City of Arches by Vivian Child

A slightly odd one, this, or at least slightly unexpected. I keep various lists of possible books for the Read The World challenge, and City of Arches was on one of them as a book from St Vincent and the Grenadines. But while I must have known what sort of book it was when I made a note of the title, by the time I ordered it I was under the impression it was a childhood memoir. Perhaps because of the subtitle, Memories of an Island Capital.

In fact it’s more like one of those local history books written by enthusiastic amateur historians. It’s based on a collection of newspaper articles about notable local buildings and their history. So I now know a lot more about the typical architecture of St Vincent: arched arcades and hooded sash windows are the most notable features, but also balconies and decorative fretwork and so on.

If it was only about architecture it might be pretty hard going, but there’s enough of the history and human interest stuff to make it an enjoyable read — especially since it’s only 150 pages of large type with lots of illustrations. A typical entry is something like this:

This attractive house was built around 1926 in typical Kingstown style by Mrs. Jennings (née Rosalind Constantine) from Calliaqua, while her husband was absent, working with the railways in Nigeria.

The builber was Jim Campbell. At that time it stood on its own extensive grounds with fruit trees, and pastures with cattle, sheep and fowl. The only house nearby was the estate house on top of the little hill where Mr John Hazell lived for many years.

The house is of plastered stone construction, although the upper storey has has a wooden gallery partly closed in on the front an supported by arches below. The inside wall of the gallery is painted a beautiful shade of blue.

Enclosed on two sides by the upstairs gallery the spacious living room walls are decorated with a hand painted, coloured design of blurred crossing diagonals, and old and unusual feature. Note the practical and graceful outside stone staircase, a feature often seen in the older suburban and rural homes.

Mr Jennings retired in 1932 and the couple lived out their lives in this comfortable home, disturbed only when rioters in the 1930s hid the goods they had stolen from the stores of Kingstown among the bushes near their home.

The house is now the residence of Mrs. Carol Saunders, Mrs. Jennings foster child. Her husband, Mr James Saunders was a clerk in a business and they had three sons.

It’s a rather wonderful mixture of architectural description, completely mundane biography and just a few intriguing details that hint at the real emotional lives of the inhabitants: a husband away in Nigeria, rioters, a foster child. Since I have no connection to St Vincent and no particular interest in its architectural heritage, I found myself reading it like some kind of austere modernist novel: lots of fragmentary narratives that never quite resolve into anything more than the sum of its parts.

» The photo of Back Street West is © Karl Eklund. It’s not the most flattering picture you’ll ever see of St. Vincent, but it does demonstrate the colonial style of architecture with arched arcades and hooded sash windows.

Rain, rain go away

Don’t get me wrong, this place looks beautiful even when it is raining, but I think I’m ready for some more sun now.

I would say it was no more than I expect of Wales — it’s not a coincidence that the principality is famous for sheep rather than, say, vineyards — but in fact I read somewhere that St. David’s Head has more hours of sunshine every year than anywhere else in the country, so perhaps I’m just unlucky.

Still, I had a wet but mostly enjoyable walk today: the flowers are amazing. As well as all the gorse, bluebells, campion and thrift, there were little blue flowers I think might be called squills, and little wild white roses, and milkwort and cuckooflower and scabious and foxgloves and about a hundred others. It really is rather lovely. And I saw nesting ravens, and a couple of choughs, and there were whitethroats singing from every bush.

I also went to the cathedral today. If you use the criterion that a city is a town with a cathedral, St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK. I think it might be going a bit far to describe it as a ‘village’, but in more densely populated parts of the country it would certainly be a very small town. The cathedral is really attractive: lots of good medieval stuff and some unusually attractive Victorian restoration as well.

When they built the nave in [about] the C13th, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and standing in the cathedral looking along the nave you can see the north wall is visibly leaning outwards, which is quite disconcerting. So in the C16th they put in some internal buttressing and lowered the ceiling: there’s a beautiful ornately carved wooden Tudor ceiling with huge protruding bosses which you can see is just cutting across the top of the arched window in the west wall. And the exterior of the west wall is covered in the fabulous purple Pembrokeshire stone: I think it must be something like an iron-rich sandstone, but it’s a sort of aubergine colour.

