Tuesday, 23 May 2017

A London walk on the theme of....Art Deco,

Having wandered around the streets of London for more than twenty years, often stopping to take in the architecture and then reading about it in the collection of books I'd amassed over the years, I considered that I'd accumulated enough trivia to be reasonably well informed on the subject and proposed, via Facebook, the idea of an architectural walk. The theme was Art Deco but it could've been Brutalism, Art Nouveau, Christopher Wren, or many other things.

Thankfully a good few friends got back to me saying they'd be interested and it was even suggested that, at some point in the future, there could be a potential business venture in it. For now, however, I just wanted a nice day out with friends, a good walk, and a couple of beers. Luckily that all came to pass.

In preparing a brief script about the walk I'd uncovered a few nuggets of information that I was looking forward to sharing with my friends. My main concerns were now about the weather (thunderstorms had loomed on the forecast all week) and a slight apprehension, bordering on stage fright, about having to curate the whole thing and keep it interesting and manageable for a reasonably disparate group of friends. I wouldn't say I was the consummate professional but I think I just about pulled it off.

We convened in Waterloo station, in Benugo on the mezzanine, by the big clock at mid-day. The concourse was teeming with stag and hen parties. I saw butchers, cows, Cleopatras, Pokemons, and a barbershop quartet. Our reasonably soberly attired (there were a couple of honourable exceptions and I'd expect nothing less) posse wandered out of the station and down to the south bank of the Thames.

At this point I realised that what with reading my 'scripts', trying to make sure people don't get lost, and focusing on the job in hand I wouldn't have much time for photos so I thank Colin Robertson for providing the photos on this blog.

First building up was the Oxo Tower, one of the few non-listed buildings on our route. Built in the late 19th century and then purchased in the 20s by the Liebig's Extract of Meat Company (founded in the UK by German chemist Justus von Liebig) and used as a cold store. A giant fridge basically. Liebig made Oxo stock cubes and when in 1928/29 all of the building, except the river facing façade was demolished Albert Moore rebuilt it and added its Art Deco tower. Moore wanted illuminated advertising signs but as skyline adverts were banned at the time he was refused permission. So he designed the famous O, X, and O shaped windows and if that happened to spell out the name of their most famous predict well that was surely just a coincidence, eh? The tower spent a good part of the last century derelict and under threat of demolition but in the 90s the architectural firm Lifschutz Davidson refurbished it and, in 1997, it won an award for urban regeneration. It now has gallery space, shops, flats, a restaurant, and you can even get married in there.

Across the river you can see Shell Mex House (below), a Grade II listed, suave, almost New York in style, edifice. Originally the Cecil Hotel, when it opened in 1886 it was the largest in Europe with 800 bedrooms. The riverside façade, topped by the biggest clock in London, was remodelled in 1931 by Ernest Joseph and stands in comparison with Howard Robertson's lugubrious tower (also for Shell) on our side of the river.

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We crossed over Blackfriars Bridge. The 3rd Thames crossing constructed in London and the 2nd oldest standing (after Westminster Bridge). Blackfriars Bridge is no longer a toll bridge and has quite a grisly story from recent years attached. In 1982 Roberto Calvi, God's banker, who had links to both the Vatican and the Mafia was found hanging from the bridge. In Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus Heath Ledger's character Tony is found, like Calvi, hanging from the bridge too.
 
On the north side of the bridge you'll find Unilever House. Like many of the tour a mish-mash of styles this one fuses Art Deco with Neoclassical elements, not least the huge Ionic columns, and even Baroque. Grade II listed with no ground floor windows to reduce traffic noise. On its corners there are statues of humans restraining horses. They're by William Dick and called Controlled Energy. There are mermen and mermaids by Gilbert Ledward and the lifts have been designed by renowned paedophile Eric Gill.
 
At Ludgate Circus we took a left into Fleet Street. Ludgate Circus was historically the main connection between the cities of Westminster and London and underneath it runs London's largest underground river, the Fleet (which starts on Hampstead Heath and seems to be crying out to be walked one day). Ludgate's name comes from the belief that once stood there was created by the pre-Roman king of Britain, Lud. London is said to mean Lud's Fortress. There's a branch of Leon there now where a pub called the King Lud once stood and you can see medallions of Lud himself over its doors.
 
On Fleet Street we stopped to take in the Daily Express Building (below, 1932, Ellis Clarke and Atkinson with Sir Owen Williams). In an unusually generous act for an architect the top three floors retreat behind the gantry to allow more sunshine to reach the people on street level. We couldn't go on but that didn't stop me telling my still not flagging  yet audience about the staircase being done out to resemble Cleopatra's tomb with twisted snakes as handrails. Private Eye refer to the building as the Black Lubyanska after a notorious Muscovite KGB prison.

