Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Poplar's Festival estate

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar was designed both as a place to live and as an exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain. After the bombing damage of the Second World War, housing was of enormous importance. Thus the Lansbury was to offer a model of contemporary architecture at a moment when neighbourhoods rather than 'icons' were an architectural priority. 

It was serving a very real need: Poplar had been badly bombed, and reconstruction was urgently required. The 1943 County of London Plan emphasised the importance of preserving community identities, including through the creation of community spaces.

Architect Frederick Gibberd was heavily involved in the planning of new towns and neighbourhoods (he would both design and live in Harlow New Town), and had a reputation for delivering good-quality social housing. He argued that the Living Architecture Exhibition should 'take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main Exhibition; to develop it as a cross section of a Neighbourhood, with such other additional permanent structures as may be necessary to complete the visual picture, providing such buildings are of ultimate use to the neighbourhood'. The site would be handed over to the local authority once the Festival ended. 

Of various sites suggested, this one was chosen because it was a bomb site; the surrounding buildings were felt to be more attractive than those of other suggested sites; plans were not too advanced; and visitors could travel to it by riverbus. It was to include not only housing but also a market and pedestrianised shopping centre, schools, churches and pubs. Such an ambitious project inevitably suffered difficulties of time and budget: land had to be acquired, residents moved, skilled workers recruited, and permissions obtained. Amazingly, however, the exhibit was completed more-or-less on time and the first tenants moved in on 14 February 1951. 

Many of the exhibits were temporary: a 200-foot tall construction crane, the Rosie Lee Cafe, and themed pavilions. Once these had been toured, visitors were sent to walk an approved route around the Lansbury - although unfortunately, it proved easy for them to get lost! Indeed, the Living Architecture Exhibition had something of a Cinderella status within the Festival. There were no opening or closing ceremonies, and the 86,000 visitors were a tiny proportion of the 8.5 million who visited the South Bank. Many critics found the designs uninspiring (reduced budgets hadn't helped), although those who lived there would go on to assess it more positively. 

Nonetheless, surviving traces add rather jaunty notes to the estate. Drainpipe hoppers have the festival logo, and there is a Festival Inn. 

Perhaps the most distinctive manifestation of Gibberd's vision is the landmark Chrisp Street Market clocktower. It was designed as a folly, an enjoyable centrepiece rather than a terribly functional piece of architecture. There are two staircases (intended for ascending and descending), and sides left deliberately open.

The Festival site was just the first phase of the Lansbury Estate, named for Poplar's Socialist councillor and MP George Lansbury who had died in 1940. In fact, it was not completed until 1982. Long before that, the low-rise housing of the first stage gave way to high-rise flats, while economic and social decline also blighted the estate in the latter decades of last century. 

Just across the road from Chrisp Street Market is the most famous of these, albeit part of Brownfield Estate rather than Lansbury: the Balfron Tower. Designed by Erno Goldfinger, it is Grade II listed and currently being refurbished. Its story reflects many current issues with social housing, with residents being moved out and the flats due to be sold as private luxury homes.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Postman's Park (28): William Drake

Hyde Park was long a fashionable place for horse and carriage rides. At the same time, it is surrounded by busy roads, including Park Lane. This was the scene for an accident in 1869.

Mademoiselle Titiens and a friend were entering Hyde Park in a brougham, through Stanhope Gate off Park Lane. However, a wagonette crossed in front of the carriage; in his attempt to perform an emergency stop, Mlle Titiens' carriage driver broke the carriage-pole and lost control of the horses. Luckily, help was at hand: passer-by William Drake and a policeman ran over to stop the horses, preventing a serious accident to the carriage occupants. During the incident, Drake was kicked on the knee by one of the animals.

The Mlle Titiens referred to seems to have been the opera singer Terese Titiens (Tietjens). Born in Hamburg, she had moved to London in 1858 and was considered one of the great sopranos of the nineteenth century. She would continue performing until shortly before her own death in 1877.