Like most medieval cathedrals in this country, it had some of its best stuff — windows and statues and so on — demolished either during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s men; and no doubt in the middle ages all the interior would have been covered in murals and other decoration. But that’s just par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s ironic or highly appropriate that Christians created so much of the country’s artistic heritage and then it was other Christians who came along a bit later and destroyed most of it.

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A London particular

And a peculiarly London sun – against which nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot – glorified all this by its stare. It hung at a moderate elevation above Hyde Park Corner with an air of punctual and benign vigilance. The very pavement under Mr Verloc’s feet had an old-gold tinge in that diffused light, in which neither wall, nor tree, nor beast, nor man cast a shadow. Mr Verloc was going westward through a town without shadows in an atmosphere of powdered old gold. There were red, coppery gleams on the roofs of houses, on the corners of walls, on the panels of carriages, on the very coats of the horses, and on the broad back of Mr Verloc’s overcoat, where they produced a dull effect of rustiness.

from The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Of all the things that have changed in London, that cut us off from our ancestors’ experience of the city, perhaps the most profound, more even than the sounds and the smells, is the fog. Not just the thick pea-soupers which brought visibility down to a few feet, but the continual smokey haze from millions of coal-burning fireplaces.

Just as people go on painting holidays to Cornwall or Tuscany, Monet and Whistler used to come to London for the special quality of the light. For Whistler

when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone.

Chimneys become campanili, warehouses become palaces, and familiar buildings become strange to us.

Houses of parliament in the fog by Monet

The whole way the city was built was affected by the fog.

Building News, in 1881, discussed the fact that ‘the smoky atmosphere has done its best to clothe our most costly buildings in thin drapery of soot … they soon become dark and sombre masses … all play of light and shade is lost.’ That is precisely why architects decided to clothe their buildings in bright red brick and shining terracotta so that they would remain visible; the features of nineteenth-century building, which may seem vulgar or gaudy, were attempts to stabilise the identity and legibility of the city.

from London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

But it didn’t just apply to buildings; the city’s archetypal tree, the London Plane, which lines the streets and squares of the city and provides roosting space for the starlings, was planted because with its thick leathery leaves and flaking bark, it could survive the smoke. The classic park planting scheme — geometrical beds of brightly coloured hardy annuals — surely resulted not from a lack of imagination among park-keepers, but a need to show up in the gloom, resist the air pollution for as long as possible, and be easily replaceable if the plants died.

The sun was shining and at the end of the street between the houses the sky was blue. Gauzily the distances faded to a soft, rich indistinctness; there were veils of golden muslin thickening down the length of every vista. On the trees in Hanover Square gardens the young leaves were still so green that they seemed to be alight, green fire, and the sooty trunks looked blacker and dirtier than ever. It would have been a pleasant and apposite thing if a cuckoo had started calling. But though the cuckoo was silent it was a happy day. A day, Gumbril reflected, as he strolled idly along, to be in love.

from Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

It’s easy to forget just how physically dirty the city used to be. There was a general griminess over the whole city; you get a sense of it looking at old photos, but you didn’t quite appreciate how dirty the buildings were until you saw them being cleaned. The process of cleaning away the smoke stains from central London has been pretty much finished now, but there was a time when you often found a newly cleaned building next to a filthy one, and the contrast was almost black and white. The Houses of Parliament used to be a gloomy, almost sinister-looking building; now it’s delicate and honey-coloured. It has shifted from vampire gothic towards fairy-princess gothic.

view of the Thames from the Savoy by Whistler

Searching for references to fog in the British Library collections, I found this, an account in the Penny Illustrated from 12th October 1861 of a display given by the great tightrope walker Blondin at Crystal Palace:

Blondin on the terrace rope, illuminating himself and the palace, was justly expected to outshine all former spectacles. Unhappily, the mist that had hung about all day and woven itself with the twilight into a veil that wrapped every every statue, tree, and tower in early darkness, thickened into fog soon after sunset. At half-past six, when Blondin started in his basket for the mast, he could be seen only a few yards off, until he lighted the pan of blue fire he carried in each hand. On reaching the mast he kindled the lights fixed there; but they did not suffice to show even the outline of his form. For the next half-hour or so he was completely invisible–at any rate, to our eye. Yet he must have traversed the rope right and left for a considerable distance; for he exploded the fireworks in his barrow, as announced, and made as brilliant an exhibition as the fog would permit. Here and there arose from the grounds an applauding recognition as he made his way back to the mast, and he was warmly greeted on his return to the palace.

