, a domed, sacred building, a sword, a winged and horned heraldic beast, a twisting thread of stream and several cavorting dolphins. No doubt there is some unifying symbolism underlying the whole composition, but it somehow seems preferable to leave it in all its strange, unexplained mystery.
The Bevin Court stairwellThe last of Lubetkin’s three Finsbury estates we visited, the Spa Green (1938-46), lies a little further to the South East, on the northern boundaries of Clerkenwell, opposite the Sadlers Wells dance theatre on Rosebery Avenue. It conforms more closely to the pre-war vision of the Finsbury Plan, partly because it was already under construction by 1947, when austerity cuts were imposed on development of new housing projects by the Ministry of Health. The blocks of flats are approached by an arcing barrier of thin concrete, by now a characteristic Lubetkin signature, making use of Ove Arup’s revelation of the plastic possibilities of this seemingly hard and unyielding material. The use of concrete was also an economical choice in the post-war era, with widespread shortages of more traditional materials. The Spa Green Estate consists of three blocks of flats, two of eight storeys and one of four and five, the latter given a wavelike curved form, as if it has been frozen in the midst of a shivering ripple. It is also built to conform to the sloping aspect of the site, just as Highpoint had been in the 30s. The level of the roof is thus not uniform, and also uses curved concrete as a functional and decorative cap. The roofs were intended to provide a communal drying area for washing, with an aerofoil shaped ‘tunnel’ formed by the overarching concrete shelter funnelling the wind to play over the clothes lines. The deliberate avoidance of dispiriting uniformity extended to the creation of irregular patterning on the building’s façade, with flats spaced to break up the usual squared-off grid. Windows and other features such as air vents were also arranged to pleasing aesthetic effect, whilst still retaining efficient functionality, and the whole exhibited Lubetkin’s continued fascination with the carpet and tapestry designs he’d studied in Vienna in the 20s. He once more emphasised the communal aspect of the entryway, making it a generous transitional space between the private interiors and the public exterior – a place for residents to meet and linger a while.
The Spa Green EstateThe flats were slightly more luxuriously appointed than those at Priory Green, and included the Garchy waste disposal system (also proposed for Priory Green, but rejected in favour of a more economical chute system) which allowed for food waste to be washed down a hole in the kitchen sink and gathered in processing tanks in the basement, from which it was eventually collected and incinerated. This removed the unpleasant prospect of food rotting malodorously in masses of individual bins, potentially attracting rodents sensing a lovely, stinking feast. Play areas, trees, a communal meeting room, and green surrounds were also provided, but as with Priory Green, plans for a nursery school (which had been built into Maxwell Fry’s Kensal House Estate in 1938) were rejected by the Ministry of Health, which decreed it a ‘non-priority building’. The flats were restored in 1980, having suffered from neglect and fallen into disrepair (like so many buildings of their kind), and they now look in good condition, retaining the individual distinctiveness which Lubetkin intended. The construction of all three Finsbury estates outlasted Tecton, with Lubetkin and some of his colleagues completing the job independently. Tecton was dissolved in 1948, partly coming apart due to tensions caused by Lubetkin’s autocratic assertion of leadership, which belied the supposedly co-operative nature of the partnership. Lubetkin himself went on to be the architect and planner of a grand project in County Durham in the North East, the building of Peterlee New Town, a new community designed, with echoes of Port Sunlight and Bournville, to house workers and their families, in this case from the nearby coal mines. He became disenchanted with the direction of the project, however, and the rejection by the development committee of his ambitious high-rise plans, and retired from architecture altogether in 1950. he retreated to his farm at Upper Kilcott in Gloucestershire, where he had lived and worked during the war, and eventually moved with his wife to Clifton in Bristol in 1969, where he died in 1990.