What may have appeared a relatively minor injury to Drake turned to pyaemia (a form of blood poisoning with fever and abcesses). As a result, Drake died. However, there was some consolation for his family: a representative of Mlle Titiens assured the inquest that she would amply care for his dependents. He was also recognised in Postman's Park:


Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Scream. Ice scream.

Frozen dairy desserts seem to attract the strangest models, and this one on the Breton coast is no exception. While the dessert is more of a dome than the usual collection of scooped spheres - and none of the garnishes are to scale! - what really grabs the attention is that smile. The smile of nightmares...

(Luckily I only saw it after ordering my dessert, which was delicious!)

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Postman's Park (27): railway heroism

Walter Peart and Henry Dean were the driver and stoker of the Great Western train known as the Windsor Express. On 18 July 1898, they were driving the 4.15 train from Windsor to Paddington on what seemed a routine trip when, just outside Acton, the connecting rod broke. Part of it was driven through the boiler casing and caused damage to the fire box which overwhelmed the men with cinders, steam and fire. Nonetheless, they succeeded in applying the brake and bringing the train to a safe standstill before leaving the engine at Acton Station.

At hospital, Peart explained why he hadn't jumped out:
I stopped my engine. ... When it happened, I got back out of the way, and I thought to myself, the train is running as fast as ever. I thought I would go back to the fire and put my vacuum brake on. I did it, and as I got out from the fire and the smoke I couldn't run and when I was by the side of the engine my leg was struck by the connecting rod, which was broken.
Among the lives saved by Peart and Dean was that of Mr Goschen, First Lord of the Admiralty, who wrote with a subscription to their families. However, Peart and Dean themselves died of their injuries in St Mary's Hospital. The inquest jury desired 'to place on record their high appreciation of the conduct of the two deceased men in applying the brake and in keeping at their posts, thus averting a very serious catastrophe which would have endangered the lives of the passengers of the train.' Both men left widows, and Peart also had five children.

The plaque in Postman's Park summarises the incident well:

It is not their only memorial. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants erected a tomb for the two men in Kensal Green Cemetery, featuring a relief of a train and railway tracks. It was restored in 1994, and is Grade-II listed.

Such an act of self-sacrifice by railway employees was not unique. Daniel Pemberton would die at Twickenham in order to save a colleague. They were working on the railway track when an express train approached; Pemberton pushed Thomas Harwood safely out of the way but was himself struck by the engine and killed.


Friday, 25 September 2015

Looking down on Brutalism

Sometimes, it's not the highest buildings which offer the best views. 88 Wood Street has 17 floors - pretty high up when you're ascending in its glass-walled lifts, but dwarfed by the 34 storeys of the Walkie Talkie or the 45 floors of the Cheesegrater. 

The top floor, though, offers excellent views of the Barbican complex. That confusing layout, which requires extensive signage and a yellow track to the Barbican Centre when you're inside, makes a lot more sense when viewed from above. 

St Giles Cripplegate, at its heart, is even more prominent - and incongruous - from here, too. 

There is plenty more to see from this level. A look across the City highlights the extent to which the skyline is dominated by the newest skyscrapers - and by cranes. 

Monday, 21 September 2015

Past perfect: inside Middlesex Hospital Chapel

The last time I saw Middlesex Hospital Chapel, it was a sole survivor marooned in the wasteland of the demolished hospital. This Open House Weekend, I saw it again - now surrounded by the buildings of the new Fitzroy Place development. 

One of the consequences of that development is that the interior of the chapel has been restored - and it looks glorious. 

The chapel was designed by John Loughborough Pearson in 1891; after his death six years later, his son FL Pearson took over the work. The nave originally had a timber roof, but that too was replaced with mosaic in 1929-39.

The whole interior is a rich combination of marbles and mosaic, created by Italian craftspeople. 

The ante-chapel is lined with marble memorial tablets relating to the hospital, including this one to neurosurgeon Diana Beck, 'first medical woman on the consultant staff of this hospital'.

