Nairn’s Bromley: fuss and fidgets

London to Hastings (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. In this series I revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, to see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

 

I have to admit that I resent Bromley. As a Penge historian, I resent the fact that Penge, which for hundreds of years was a detached hamlet of Battersea, tied to the Surrey river-side, is now annexed to a London borough which half-believes it ought to be in Kent. And as a Penge resident and Labour Party member, I resent living in a borough dominated by a particularly obnoxious sub-species of Tory. 

But – somewhat to his own surprise – Ian Nairn liked Bromley when he visited in the 1960s. Or rather, he liked the High Street. In his view, Bromley High Street (unlike many others) had not been swamped by post-war modernisation, but nor had it set itself in aspic. Instead it had achieved its own unique “appealing suburban fussiness … the cheerful disorder of a village shop blown up to serve a population of 70,000“.   

He saw the local architecture, both good and bad, conspiring to serve this fussy purpose. Thus the inter-war half-timbered block in the Market Square was (and still is) truly ghastly: 
Market square

 “ … blubbery … really horrible … not fun in any sense … “ according to Nairn. And yet he also saw it as somehow fitting “because it bumbles along … and makes every corner into a fidget”. And Bromley’s few fragments of architectural modernism were equally apt: Dunn’s shop (1956), because it was “full of funny corners”; and Harrison & Gibson’s (1960) because it was simultaneously “flashy and sensitive”. As it happens, both were furniture stores, of which more later. 

The only problem was that, in the 1960s, the High Street was still part of the A21 from London to Hastings, with heavy traffic rattling its shop-windows. Nairn nervously anticipated an intervention by “road-wideners”, putting the fidgety yet precious local suburban ecology at risk.  

In the end it was the by-pass builders, and not the road-wideners, who won the argument: for more than 30 years now ‘Kentish Way’ has carried the A21 around and away from the old town centre, and the High Street is thoroughly pedestrianised. Where lorries once thundered, pop-up stalls now sell fresh fish and nick-nacks.  
High Street pedestrians

 In fact, if Nairn’s suburban cheerfulness still survives, it is probably due to this pedestrianisation. On a sunny day the High Street is bustling, not just with shoppers but also with older ladies and gents taking the air and enjoying the proximity, and sometimes the company, of others. Hence my encounter with the lady in the mobility scooter. Always a sucker for a bit of Victorian patterned brick, I had stopped to take a picture of a gable peeping above a modern shop front,  
Old library

 and was immediately accosted. “That was the old library, you know!” the lady announced. And she proceeded to tell me what it looked like, and where the steps were, and how often she used to visit in her youth. “I haven’t thought about the old library for years. I had forgotten it until I saw you taking a picture”. I was as delighted to become acquainted with the ghost of a library as she was to renew her acquaintance with her memories, and we parted on friendly terms.   

Back to those modernist furniture shops. They’re both still standing, but no longer sell furniture. What once was Dunn’s now houses Argos, Lakeland, Wallis and Starbucks at street level, with offices above.  

Dunn's

 And what once was Harrison & Gibson’s is now TK Maxx.  

Harrison Gibson

 To my eye, the Dunn’s building looks tired. And the Harrison & Gibson’s building looks drab. Whatever allure they held in the ‘60s has been dissipated by time and make-overs. 

And yet they had their moment, Dunn’s in particular. This was an old family concern, dating back to the eighteenth century. From the 1930s it was run by Geoffrey Dunn, a committed modernist, who focused the furniture part of the business on modern design. By the 1950s the shop was selling to customers throughout the UK, and in 1965 it attracted national attention when it launched its own version of a modernist icon, the Isokon Long Chair, created in the 1930s by Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer. 

Ian Nairn’s visit in the mid-60s therefore happily coincided with Bromley’s very own modernist moment, a moment defined not by its architecture but by its furniture. And I have to admit that now that I know this, now that I know that Bromley was once nationally celebrated as a centre of modern design, I feel a certain grudging affection for the place – obnoxious Tories notwithstanding.