The Chinese government will not doubt be praying that nothing similar happens in Beijing this summer.

» The photo is of Hyde Park corner, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn and found on the British Library website. Other foggy pictures from his 1909 book London: Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Kingsway, Paddington Canal, Kensington Gardens. The Monet painting of the Houses of Parliament in the fog is one of several on Wikipedia. The lithograph of the Thames seen from the Savoy is by Whistler and is from the Tate’s Turner Whistler Monet exhibition from a few years ago. And as a reward for reading the small-print: Animal from the Muppets Animal sings Gershwin.

The Thames path, Westminster to Putney

I talked about the juxtaposition of the C19th Gothic of Tower Bridge and the genuine medievalness of the Tower of London: not, in my opinion, one of the great planning decisions in the history of London. Well, at Westminster, you meet with a similar case. The Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament), started in 1840, sits over the road from Westminster Abbey, started six hundred years earlier in 1245, and does its best to insinuate that it’s been there all along.

The fact that this revival of a five-hundred-old style occurred in the throes of the Industrial Revolution is fascinating to me. And at a time when wealth was moving faster than ever from the hands of the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, and when reform was broadening democracy and extending the franchise, the symbolism of choosing a parliament building in a style associated with feudalism and religion could keep the semioticians busy for weeks.

Big Ben

But symbolism aside, the finished result is far more successful than the Bridge/Tower combination. It helps that there’s a historical logic to it; it was after all built to replace the original medieval Palace of Westminster that burnt down in the 1830s, and it incorporates the medieval Westminster Hall. A lot of Victorian Gothic looks very Victorian indeed, because of the materials used or because a few Gothic motifs have been sprinkled on an essentially C19th building. And that’s no bad thing: much more interesting to reinvent a style for a new age than produce slavish reproductions. But in this case, given the location, I think it’s quite fitting that it does manage to look kind of ‘authentically’ medieval. Compared, for example, to the Buxton Memorial fountain marking the abolition of the slave trade:

Buxton memorial fountain

And if it slightly overshadows Westminster Abbey: well, it’s an important building. Having Parliament in a vast, grandiose, sprawling palace while the Prime Minister’s residence is an anonymous terraced townhouse must be better than the other way round.

Heading off along the river, the next major landmark is what I still think of as ‘the Tate’ but is now ‘Tate Britain’, thanks to Nicholas Serota’s empire-building and his ruthless crackdown on definite articles. And on the opposite side of the river, the building a friend of mine used to refer to as Ming the Merciless’s palace.

MI6 building

It is in fact the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I don’t know whether the architects were specifically asked for something that squats on the riverbank like a gigantic stony-faced toad, or if it just seemed appropriate. I remember reading once that it was supposed to look from air like the portcullis which is the symbol for the Palace of Westminster; thanks to Google Maps you can now see that it sort of slightly does.

The impact of it is somewhat diluted now by the presence just over the bridge of St George Wharf, the ugliest building in London. I remember quite liking St George Wharf when it was first built; during my lifetime, London (and indeed the UK) hasn’t always felt like a forward-looking, self-confident kind of place, and a boom in constructing big shiny new buildings was quite exciting in and of itself. But it just looks uglier every time I see it. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it. And St George Wharf itself is soon going to be overlooked by a 49-storey tower built by the same company. Yay. Vauxhall wasn’t exactly a site of outstanding architectural beauty before the developers got there, mind you.