 
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Past the Royal Courts of Justice, St.Clement Danes, and St.Mary-le-Strand we reach the Savoy. The Thames facing side is not Art Deco at all but the stainless steel Strandside is. Built by Richard D'Oyly Carte with the profits of Gilbert & Sullivan musicals it opened in 1889. Grade II listed again here's a list of a few of the famous who've stayed there:- Edward VII, HG Wells, Monet, Whistler, GB Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Nellie Melba. Al Jolson, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Liz Taylor, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. Larry Olivier and Vivien Leigh met there and Bob Dylan filmed the video to Subterranean Homesick Blues (which I nervously renamed Suburban Homesick Blues) in a nearby alley and Richard Harris lived, and nearly died, there. Savoy Court is the only street in London where you're legally required to drive on the right!
 
Then, have a banana, we all went down the Strand. But not too far. The skies opened up. We retreated in a packed Coal Hole for a quick drink and by the time we'd supped up the rain had stopped and we h ad a brief stop outside the Adelphia Theatre. A building that received its Grade II listing in 1987. It was founded in 1806 as Sans Pareil and reopened in 1819 as the Adelphi going on stage many Dickens adaptations. Renovated several times, once knocking down the nearby pub The Hampshire Hog (appropriated as the Strand is the old Roman Road to Silchester). In 1897 the actor William Terris was stabbed to death backstage by a rival thespian Richard Archer Prince and it's said that Terris' ghost now haunts the theatre. The present incarnation, by Ernest Schaufelberg, opened in 1930 and is currently owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company.
 
 
In about 600AD there were houses on The Strand but people moved in to the city and returned to fields until, in the Middle Ages, it became part of that London Westminster link. The Eleanor Cross, which stands outside Charing Cross, station is said to be where distances from London are measured. It's part of a series of ceremonial crosses marking overnight stays of the deceased queen of Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, who died in Lincoln and had her body returned to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. Crosses stood in Waltham, St.Albans, and Northampton but most are now fairly ruined. This one was demolished by parliament during the English Civil War in 1647 and reconstructed in 1865. 
 
Through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall, a quick jig with the Ugandan protestors outside Downing Street, round Parliament Square and on to 55 Broadway. We'd briefly passed Charles Holden's Zimbabwe House (with its decapitated statues by Jacob Epstein) on The Strand but this was Holden in his imperial phase. Now, predictably, being converted into luxury flats the grimy edifice won a RIBA model when it was built in 1931 as an HQ for the London Underground. It was our first Grade I listed building on the walk and rightly so. Sculptures by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, and Eric Gill adorn the building. The Epstein sculptures caused outcry at the time due to their nudity. Newspapers campaigned to have them removed but after Epstein chopped an inch and a half of the male model's penis the furore quietened down. I can't think why!
 
As much as Gill was the villain of our walk Holden to me was the hero. Born in Bolton his mum died and his dad went bankrupt during his childhood. He worked as a lab assistant and a railway clerk but  eventually found his way into architecture where he, quite obviously, flourished. He wasn't afraid of being pretentious and claimed his buildings were inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. He built a ridiculous number of tube stations. Archway, Arnos Grove, Balham, Clapham Common, Green Park, Holborn, Highgate, Piccadilly Circus, Southgate, Westminster, and Tootings BEC and Broadway - they're all his.
 
From here we cut through St.James's Park, saw the pelicans, Egyptian geese, swans, and ducks, and rocked up at Simpson's of Piccadilly. Now a huge Waterstones it was once a huge menswear store, the biggest in the UK when it was built by Joseph Emberton (with the help of Hungarian artist and Bauhaus director Laszlo Moholy-Nagy) in the mid-30s. Another Grade I building in the 50s Jeremy Lloyd worked there as a junior assistant and used his experiences there (and the shop itself) as a basis for Are You Being Served?
 
From here we wandered through Leicester Square taking in the Prince of Wales Theatre (established 1884, rebuilt 1937, refurbished by Cameron Mackintosh in 2004) where Gracie Fields sang to the workmen as she laid the foundation stones. Designed by Robert Cromie and home to comedians like Bob Hope, Morecambe and Wise, Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, and Norman Wisdom.
 
Also in Leicester Square we took in the Odeon. Oscar Deutsch who formed the group actually came from Balsall Heath in Birmingham and was the son of a Hungarian Jewish scrap metal merchant, Leopold. He eventually passed his business on to J Arthur Rank, a man more famous for his role in rhyming slang these days. The Odeon was on the site of a former Turkish bath.
 
In Covent Garden the Cambridge Theatre was mostly under wraps so we couldn't appreciate the Wimperson, Simpson, and Guthrie built Grade II building or its interior, by Serge Chermayeff (the Russian born architect of the De Le Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea) which famously housed both Jerry Springer the Opera and several 1964 performances by Bruce Forsyth.
 