Town and Country - Hampstead Garden SuburbFrom Finsbury, we headed North and, having stopped off in Hampstead for a bite to eat in the peaceful haven of Hampstead Parish Church, near the grave of John Constable, took the bus over the hill, past Jack Straw’s Castle and the Old Bull and Bush to Golder’s Green. We along Hoop Lane, bisecting the Jewish Cemetary and the crematorium, and into the tree-lined lanes and circling avenues of Hampstead Garden Suburb. A planned town influenced by Arts and Crafts style and the anti-urban ideas of William Morris, this was a development largely instigated by the indomitable Dame Henrietta Barnett. Alongside her husband Canon Samuel Barnett, she had set up and worked in Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel in the East End in the latter years of the nineteenth century, driven by an idealistic desire for social reform and the lessening of poverty and social division. She was alarmed by the planned extension of the Hampstead underground line to its new Golders Green terminus in 1907, which she believed would result in the rapid growth of an indiscriminate and overcrowded sprawl covering the adjoining heathland. Thus, she pre-emptively bought a large acreage of it up in 1906, and set up a company to develop a new, planned community. She hired the architectural partners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin to design the main body of the suburb, with the evident intent that they should replicate the style and ethos of Letchworth Garden City, which they had built on the foundation of Ebeneezer Howard’s pioneering plans. Howard had originated his idea of the garden city, a self-sufficient and self-sustaining town separate from major urban centres which combined the benefits of town and country, in his 1898 publication Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. It was reprinted under the title Garden Cities of Tomorrow in 1902, and the name and idea really took hold. Howard was influenced by his reading of the American writer Edward Bellamy’s futuristic utopia Looking Backwards, which envisaged the ‘ideal’ society of the year 2000, and he underwrote it first English publication. However, William Morris’ riposte to its mechanistic and centralised urban vision, News from Nowhere, published in 1890, is closer in spirit to Howard’s utopian model.
Parker stayed behind to work on the continuing development of Letchworth, leaving Unwin to concentrate on the building of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. Their plans followed the garden city ideal of a low density of housing, with radial roads spoking outwards from a central hub, and plentiful areas of parkland and green spaces in between. The style of the housing drew on rural town and village vernacular, an anti-modern and hearkening back to a pre-industrial, craft-based society along William Morris lines. Indeed, Unwin, a Fabian Socialist, had been inspired by hearing Morris and John Ruskin lecture in Oxford in his youth. There was much variation in the design of individual houses, but the rural style would become hugely influential on the interwar expansion of suburbia in the Metroland fashion, eventually settling down into the much-mocked mock Tudor look. If the garden suburb surrounds gained their Letchworthian appearance from Parker and Unwin, then the central square which was intended as the heart of the town owed its character to Edwin Lutyens, whom Dame Henrietta hired to design the buildings. Lutyens was no leftist like Unwin, nor areligiously-inspired social reformer like the Barnetts. He would go on from being the Victorian gentleman’s favourite country house designer to becoming the Edwardian Imperial architect of choice. His vision of the town’s centre was a deal more urban than Barnett had anticipated, and there was a certain amount of creative friction as a result. He wanted the buildings to be grand, and to dominate their surroundings in an imposing fashion, whereas Barnett had more of a village green feel in mind.
St Jude On The Hill from HeathgateThis being one of Lutyen’s first big public projects outside of the country houses for which he had become renowned, and with the long-cherished prospect of building a church (indeed, not just one, but two!), he wanted it to be ‘a gathering up of all that man can do’. He may have been obliged to scale down his original plans a little, but the major church, St Jude On the Hill, still presents an impressively imposing spectacle as you approach it up the Heathgate road. Its heavy, foursquare splinter of a spire masses heavily against the sky, dark and solid against the blue on this day. Its steeply sloping roof angles sharply down along its whole expanse, extending until it almost connects the sky with the earth. Lutyens wanted it to descend even further, but Dame Henrietta objected to such an extravagance. The flat, tiled expanse of the roof still predominates and draws the attention of the observer, however, making the building look like a huge, sacred barn. St Jude’s was only supposed to be open on the Sunday for Open House this year, and the reason soon became apparent. It is sometimes used as a venue for classical recording sessions (I remember have an ECM LP of Arvo Part’s Passio recorded here), and one was in progress today. They were having a break, however, and kindly allowed us to have a quick look inside. The aisles were vaulted with timber in a medieval style, whilst the central nave is Romanesque, with a dome over the crossing point between nave, aisles and chancel. The were plentiful decorative and pictorial murals on the ceiling and in the side aisles, most of them by Walter Starmer, created after the first world war. Starmer, who also designed much of the stained glass, painted portraits of several renowned women for the Lady Chapel, including the poet Christina Rossetti, and drew on the style of the Celtic illuminated books for his stations of the cross. There is deliberately cultivated historical mix in both architecture and painted decoration, and this contrasted interestingly on the day with the thickets of microphones and the snaking coils of electrical cables which were temporarily installed. It looked like the set of a Nigel Kneale TV play in which the powers of technological rationalism and an invoked supernatural force come into mutually disruptive contact.