Anyway, I crossed over Vauxhall Bridge because I wanted to do the next bit of the walk on the south side of the river; mainly because I wanted to go past London’s favourite white elephant, Battersea Power Station. I guess BPS isn’t very well known outside London except to Pink Floyd fans, but it’s an old friend to Londoners, particularly those who regularly take the train into Victoria from south London. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Bankside Power Station which now houses Tate Modern. The building is protected because of its architectural importance, and since it stopped producing electricity in the 80s, a sequence of developers have supposedly been converting it to some other use (theme park, shopping centre, whatever). The cynical theory is that their plan is to let it deteriorate to the point where eventually the government lets them knock it down and stick up a load of apartment buildings.

Battersea Power Station

It was first built as a long narrow building with a chimney at each end (picture), and I actually think it was a more attractive building like that; elegant and cathedral like. But it was expanded in the 50s with a second turbine hall alongside the first, giving it its current upside-down table/dead dog look. Still, even if it messed up the proportions, it also made it much more striking and memorable. And if an impressive-but-ugly building sticks around for long enough, it eventually becomes much-loved. People even have nice things to say about the Albert Memorial.

As it turns out, you can’t see the Power Station especially well from the Thames Path anyway; the path cuts inland to go around the Power Station site and the site is surrounded by hoardings that largely obscure it. You’d probably get a better overall view from the other side of the river. Still, it was quite interesting; it goes past the market at Nine Elms, where the wholesale fruit and flower markets moved when Covent Garden was converted to a tourist trap; some nice houseboats, including one which, in what I thought was a particularly stylish touch, had a lawn on the deck; a recycling processing plant; and then Battersea Park, which was really very nice on a sunny day. The park has all sorts of different areas, but where the path goes it’s laid out in little elaborately shaped flower beds surrounded by iron fencing and looks, to my eyes, like a very classic Victorian city park; oddly enough it made me think of Paris. It’s also the site of the London Peace Pagoda, a distinctly random but quite attractive feature added in the 80s.

London Peace Pagoda

Then I went back over the river across the Albert Bridge. I think this might be the most attractive bridge in London. It’s nowhere near as striking as Tower Bridge, but it’s a lot prettier, with its decorative metalwork painted white and picked out in pale blue, pink and pistachio. It’s frothy and whimsical. The signs reading ‘All troops must break step when marching over this bridge’ only add to the sense of delicate lightness.

The walk then takes you through Chelsea, now of course one of the most expensive bits of London, but as recently as the late C19th it was louche and cheap enough to be where all the artists lived. The Hoxton of its time. Whistler did lots of paintings of Chelsea and Battersea, of course, and his is one of the many blue plaques that you pass on this section of the walk.

This is the last bit of the walk which takes you along the Thames Embankment. All the way from Blackfriars Bridge, in the City, to Battersea Bridge, there is a road that sweeps along the north bank of the Thames; it would give it a fine boulevardesque quality if it was a just a bit more pedestrian-friendly. In fact there’s too much traffic for it to really make a good place for a stroll; flâneurs should head for the South Bank or one of the parks. What’s not obvious is that it’s entirely built over a sewer; all the piss and shit of west London accumulates under there and is carried off downriver. It was one of the great civil engineering projects of C19th London, and put a stop not just to the regular cholera epidemics but the smell.

I can think of nothing interesting to say about Putney at all.

» These pictures and others can all be found in my Thames Path Flickr set. If you just want to see the ones from this section of the walk, they are tagged thamespath4. I’ve also posted some photos taken on the walk to my photoblog, Clouded Drab; they are tagged Thames Path.

The Thames path, Isle of Dogs to London Bridge

I picked up the Thames path where I left off, in Greenwich, and crossed straight under the river to the Isle of Dogs. The Greenwich foot tunnel itself is kind of freaky; I’m not normally susceptible to claustrophobia, but I got a definite twinge here. I took the stairs down, which made me conscious of how deep underground it was; and then the tunnel is quite narrow, and feels surprisingly long. And if you start thinking too much about the mass of the Thames sitting above you…