However, concerns over the chapel have not ended. Above all, what is it called? The developers listed it in the Open House guide as 'Fitzrovia Chapel'; their attempts to rename it have attracted much criticism. In response, they have left the original 'Middlesex Hospital' signage on its facade.

It was wonderful to see the chapel open after so many quiet years, and to know that much more public access is planned for the future. 

There are more photos on Flickr.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Postman's Park (26): facts and figures

Although every story on the Watts Memorial has its own interest, there are certain causes of death which appear again and again. While they are of course not a representative sample in any way, they do highlight both the dangers and the preoccupations of Victorian and Edwardian London.

The figures below relate to numbers of plaques rather than individuals (some tiles feature more than one person killed in the same incident):
Death by drowning: 21 (including 1 in quicksand)
Death in a fire: 15
Train: 5 (4 run down; 1 while driving train)
Run down by horse/carriage: 4
Killed by poison gas in workplace: 3
Killed in WW1: 2
Treating diphtheria patient: 2
Refinery explosion: 1
Although the memorial is not formally limited to London, in practice very few of the plaques are not connected to the metropolis. Again, here are some figures:
London incidents: 50
London residents on holiday: 2
No London connection: 1
The person without a strong London connection was Mary Rogers, whose heroism on the steamship Stella made her a national hero. However, the London focus was not accidental as Watts hoped that other towns would erect their own monuments to ordinary heroism.

It has been suggested from time to time that the memorial should be revived by the addition of new plaques (I think that that would be a lovely idea). These figures suggest two questions: first, would the London bias remain? Second, what types of heroism would be most prominent today?

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Ticket to Dismaland

Banksy's 'bemusement park' in Weston-Super-Mare lives up to the excitement. There's art everywhere: galleries, installations, giant sculptures made of lorries and scaffolding, political messages. Dismaland also works as an amusement park, though: a big wheel, boating pool, carousel, crazy golf, games you can't win, and the fairytale castle - complete with souvenir picture to buy at the exit. 

Security theatre: 'I am searching you for no reason.' The cardboard creation of Bill Barminski.

Tattooed figurine by Jessica Harrison

The castle was made by Block9

David Shrigley

Big Rig Jig - Mike Ross

Aftermath Displacement Principle: a post-riot model town by Jimmy Cauty

There are more photographs over on flickr.

Polly Morgan

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Postman's Park (25): Joseph William Onslow

Reynolds's Newspaper reported on the death of Joseph William Onslow. He worked as a lighterman: that is, a boatman who carried goods from cargo ships to shore. He had perhaps earned his place in the Postman's Park memorial more than most, since the inquest heard that he had previously saved three lives through similar action.
A NOBLE FELLOW – On Friday the deputy coroner for East Middlesex held an inquest at the Gun Hotel, Wapping, on the body of Joseph William Onslow, aged twenty-two, a lighterman. William Dare, 7, Broad-street, Old Gravel-lane said on Tuesday last he was with the deceased on board a barge, when their attention was attracted to the cries of a boy who had fallen into the water from off Wapping-stairs. The deceased, without a moment’s hesitation, plunged into the water, and swam towards the stairs, and in the direction of the boy, who was seen fifty or sixty yards distant. When about three yards off the lad the deceased appeared to be seized with cramp, and before further assistance could be obtained he sank from the view of a number of spectators, who were standing on the banks of the river. The boy was rescued by a man in a barge by means of a boat-hook, but the deceased was drowned. It was stated that previously the deceased had jumped in the river in the same daring manner, and saved no less than three lives. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”
The memorial plaque is dedicated to:


Thursday, 3 September 2015

Ghost signs (118): Curtain Road

Pizza Express in Shoreditch occupies a building formerly used as workshops for furniture-making. A rather faded trace remains: the words above the right-hand window read 'Butler' at the top, and probably 'cabinet factor' below that. (Credit to Maggie Jones and Traxcitement, who had deciphered the lower words over on flickr). 

A rather nice touch is the contrast between these plain, faded letters and the very recent, very colourful contemporary signwriting on the building to the right.