Thursday 31 July 2008

Neville House, Page Street, Westminster

Neville House is a brand-spanking new block of flats in that oddly quiet hinterland behind Millbank. A sequence of clearly much-older relief panels runs up the main facade, and I could find no reference to them anywhere, not in Pevsner or the Encyclopedia of London, and Google for once failed. Finally the mystery was solved by a request to the developers, Berkeley Homes. They sent an extract from a press release issued when the place was built a few years ago:
'Neville House was a seven-storey government occupied office block, designed by architectural practice TP Bennett & Son. The building included a number of tablets on its original façade depicting the revolution of the modern era and future technology designed by renowned sculptor Edward Bainbridge Copnall. These tablets are being retained by Berkeley Homes to be displayed on the façade of the new Neville House building and will act as a link to its history as well as being forms of art in their own right.'
The original Neville House was built in 1952, so Bainbridge Copnall's sculptures must represent the thrusting 'white heat of technology' aspirations of the time.
The one over the front door (picture at top) represents Engineering wrestling with a lever and ratchet of some sort, with a rather strange assortment of cogs, wheels and riveted steel behind. Above him (picture at right) is Transport whizzing through the air with a bag of gold and a sextant. A railway bridge with a steam train crosses over a road with a car that must have looked antique even in 1952. An airliner swoops overhead and an ocean liner ploughs the sea behind. Very busy.
Tilt your head further back and there's Trade, running with parcels, boxes, bales and chests of merchandise. 'Export or Die' was the government cry at the time.
And right at the top is Bureaucracy, on one knee before a desk with a typewriter surrounded by piles of memos, ledgers and files. A telephone handset lies on top, and he is turning to yell "It's for you!" at one of his colleagues.
These beautiful pieces are filled with tremendous movement and vitality but represent a world that has utterly vanished. Copnall may have intended to represent the future of technology, but it was already in the past.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Waterstone's Bookshop, Torrington Place WC1

The London University branch of Waterstone's started life as a row of shops built by the Russell estate in 1907. The building was designed by C. Fitzroy Doll, the surveyor of the Russell estate, who also designed the Hotel Russell, the Imperial Hotel (demolished) and, apparently, some of the interiors of the Titanic.
The entrepreneurial bookseller Una Dillon started trading in one of the shops in the 1930s, gradually spilling over into others as operations expanded. Dillons was swallowed up by Waterstones in the 1990s.
The architecture is described in Pevsner as Franco-Flemish Gothic, but it is eminently Victorian - very old fashioned by 1907 when everyone else had gone Edwardian. If the ballroom in the Titanic weighed half as much, no wonder it sank.
Every bay window bears the arms of Fitzroy Doll's employers, a red lion, with their motto running round: Che Sara Sara. I defy you to say it without bursting into song.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, WC1

It's very difficult to be bitchy in stone, but this pair of plaques on the wall of the School of Oriental and African Studies just off Russell Square pulls it off dramatically.
The top one is an apology to the Russell family for failing to seek their approval of the design of the building (built by Nicholas Hare in 1995). The family had sold a large area of land behind the British Museum to London University in the 1920s but felt they were forced into it - rather than submit to compulsory purchase they attached conditions that would allow them to continue to act as style police for the area. Considering they had allowed the monstrous Russell and Imperial hotels to be built on the other side of the square, and seem to have acquiesced in the brutalist 1970s horror that is the Institute of Education (by Denys Lasdun) this was a bit much.
The wording of the plaque makes it seem as if the Russell family are rather like the Waltons, down-home types who just want to see good taste reign in the developments on the old farmstead. No mention of the fact that the Russells are among the richest and nobbiest families in England, headed by the Duke of Bedford.
Anyway, SOAS got its own back by placing the plaque recording its Civic Trust award for the design directly below the Ducal whinge, as if to say "Up yours, your Grace."

Friday 11 July 2008

Zimbabwe House, Strand

According to legend, when the old British Medical Association building in the Strand was being refurbished to become Southern Rhodesian High Commission in the 1930s, the High Commissioner was so outraged by the robust and unrepentent nudity of Jacob Epstein's statues on the second floor he walked along the scaffolding with a club hammer and knocked the offending organs off every one of them.
The reality is unfortunately much more prosaic. The statues were found to have been carved with the natural bed lines vertical, allowing water to get inside, freeze and make large chunks unstable. The figures could not be bodily removed, because Epstein had carved them out of the actual facade of the building, so projecting parts such as heads and hands had to be removed before passers-by got killed.
It is true that the figures practically caused a riot when they were originally unveiled in 1908, but Epstein had an unrivalled talent for giving offence.
The architect of the building was Charles Holden, designer of the London University Senate House and most of the Underground's finest tube stations.
While you are there, move a few yards to Stranded, a restaurant bar that used to be Yates Wine Lodge. PG Wodehouse used to say that it was always worth a fiver betting Americans that you couldn't see the clock of the Law Courts from Yates Wine Lodge, because they would always think it was far too far away. But there it is, skylined at the end of the vista. Click on the picture to enlarge it if you don't believe me.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Lancaster Gate Thistle Hotel, Bayswater Road

The old Lancaster Gate Thistle Hotel is being converted into flats by developer Northacre, who have put one of their signature hoardings in front of the site. It's a long line of huge imitation pencils with assorted slogans, sayings, wise saws and modern instances printed along them like those freebies you get for signing up with a bank. It's great.
My personal favourites are new versions of the alphabet that traditionally goes:
A for 'orses
B for mutton
C for thighlanders
D for dumb
E for brick
F for vescent
and so on.
The new ones include:
L for Goblin
M for size
N for lope
O for hers.
I frankly don't understand some of them. What on earth does 'K for Bantu' mean? Answers in the comment section, please.