Anyway, the Idle of Dogs [sorry, that’s a typo, but it would make a good title for something, don’t you think?]. I mentioned that during the last section there were occasional outcrops of upmarket apartment blocks among the industrial landscape. As far as you can tell from the Thames path, on the Isle of Dogs that process is now complete. The riverfront is almost completely residential for this section of the walk. And the exceptions are offices rather than industry. It’s a dramatic change, since this was once one of the greatest trading centres in the world. The docks are still there, huge stretches of water now serving as watersport centres, or marinas, or just gigantic decorative water features; and many of the wharves and factories have been adapted into apartments and offices. But it’s remarkable how little these physical traces of the past give any sense of what it must have been like. In the absence of noise and smell and dirt, with no real traffic on the river, the old hoists that have been left on the sides of converted warehouses just seem like some peculiar local architectural vernacular: steampunk genteel.

river front

The buildings I found most attractive were those which seemed to have an intimacy with the river. That usually meant converted wharves. Not just because they’d had the chance to weather and age into the landscape, but because they’d been built right up on the river, overhanging the water. The new-built apartment blocks are quite different. In some ways, the river is the reason for their existence; they were built where they were because the developers know people will pay good money for a river view. But it’s a view. The river is something they look over and look across. It could be anything; as it happens, it’s a river. The apartment blocks don’t even have a relationship with each other; the Thames Path regularly has to leave the river to skirt around buildings not because they are physically blocking the way, but because they have big walls and fences covered in private property signs. I understand the desire for security, but there’s something faintly depressing about a whole row of apartment blocks all treating each other as the enemy.

Just occasionally you find a corner that gives you an idea of what this part of London could have been like: a city on the water, a kind of Venice with docks replacing the canals. Perhaps Venice is a bit optimistic, but the redevelopment of a whole area of London has to be an opportunity to do something remarkable; on the whole that opportunity has been wasted. Not that the area is a disaster; hell, I wouldn’t mind one of those apartments with a view of the river for myself. But it’s not a triumph, either.

apartments reflected in water

The most striking collision of architecture and the water is Canary Wharf, where from the right angles, the skyscrapers seem to rise out of sheets of water. Which is spectacular, in a 60s-vision-of-the-future sort of way. I remember when it was just the Canary Wharf Tower standing alone, then the tallest building in Europe, towering over the area. It had only just been completed when the property market collapsed, and it stood half-empty for a long time. You used to be able to see it from all over south London. In the post-binge guilt of the early 90s, it seemed like a visible symbol of the greed and hubris of the 80s. Now, with Canary Wharf a major centre for London’s financial industry, and a whole rash of big new tower blocks planned for London, that original building seems ahead of its time; visionary, almost. Timing is everything. Since it looks like we’re about to have a serious economic downturn, the builders of all those new super tall skyscrapers may that find out the hard way.

After lunch, I went down to rejoin the river and was startled to find myself looking at Tower Bridge. You wouldn’t think something like that could creep up on you, but the geography of the river is such that I hadn’t seen even a partial view of it until going round the bend in the river at Wapping. And next to Tower Bridge, the Tower of London. Just as it’s hard to get a sense of the industrial past of the Isle of Dogs, it’s hard to think of the Tower as a military installation and prison. I believe the tour guides do their best to play up the gorier elements of the Tower’s history, but on a day with the sun shining on the honey-coloured stone walls and tourists wandering aimlessly around, it’s hard to think of the building as the Lubianka of medieval and Tudor London. Tower Bridge doesn’t help. I think I’ve mentioned before how odd I find the juxtaposition; the genuinely medieval Tower right up against the Victorian medieval pastiche.

girl in sun

It says something about the self-confidence of the Victorians that they built the bridge there at all; the Tower is one of the most historically important buildings in the country, and the bridge is right up against it, looming over it. The Gothic styling on a cutting-edge piece of engineering just adds to the intrigue. I’d love to know what the planners thought they were doing. Did they think that it would make the bridge complement the Tower? Or were they just following the fashion of the moment? If they did intend it to be a sympathetic piece of design, I think they failed. The two are too close, too much in competition. It almost feels like the bridge is poking fun at the Tower. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Tower Bridge is a fabulous construction. It’s the complete opposite of a purist’s bridge. I think bridge aficionados typically enjoy a kind of engineering aesthetic, where the beauty arises from the structure; the builders of Tower Bridge clearly had no time for such asceticism. And the result is slightly bonkers. In fact I think it’s only familiarity that stops us from seeing how bonkers it is; but it didn’t become one of the most easily recognisable bridges in the world by being normal.