st Jude's spireOpposite St Jude’s, across the central green square, with its neat rosebeds, Lutyen’s provided a contrasting dome on top of the Free Church, a curve to balance a sharply pointed meeting of straight lines. The dome is set off-centre within another dramatic expanse of sweeping roof. The Free Church was an official Open House, but a wedding had just finished (or perhaps was waiting to kick off), and whilst the ladies in attendance assured us we were welcome to look around, it seemed awkwardly intrusive to linger too long. The building simply doesn’t have the impact of St Jude’s, particularly in its interior, perhaps a deliberate reflection of its ‘low’ status, with its nothing fancy approach to religion. Lutyens provided another contrasting shape with his small clock tower cupola on top of the Hampstead Institute, a red-brick building of civic solidity on the North Eastern side of the square, which exhibits his ‘Wrenaissance’ style in its rear aspect, with two wings forming an open-sided courtyard. He also designed the vicarage and the manse and other houses on the western side of Erskine Hill and North Square, which gives this little area a particular flavour of its own, a distinctive architectural kernel within the larger pattern of the suburb. This Lutyens square, and the Garden Suburb as a whole, seems oddly artificial and out of time, an idealised Trumpton world in which wildly disparate historical periods coexist in incongruous and sometimes uneasy proximity (the preponderance of cars seems particularly intrusive here). Dame Henrietta’s original idea of creating an environment which would harbour a harmonious mix of middle and working class inhabitants and thus serve to reduce harmful social divisions was never realised. It didn’t have the same success as Letchworth in this sense, which staged a Cheap Cottages Exhibition in 1905 to encourage the design and provision of decent but affordable housing for local agricultural and industrial labourers. There is still a wide social mix in the town to this day. The ecclesiastical and associated philanthropic air which the central square buildings exude makes it seem disconnected from most 21st century lives, and it certainly doesn’t feel a natural part of London. Of course, for some, therein may lie its charm.
Forest scene with animals - detailDoubling back through the proto-suburban streets and past the Jewish cemetery in Hoop Lane, we crossed the charmless Finchley Road and took a short detour down the other branch of the lane to the Golders Green Unitarian Church. The chief attraction here lay in the curving wall of the apse behind the altar, which is painted with a mural by Ivon Hitchens, well known for his semi-abstract colour studies of Sussex woodland and waterside. This is an early work, Forest Scene With Animals, which he first painted as a mural in St John’s Church Maidstone in 1920. The larger copy here was commissioned by a Mr G Johnson as a memorial to his son, killed in the First War, and was completed in 1923. It’s an Edenic scene of natural harmony, with deer drinking from a gently burbling and sparkling brook in a sun-dazed glade. A dove hovering over a small circular pool in the centre radiates shafting beams of light (the emanation of the holy spirit), which glints off golden kingfishers flashing over the water like quicksilver souls. It has an innocent, childlike quality which would make it equally at home on the wall of a children’s nursery; indeed, with its clearly delineated outlines and bold, simple colours, it resembles an enlargement of a plate from an Edwardian children’s storybook, something which might have been painted by someone like Walter Crane, Edmund Dulac or Charles Robinson. To the rear of the church is a stained glass window created by Joan Fullerlove of a celestial city, The New Jerusalem, its domes rising upwards on a hillside above purple, blue, copper and gold trees, a shimmering corona of silvery radiance fanning out behind it; an utopian vision offering hope in the wake of the war’s trail of desolation, death and psychological shock.
From Golders Green, we headed way down South on the Northern Line to Kennington, from which it was a short(ish) walk to the Cinema Museum. This is appropriately housed in the grimly solid red-brick building which was once the Victorian Lambeth workhouse, in which the young Charlie Chaplin was obliged to spend some time after his mother had another of her nervous relapses. Its shadowy interiors now house a fine collection of film and picture house memorabilia, conjuring a different and less oppressive history of darkness, the dimly lit rooms and corridors creating an authentically cinematic atmosphere. The workhouse setting, alongside the Chaplin connection, draws attention to the overlap between the late Victorian era and the early days of cinema. The Victorian past’s persistence into the new Edwardian century is also given concrete (or celluloid) form by the museum’s collection of 80 or so films made by Mitchell and Kenyon, which give such a fascinating and valuable picture of the everyday life of the period. As the museum is run by volunteers, it’s usually only open to look around before the excellent events and screenings which are regularly held there, so this was a good opportunity to explore at leisure.
