Friday, 25 July 2014

21 John Street WC1

It would be easy to dismiss 21 John Street as just another example of developer greed, sticking rudely above the elegant Georgian roofscape, but the standard of the architecture just about redeems it. The designer was Dennis Harrington, it was completed in 1938 and the style is pure Moderne.
The statues on attached pylons on either side of the main entrance are other redeeming features. Nude women hold an hour glass (left) and a magic square and astrolabe (right).
The items would indicate the offices were intended for a company with interests in navigation or instrumentation, but the block was built on spec so it would seem they were either chosen on a whim or simply because they were a standard design available from one of the big firms of architectural sculptors (I have so far been unable to establish who supplied them).
There was a lot of interest in magic squares at the time. This one is the pattern made famous by Durer - practically any combination of four numbers adds up to 34. There is another one on the NatWest Bank in the City.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Ludgate House, Fleet Street EC4

Ludgate House, the north-west quadrant of Ludgate Circus, was built in 1872 as the headquarters of Thomas Cook the travel agents.
But this charming huddle of winged merboys on the top was not in the original design - it seems to have been added when the building was extended up Fleet Street in 1906.
The rest of the extension matches the original design (by Horace Gundry), even to the ornately carved lintels on the windows with their exotic faces intended to convey the incredibly rich variety of the human race that might be observed on a foreign tour. Actually, all the faces look very similar, a classically beautiful, very Grecian face, with an incredibly rich variety of exotic headdress.
Only the rather jolly Chinaman stands out as a real personality.
At the attic level, an entertaining group of touristic cherubs represent travel round the world. At top right, cherubic travel agents make an inventory. Navigators plot courses both celestially and terrestrially. Sailors bring in a cruise dinghy, and fat little weather cherubs ride the Sun's chariot, one brandishing a thunderbolt.
Even the doorways are guarded by chubby little chappies representing travel over the globe.



Thursday, 10 July 2014

Sidney Estate, Somers Town N1

The Princess and the Swineherd. The Swineherd is a prince in disguise (natch). Whoever put their finger in the smoke from his magic stewpot could smell what was being cooked in every house in the town, so of course the princess wanted it enough to pay the swineherd's outrageous price of ten kisses. It all ended badly.
The Sidney Estate is a fine example of the idealistic Christian socialism of the early 20th century. It was built by the St Pancras House Improvement Society in the decade from 1929. It was going to be a 'miniature garden city', with a large central court, assembly room and nursery school with rooftop garden.
The assembly room was never built and today the estate looks rather like hundreds of others except for the ceramic lunettes of fairy tales, designed by Gilbert Bayes and made by Doulton.
The Sleeping Beauty with Prince, flanked by what appear to be a leopard and a mastiff.
The Goosegirl (although she looks more like a Swangirl). A princess is sent to a foreign land to marry the prince, but on the way her maid forces her to swap places. On arrival, the princess is given a job tending  the geese while her false maid gets ready for the wedding, but luckily the imposture is discovered and the maid is thrown into a cask studded with sharp nails and dragged round the streets by four horses until she is dead, so all's well that ends well. 
The Little Mermaid, who saves a prince from drowning and falls in love. Unfortunately he loves someone else so she throws herself back in the sea and turns into foam. Makes Splash look like sentimental tosh.
In the central courtyard, the fairy tale theme continues but with the addition of this figure of St George, rather gleefully slaying the dragon. On the other hand, the dragon seems to be taking the lance under his arm so perhaps it is all a stage show.
The magnificent clock in the central courtyard shows the seasons, spring at the bottom left with bulbs, then summer with cherries and garlands of flowers; autumn with a sheaf of wheat and a sickle and winter, fully dressed and warming himself in front of a brazier.
 The south-facing entrance court in front of St Nicholas' Flats was filled with posts for washing lines, the central one with a ceramic Christmas tree and the others with ships. St Nicholas is, of course, Father Christmas and also the patron saint of sailors. All the original finials disappeared and have been replaced with replicas.
The estate was originally called the Sidney Street Estate after the road that disappeared when it was built. Just as well really as if it had survived it would only be confused with Sidney Street, Shoreditch, location of the famous siege.

The arch between St Anthony's
Flats and St Francis' House
 has a statue that I originally
assumed was St Francis but is
 actually St Anthony of Padua.
My personal favourite





Thursday, 26 June 2014

Fen Court EC3

This remarkable piece of 2007, Gilt of Cain, is a collaboration between the sculptor Michael Visocchi and the poet Lemn Sissay to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.
The granite columns are shaped to resemble sugar cane, the product most slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean to grow and process into sugar. Before them is a podium with a short flight of steps.
This arrangement has a dual purpose. In one sense, they can be viewed as a pulpit and a congregation of abolitionists, recalling the role of the church in the abolitionist cause. A deliberate reference is to the Rev. John Newton, author of Amazing Grace and inspirer of William Wilberforce, who was rector of nearby St Mary Woolnoth.
In contrast, the group can be seen as a crowd of slaves in front of the auctioneer's desk.


Friday, 13 June 2014

Broadgate Circle EC2

American artist Richard Serra's enormous 1987 piece, Fulcrum, consists of five enormous, 55ft steel slabs apparently leaning against each other, though they are in fact welded together at the top to stop them falling over and incommoding passers-by. The idea is that art lovers can go inside, look up and watch the clouds scud overhead.
Unfortunately, Broadgate's health'n'safety crew seems to have doubts about the integrity of the welds, because they have installed their own counter-art installation Crowd Control Barriers to keep everyone out. Or perhaps the giant wigwam was being used as a refuge by smokers who, let's face it, have nowhere else to go these days.
Serra has made enormous sheets of steel his life's work. Google 'Richard Serra enormous pieces of steel' and select the 'images' option if you want to see what I mean.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

199 Bishopsgate EC2

This cheeky girl sketched out in painted steel lines stands high outside Broadgate, commissioned by the developers from artist Bruce McLean in 1993. He calls it Eye-I, which sounds a bit like the comment of a policeman inquiring what a girl like her is doing hanging round on the street at that time of night.
Bruce McLean was born in Glasgow, studied in the School of Art there and then at St Martin's, where he was taught by Antony Caro. He reacted against his teacher by making sculpture from rubbish.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

County Hall Apartments, York Road SE1


The grand entrances to County Hall Apartments, located behind the County Hall itself, are still marked 'The County Hall', as if Mrs Thatcher had never abolished the Greater London Council all those years ago.
The pair of blocks were designed by the LCC Architect's Department with advice from Sir Giles Gilbert Scott as offices for the council's thousands of officers controlling everything from town planning to vehicle registration. The initial phase was completed in 1939.
The entrances are guarded by stone lamp standards with delightful capitals carved by Alfred Oakley. One type features a school of leaping fish, the other a pod of leaping dolphins.