» Once again, these photos and others are posted to my Thames Path set on Flickr. I’ve tagged all the ones taken on this section with thamespath2.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I

There’s serious flooding in Yorkshire at the moment. I found this brilliant photo on Flickr:

Surfer on Chants Ave!, originally uploaded by Dave Foy.

The Daily Mail asks an unusually reasonable question on their front page today—why do we keep building new houses on flood plains? The trouble is that Britain is a small, rainy island; there are a limited number of sites available that aren’t flood risks. And we need new houses because property prices in England are insane.

It seems to me that there’s a simple answer: start building houses on stilts.

palafitos, originally uploaded by wciu.

I’m serious about this; or at least as serious as I can be without the architectural or engineering background to judge the practicalities or it. To build houses where you know they’re likely to get flooded may be reckless; to build them the same way as you would on high ground is just stupid.

Stilt houses on Pulau Mabul, originally uploaded by Vueltaa.

It’s not just stilts; how about watertight windows and doors? If you can’t keep the water away from the house, at least you can keep it from getting inside.

underwater restaurant

» underwater restaurant by udannlin, used under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd licence.

FSotW: Red Brick Wall

Today’s Flickr set of the week is Red Brick Wall. Admirably single-minded, I thought.

originally uploaded by Special.

originally uploaded by Special.

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

I was looking for an internet copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (which is a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste) and found the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Not only does it have complete scans of the Chippendale, it also has Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, and lots of similar stuff like Temple of Flora, or, Garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, or, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, and A New Treatise on Flower Painting, or, Every lady her own drawing master: containing familiar and easy instructions for acquiring a perfect knowledge of drawing flowers with accuracy and taste: Also complete directions for producing the various tints.

And while I’m posting links to that kind of thing, I can’t resist adding one to Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.

‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ at the V&A

I went to see the Modernism: Designing a New World exhibition at the V&A, which was good. It was largely what you’d expect – white houses, angular furniture and posters with large sans serif headers printed at an angle – although there were some treats and surprises, like a Tatra T-87 saloon car.

Looking at the best of the modernist buildings, like the Villa Savoye and thinking of all those lumpen, red-brick, pitched-roofed houses that the British construction industry threw up over the course of the C20th, you can’t help feeling that our suburbs might be less ugly if we’d embraced modernism a bit more. Of course no style or philosophy is a substitute for a good architect. An industry that cares so little about aesthetics and design would only produce equally lumpen, graceless buildings in white-rendered concrete.

Incidentally, note that many of the most successful modernist dwellings seemed to be (like the Villa Savoye), stand-alone houses set in the country, where the trees provide a soft green background to the starkness of the design and the sweeping picture windows can look out over beautiful views. The large scale housing projects – and there were plenty of those in the exhibition as well – struggle to have the same impact. With rows of separate buildings, the effect can be rather a lot of visual clutter; perhaps because Modernism eschews decoration, so the aesthetic effects are achieved with structural elements – i.e. the shapes of the buildings. Or something. I haven’t really thought that through yet.

One of the odd things about the exhibition was that it was a constant stream of utopian, reformist ideals, but in the back of your mind was that the period it dealt with was bookended by the Great War and the Russian Revolution at one end and World War Two at the other, with the Depression and the growth of Fascism in the meantime. And yet somehow, all these idealists who were trying to change the world by giving the working man an efficient living space with Licht, Luft und Sonne seem to fit quite well into that kind of background. The wish to change the world by throwing out everything old and rebuilding it from scratch, to draw a line under ten centuries of European history and say “we can do better than that” has its echoes in the politics. Of course revolutionary Russia was one of the centres of early Modernist design.