I could talk about Seven Dials itself though. Once a slum of such repute that both Charles Dickens and WS Gilbert both passed comment on its 'lowliness' it did at least have a pub on each of its seven corners. Only one still stands. Even in the 1920s it was still a byword for urban poverty. That's all changed now as well-to-do types loiter around the sundial unveilved by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Freemason's Hall (below, 1927-33, Ashley and Newman) is the HQ of the United Grand Lodge of England and the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch. Sounds like a load of old bollocks but its an impressive building nonetheless. Initially built as a memorial to the 3,225 masons who died in World War I. It's even appeared in a Westlife video!

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Round the British Museum we come face to face with the megalithic Senate House. Charles Holden's work again. This one dates from 1932-37 and the plan, originally, was to make it even bigger but World War II put pay to that. During that war it was used as the Ministry of Information and inspired Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (not sure who came up with that title first), and George Orwell's 1984. Orwell's wife had worked there. Some say the building's totalitarian or even Stalinist, Evelyn Waugh said the building insulted the sky, but many loved it. Not least Erich Mendelsohn (another who worked on the De La Warr pavilion as well as the Einstein Tower in Potsdam) who claimed London had no finer building. Unsubstantiated rumours say Adolf Hitler was also a fan and had earmarked it as his London base after the Nazi invasion.
 
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Image may contain: cloud, sky and outdoor

I could see that some feet were aching, a few were midly flagging, people needed a wee, people definitely wanted a drink. So I thought on my feet and cut out Palladium/Ideal House (a scaled down version of the American Radiator building made famous by a Georgie O'Keeffe painting) and Claridge's (rumoured to have been ceded, for one day only, to Yugoslavia, so Crown Prince Alexander could be born on Yugoslav soil) and stop for a very refreshing drink in The Marlbrough Arms. I think it worked. People seemed happy with the decision anyway and, suitably refreshed, we headed off through Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia to see the Beeb!
 
Broadcasting House (above, 1931, Val Myers and Watson-Hart) also has sculptures from Eric Gill (not the only paedophile to enter the building, that's for sure). Serge Chermayeff provided interiors since removed by the BBC and in the radio theatre you can hear the rumble of Bakerloo trains passing by below. The cone on the roof of the building was unveiled by Ban Ki-Moon in 2008 and is a memorial to journalists killed in the lines of duty. It's called Breathing and it's by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa.
 
Broadcasting House (and the Langham Hotel) seem to rhyme with neaby All Soul's Church, built by John Nash in the Regency style in 1824 for George IV. Nash also did the less impressive Buckingham Palace and the wonderful and bonkers Brighton Pavilion.
 
Further up Portland Place you come to the RIBA HQ. They have great exhibitions and you can even take a shower in the Grade II listed George Grey Wornum building which stands resplendent in surprisingly clean Portland Stone. Wornum won a competition for the commission to build it that had 3,600 entries. His other work includes ocean liners and a girl's college in Alexandria. Probably a good job Gill wasn't called in on that job.
 
Up to Mornington Crescent and our final stop was the full Egyptian revival of the Carreras Cigarette Factory. Also called the Black Cat Factory, Arcadia Works, or Greater London House it goes by many names and one of our walkers, Linda, works there now for the British Heart Foundation (ASOS and Wonga are also in there these days). Built between 1926 and 1928 by the architects ME & OH Collins & AG Porri to house the growing Carreras cigarette makers ,after fags became more popular after WWI and they needed to move from City Road, it was designed not long after Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun which had made ancient Egypt so en pointe. It was made as a temple to the Egyptian god Bastet and was going to be called Bast House but they dropped that in case people nicknamed it Bastard House. It was the first building in the UK to use pre-stressed concrete and the first to have air conditioning. It was also a good place to end our walk and head to the pub.
 
We had a quick drink in The Edinboro' Castle (where Ian, Poppy, and Peter put in a brief appearance) and then a few of us went to Masala Zone for a curry. I had a fairly basic (but tasty) paneer dish but Colin and Valia, who both went for some banana and suran (?), thing were braver and rewarded for their bravery in ordering. A dwindling band of us went for a couple more drinks before I headed home tired, satisfied with how it's gone, and having learnt a few things about what worked and what didn't. I'm going to do another soon. It'll be Brutalist next time and the walk will probably be a bit shorter and hopefully in even better weather.
 
Thanks to Colin, Shep, Pam, Valia, Adam, Cheryl, Darren, Tommy (an absolute star who, at four years old, not only kept up with all the grown ups but at the 10 mile walk was still suggesting running races), Dena, Linda, and Sanda for joining me. I had a wonderful time and though the buildings, the beers, the walking, and the curry were all fun it was the company, as ever, that really made it. See you soon.
 
 
 
 

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