Nairn’s Beddington: Poetry Please

Beddington #7

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn liked the liminal bleakness of Beddington Lane in the 1960s.

“A forlorn, atmospheric place … Six grand cooling towers … pylons everywhere, houses all round the horizon, light industry in the foreground. Yet out of these unexpected ingredients comes a poetry which is missing from most of the preserved villages around London … “

And today? Does Beddington Lane still retain that unexpected poetry? To my mind, sadly, No.

Nairn’s 1960s view was dominated by those enormous cooling towers.

Beddington #2

They belonged to Croydon ‘A’ power station, built by the local council in the 1890s. Next door was the ‘B’ station, opened in 1950. And together they sat at the heart of a well-established industrial zone, along Waddon Marsh Lane and the River Wandle.

The First World War gave birth to a second zone to the south, on Coldharbour Lane, where first a military airfield, and then an aircraft  factory – the Orwellian-sounding ‘National Aircraft Factory No. 1’ – were built. In 1920 the airfield became Croydon Aerodrome, Britain’s gateway to the world. And in 1925 the Purley Way was built along the line of Waddon Marsh Lane and Coldharbour Lane to create a new, modern road linking the older industrial zone to the north with the airfield and newer industries to the south.

With the Second World War, planning became respectable. In 1944 town-planner Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan, a blueprint for a prosperous, healthier post-war London. In general he was hostile to siting industrial or manufacturing activity within or close to residential areas, but he was always open to ‘special cases’ and Croydon was one of them:

“Croydon is a suitable area for industries associated with aircraft engineering and maintenance, or industries likely to use air transport for the export of light luxury goods like cosmetics, high quality leather work, including ladies’ handbags, expensive pottery and delicate precision instruments … Most of Croydon’s industry is post-1918 and its expansion was greatly stimulated by the development of the aerodrome and the Purley Way … “.

When Nairn visited Beddington Lane in the 1960s the landscape he saw – power stations, pylons, light industry – was part of the industrial area described by Abercrombie. When he marvelled at the cooling towers he was on its western edge, looking back east across the Purley Way, towards Croydon.

 

Beddington #7

The view today is both recognisably similar and depressingly different. The cooling towers of Croydon ‘A’ have gone, demolished in the 1970s. The chimneys of its neighbour Croydon ‘B’ survive, but their function now is to advertise the Ikea superstore in the retail park.

 

Beddington #8

There could be no better symbol of the change which has occurred, the shift from making stuff to selling stuff. Of course this shift is bigger than Beddington Lane, it’s global; it’s about neo-liberalism; it’s about the financialisation of capital and the re-location of manufacturing. Beddington Lane is just one charmless example of this global shift playing itself out on the local level.

Why charmless? Because despite everything, despite the monotonous and often dangerous work which they demanded, and the contribution to global warming from the millions of tons of coal which they burned, there was a drama, a poetry, to great twentieth-century productive engines such as power stations. And the drama stemmed not just from their monumental scale, but also from function: the making of electricity, the making of something new. Measured against this, a ‘retail park’ is a sad decline, a maze of designed ugliness, a car-friendly abstraction of pre-fabricated sheds. Some sheds claim to be ‘superstores’, others builders’ merchants, or depots, or wholesalers, but all, essentially, are just sheds, dumb and demeaning. ‘Retail parks’ shrivel the soul.

Beddington #3

But all is not lost. Continue down Beddington Lane to the south, approaching the River Wandle and, unexpectedly, we enter a hidden historical landscape. Appearances here deceive. Beyond the scrappy hedge and fence is the uninviting expanse of Beddington Sewage Treatment Works:

 

Beddington #6

but beneath the sludge beds lie the remains of a Roman villa. And also near-by is a pre-Roman Iron Age enclosed settlement; and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And the area has yielded finds from the Bronze Age, Neolithic, and perhaps even Mesolithic, attesting to a continuous human presence going back six thousand years or more, attracted and sustained by the modest River Wandle.

All of which is more than enough to exorcise the demeaning soullessness of the ‘retail park’ up the road, and open us up again to the possibility of poetry.
Beddington #1

 

Nairn’s Wimbledon: High towers in parks

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.

Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #2

It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.

 Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #1

Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.

 Wimbledon - 26 Bessborough Road

Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.

Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.

 Wimbledon - Alton East

Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.

Wimbledon - Alton West #1

In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.

Wimbledon - Alton West #3

But high-rise brutalism also has its dark side. More than a decade after Alton West, Lucas designed the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. Built between 1968 and 1972, organised around eleven 12-storey towers, it became notorious as a symbol of dysfunctional social housing, characterised by lonely walkways and crime-infested nooks and crannies.

Much of Lucas’s work is still with us. Oatlands Court is still there, modest and lucid. Alton West has celebrated its 60th birthday and still looks stunning. But the Ferrier never saw 40: by 2012 it had been demolished to make way for an emphatically low-rise replacement, Kidbrooke Village.

Nairn’s Sydenham Hill: A Private World


Sydenham Hill #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn was clearly taken with Sydenham Hill railway station, hiding away in its deep woodland cutting, when he visited in the 1960s. I think what most appealed to him was its innocent artifice. It was, he said:

“ … the quintessence of true suburbia, the illusion of rurality more effective here than the real thing would be”.

It was:

“ … a complete private world …  the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding-in”.  

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about a railway cutting. Much of the drama of railway engineering – bridges, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts – stems from the mundane imperative for trains to run on level tracks which natural landscapes tend not to provide for. A cutting is essentially a slice taken out of an inconvenient piece of countryside to allow the trains to run. Over time, as shocked vegetation recovers, a cutting may reinvent itself as a woodland dell, which is what has happened at Sydenham Hill. But it is no accident that Charles Dickens’s most effective ghost story, The Signalman, is set in a new railway cutting, where the violence done to the landscape is stark and raw and inseparable from the tale’s atmosphere of dread.   

Sydenham Hill #4

The cutting at Sydenham Hill, however, is neither stark nor raw. The scars made more than a century and a half ago are healed. But I take issue with Nairn. Its ‘unlikeliness’, its appeal, lies not in the site itself but rather in the means of access to it.

There are several stations in South London where the platforms are significantly below the level of the surrounding land: Denmark Hill, for instance. But at Denmark Hill you never forget that you are in a conventional Victorian railway station: you enter through a station house, walk down covered steps, and emerge onto a platform where you are surrounded by Victorian brick.  

At Sydenham Hill however, approaching from College Road, you enter a portal which ushers you down a rather wonderful little walkway.  

Sydenham Hill #1

As it twists and turns, dropping down the hillside in stages, the foliage presses in from both sides. Nairn whimsically imagined wild beasts crouching in hiding, and leaping out to snatch unwary commuters.    

Sydenham Hill #2

Officially, of course, this is simply the way down to the platform, but official purposes can be misleading. The Sydenham Hill walkway transcends such dumb functionality. It is an experience in itself. It is a brief woodland encounter inseparable from, but not reducible to, the presence of the railway station. 

Sydenham Hill #5

 And once you find yourself at the bottom, on the platform, you are confronted by the looming presence of Penge Tunnel, its elliptical entrance hard up against the station. The portal is rather grand with its classical side piers and cornice, though today its dignity is compromised by wear and tear and graffiti.    

Sydenham Hill #8

 For over 140 years this was the longest railway tunnel in London, an honour snatched away as recently as 2007 when the new Eurostar tunnels opened on the line out of St. Pancras. However, Penge Tunnel may still hold the record as the Longest Tunnel That Members Of The Public Can See Through End To End which, if true, is I suppose some compensation.  

Sydenham Hill #6

 

Penge by Design: Railway Picturesque

LCDR Penge East #2 (2)

 

Catching the train to work each day can be grim, and it’s understandable if this grimness attaches itself to the station where we do the catching, reducing it to merely a site where we must wait and endure. This is a pity, because railway stations are intriguing places, with a special place in London’s townscape.

Consider Penge East railway station. Consider it not as a place to be endured on the way to Brixton or Victoria, but as an example of mid-Victorian railway design.