And while I’m sure they wanted nothing but to make people’s lives better, the rhetoric – of the house as a ‘machine for living’, of progress, efficiency, mass-production – can be rather dehumanising. It reeks of top-down planning. And then there’s all the stuff about ‘hygienic’ living, with its celebration of cleanliness and the body. There’s a section about it in the exhibition, including some film of the ‘Sokol Slets’ – massed displays of gymnastics in Czechoslovakia which look like something Reni Liefenstahl would have dreamt up after eating too much cheese.

‘Performance of 16 800 women at the 1938 Sokol Slet. Strahov Stadium, Prague.’

Despite all the dubious parallels I’m drawing, it’s worth pointing out that both Hitler and Stalin disliked Modernism. Their idea of a good building was one smothered in heavy-handed political symbolism. And although some of the architects and designers were quite political (mostly leftists of various kinds, but some of the Italian Futurists were Fascist sympathisers, apparently), I’m not suggesting that any of that is terribly relevant to the actual buildings. I’m just drawing connections because I think it’s interesting.

Birds, history and stuff

When I started planning a trip to Andalucía, I posted a message to BirdForum asking whether my plans were practical. One of the people who replied was John Butler, who, I’ve since discovered, not only runs bird tours there but actually wrote the book on birding in the area. One of the things he said was:

Do not miss Sevilla. It is a beautiful city and well worth visiting for the sights of the city, but there are also lots of birds to be seen. Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral and these will be joined by Pallid Swifts from late March onwards. Lots of good birding can also be done in the Maria Louisa gardens, less than a km from the historic centre of the city.

I can’t tell you how much it made me smile to read that “Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral”. There’s something special about going to a place for the history and architecture, and seeing good birds there. Partially it’s just because it’s double the pleasure, but also the bird makes the place more memorable and the place makes the bird more memorable. And because birds play a large part in my sense of place, they can bring somewhere to life beyond its historical context.

Some examples – White Storks nesting on the top of marble columns in the ruins of Ephesus; a pair of Scops Owls in a tree outside the museum at Corinth; Cirl Bunting at Mycenae, Long-legged Buzzard at Troy. Perhaps the best of the lot – swirling flocks of thousands of Alpine Swifts coming in to roost in the walls of Fez in Morocco.


I went to an event at City Hall today, the details of which shall be revealed on Sunday. City Hall is right next to Tower Bridge, and I was thinking what a strange thing it is: a Gothic mechanised bridge. Particularly since the Victorians didn’t obviously erect such things in a spirit of fun or irony. I guess they just didn’t see anything odd about it.

The bridge has a peculiar relationship with the Tower of London. They stand there together, both in the same coloured stone and a similar style, and invite you to think of them as a matched pair. The Tower, of course, is genuinely medieval, but depending what mood you’re in, either the influence of the bridge lends the Tower a false, Disney quality, or the Tower gives the bridge a spurious air of ancientness. It’s hard to believe that 800 years separates the two of them.

There aren’t many medieval buildings left in London, mainly because of the Great Fire, and curiously enough another of them has a very similar dynamic going on – Westminster Abbey, which sits next to the rampant gothicity of the Houses of Parliament. If the Abbey was surrounded by glistening glass and steel office blocks, it would seem more genuine.

The Matt Groening theory of architecture

I was on a train going over the river the other day, and saw the Houses of Parliament silhouetted against the winter sky. And I thought to myself – it may be a ludicrous bit of Victorian pastiche, and the decision to make the parliament Gothic may have been hideously backward-looking and a touch Disney, but it sure looks striking in silhouette.

This has encouraged me to develop the Matt Groening Theory Of Architecture.

Apparently, the speed with which the London Eye and the Gherkin have been absorbed into the tourist souvenir industry – i.e incorporated into snowglobes and so on – is very unusual for new buildings. But in a Groening interview I once read, he explained his theory of cartoon character design – that they should be instantly identifiable in silhouette. Just cast your mind over the characters in the Simpsons, and you’ll see what he means. Well, one thing the Wheel and the Gherkin have in common is that they have completely distinctive silhouettes.

He also said he made the Simpsons yellow so that they’d immediately stand out when people were channel-hopping, but I don’t think that would be such a good idea applied to buildings.