Up and coming events include interviews with the marvellous Liz Fraser, 50s and 60s star of Carry On and Boulting Brothers films, with Michael Medwin, producer of Lindsay Anderson’s If… and O Lucky Man, and John Krish, the post war director whose brilliant documentaries such as The Elephant Will Never Forget (his 1953 elegy for the death of the trams) and I Think They Call Him John (a heartbreaking and beautiful 1964 study of the loneliness of old age in the brave new high rise world of the period) have recently found a new and appreciative audience through a recent bfi dvd restoration. A week or so ago, on the 10th October, there was a 125th anniversary celebration of the life and career of Boris Karloff with his biographer Stephen Jacobs and daughter Sara. And there’s Karloff once again as the monster, looking out of wooden lobby photo frame with that wounded, heavy-lidded gaze, inviting pity more often than horror. He’s on the wall next to another savage innocent, Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan in all his naked torsoed, wetback haired majesty – the object of Cheetah’s unrequited love if James Lever’s ‘autobiographical’ novel Me Cheetah is to be believed (and it’s probably more truthful than some Hollywood memoirs). There’s a lobby card display of stills from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, its high-art pretensions mocked by the glances of the gurning and eyebrow raising faces of the Marx Brothers hanging next to it. Elsewhere, some of the masks used in another of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘classical’ films, Tales of Hoffmann, are on display.
The Red Shoes lobby displayAll manner of cinematic fixtures, fittings and furnishings are on display, from the worn red plush seats from Odeon days of old in the small groundfloor screening room, the phalanx of hunched black projection machines in the lobby, and the wooden programme boards into which films ‘showing today’ were once slotted to the art deco doorways, the old brown bfi sign (a reminder of dotted graphic styles gone by) and the giddily patterned carpets whose swirls prepared your eyes for a different mode of vision. Usher’s and doorman’s uniforms are a reminder of a time when filmgoing was a much more momentous occasion, an evening out in the grand picture palaces which called for such gold-braided ceremonial fripperies. There are numerous posters and star portraits on display throughout, too, triggering memories which span the entirety of cinema’s past. A poster for Campbell’s Kingdom, with Sir Dirk of Bogarde in the unlikely role of an oil prospector in the Canadian Rockies brought back fond recollections of matinee viewings on the telly from childhood. I remember being completely absorbed by it at the time – it’s much more fun than There Will Be Blood, anyway. In some ways, the museum is a cousin to the Bill Douglas Centre down here in Exeter, although you feel the volunteer staff are a little more actively and enthusiastically involved in the running of the place.
Upstairs is a large room where meetings are held, films screened and, on this occasion, tea and cakes served. My heart was immediately won over by the fact that, amongst a collage of British film posters, there was one for Hawk the Slayer! A neglected classic, as Simon Pegg’s character in Spaced would agree. I picked up some good books from the selection they had on sale there: a hardback copy of Ingmar Bergman’s almost parodically self-excoriating autobiography The Magic Lantern, Robin Wood’s 1969 book on the great Swede (well, I am a bit of a Bergman obsessive), John Baxter’s book on Josef von Sternberg (with some great Marlene stills, obviously), and the 60s Studio Vista paperback New Cinema in the USA (surveys written from a contemporary perspective often focussing on films subsequently neglected or forgotten). Although this and a splendid badge, too. As Mr Benn always tells himself at the end of another time and space defying adventure, it will help me to remember.
We headed North through some interesting Lambeth back streets, cutting across a park in the middle of a small residential square in which several families were having a lovely picnic, and had time for a brief look in the Siobhan Davies Dance studios, home to the renowned group which was formed in 1988. These have been converted from an old Victorian school building with more solid red-brick walls, which seem to have been something of a recurrent theme throughout the day – they built to last. It now incorporates office, rehearsal and performance spaces over three floors with a central atrium rising through them all. The main dance space on the top floor is particularly impressive; a sprung floor spreads under a ceiling which curves over it in a series of rippling, wavelike ribbons, their parabolic arcs connecting to the walls at different levels. Skylight windows fitted in between let in light and frame passing clouds. The irregularly arching pattern of the roof gives it a sense of fluid form which inspires the movements of the dancers below. The far end of the room is more window than wall, and gives a view out over the surrounding roads and rooftops, and over them to the sky, lending a natural sense of elevation and lightness which helps inspire the invention of new choreographies.
From here, it was a minute’s walk to the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and ten more to negotiate the bewildering maze of the underpass system to get to the tube station which had seemed so tantalisingly and simplistically near across the impassably traffic-choked road. And then back on to the Northern line and up the iron rails to Bedfordshire. We had planned for another day, with a tour around Stratford’s Theatre Royal, the old home of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where we had enjoyed a splendid talk on the history of the building from Murray Melvin during last year’s Open House weekend, and a look at the Peckham cousin to the Finsbury Health Centre, The Pioneer Health Centre, built in the 1930s and now converted into flats. But frankly, we were washed out, and the forecast for a rainsoaked day put the cap on it. So until next year….