Tuesday 3 November 2015

Bow House (former Poplar Town Hall), Bow Road E3

It is easy to overlook the mosaic under the canopy of the old Poplar Town Hall. It was designed in 1937 by David Evans, who also provided the carved workmen on the frieze round the curved corner of the building (architect: Clifford Culpin).
The front of the canopy features symbols of Art, Science, Music and Literature on the front, round the arms of the Borough of Poplar (now, of course, one of the Tower Hamlets).
Under the canopy is a panorama of the Thames and its trades, with cranes, barges and a single-stack liner. Imports are clearly important in the docks, but apart from the generic 'Empire Produce' the only named commodities are sugar and wine, perhaps because they were particularly prized by the notoriously light-fingered dockers. I love the Thames barge and the full-rigged clipper ship on the right.
The figures represent a carpenter, a welder, the architect, a stonemason and a labourer, done in the Socialist Realist style that Evans specialised in.
Poplar Council had become famous in the 1920s when it withheld payments to the London County Council for such things as the police, in favour of social benefits. The councillors were all jailed, but the outcry spurred reforms.
According to the English Heritage listing document:
This dramatic incident had an impact on the design of the Town Hall commissioned by the Council over a decade later. The building was funded by a loan from the Ministry of Health and the LCC, on the basis that consolidating all council services in a single building would improve efficiency, and it was considered insupportable that money should be lavished on a grand expression of municipal pride, as was common in town hall architecture of the era. Culpin recounted the details of the commission at the laying of the foundation stone in 1937: 'there was to be no extraneous ornament on the building, that by its mass and proportions and by its flowing lines it should stand or fall, and I am bold enough to say that this is the first town hall in this country to be erected in the modern style'. The proposed design was criticised for its austerity, however. Alderman Key, at the opening ceremony a year later, answered the detractors: '[if] the building were in reality a super factory transferred from Slough or the Great West Road ... what of it? In so far as a factory was a place where worthily by the work of man's head and hands the desires of his heart could be made living and fruitful that was what they wanted ... this should have been a veritable palace of the people had not Poplar been so poor, but here it is, a worthy workshop for the worker's welfare.'

1 comment:

The Duke of Waltham said...

It's a nice building, actually, although I guess years had to pass before people warmed to the style. I wonder what the people of 2065 will think of the current profusion of glass-box buildings; perhaps they'll admire our restraint for not covering every wall with screens?

Great reliefs, and I like the pair of cranes anchoring the composition in the mosaic and giving us a hint of the activity going on in the docks (paying especial attention to the blue crane's operator). Aside from wines and sugar, I see "Timber" next to the crane loading it, so I guess the selection of wares is not that limited after all.