 

LCDR Penge East #3

 

The station house has a domestic feel, with its homely brickwork and pitched roof. Gently asymmetrical, a short central range with wings at each end, but the wings don’t match: that on the left is taller, with gable-end windows set deliberately at odds with each other, and the chimneys are set differently.

 

LCDR Penge East #4

 

Multi-coloured brickwork, yellow stock with recessed horizontal bands, red brick ornamentation under the eaves, and red and black rows defining the bluntly-pointed arches over doors and windows. The arches have cream base-stones, and cream key-stones with neat little moulded trefoil logos.

 

LCDR Penge East #1 (3)

 

It’s a nice jumble. The multi-coloured and textured brick harks back to Tudor and Renaissance styles. The pointed-arch doors and windows are vaguely Gothic. The deliberate asymmetry was a very Victorian thing, seen in many churches. If we need a label, then I think ‘Railway Picturesque’ hits the mark.

‘Picturesque’ is usually taken to refer to certain whimsical buildings of the eighteenth century, but architectural historian Carrol V. Meeks maintained that it was a much broader and longer-lasting phenomenon. In his 1957 study of railway architecture ** he argued that the picturesque was the railway industry’s dominant style in the nineteenth century. It was characterised by asymmetry, variety, irregularity, and for its detail and ornamentation it happily raided various architectural traditions. The aim was to facilitate the business of the railway while achieving a variety of pleasing, perhaps mildly surprising, visual effects. Penge East railway station is a modest illustration of this.

But Penge East was not a standalone design. It was one of several stations built by the London Chatham & Dover Railway Company (LCDR) in 1862 and 1863 along its new commuter line.

Since the 1850s the South Eastern Railway Company had operated a line from Bromley and Beckenham to London Bridge. The LCDR aimed to compete by building a line from Beckenham to a new junction at Herne Hill, from where travellers could go on either to Victoria, or to St. Paul’s (the original name for the station we know as Blackfriars). Herne Hill was therefore the lynchpin in the project.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #5 (2)

 

The LCDR’s chief engineer was Joseph Cubitt, nephew of Thomas Cubitt, Victorian London’s greatest builder, responsible for Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham Park; and of Lewis Cubitt who designed Kings Cross Station. But Joseph Cubitt was an engineer rather than an architect, and the job of designing the railway stations along his new line fell to a young man called John Taylor. Taylor had a long career and eventually became Sir John Taylor, a safe pair of architectural hands, responsible among other things for the main staircase in the National Gallery. But in 1862 he was just starting out, and his design at Herne Hill station was rather impressive.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #4

 

The station house at Herne Hill is much grander than Penge East, but it has the same asymmetry, the same yellow brick and recessed horizontal bands, the same red brick ornamentation under the eaves, the same pointed red and black arches, and the same trefoil mouldings on cream key-stones. Herne Hill was the prototype for all these design elements. It set the style which was faithfully reproduced a year later at Penge East, and which informed the subtly different, slightly Byzantine variant at West Dulwich.

 

LCDR West Dulwich #1 (2)

 

Among this little group of stations Herne Hill stands out by virtue of its priority, and its size, and – crucially – by virtue of its tower.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #1

 

Square and chunky, with five high arched false window-recesses on each face, and a shallow pitched roof, the Herne Hill tower has an Italianate look – or would have if it were not for the very English chimney stack sticking out of its top. We might be forgiven for assuming that the tower was built purely for visual effect, but in fact it contained and concealed the station’s water-tank, which makes it quintessential Railway Picturesque: mundane industrial function masked by form; a form which is eclectic, arresting, and just off-balance.

None of this prevents the daily commute from being grim. But at least it’s picturesquely grim.

** Carroll V. Meeks, The Railway Station: An Architectural History, London, Architectural Press, 1957.

 

Nairn’s Addiscombe: Obsession

St Mary Canning Rd #2 (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years. 

Who would have thought that Addiscombe – modest, unpretentious Addiscombe – would contain a church as wonderfully weird as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Martin? (Which, for brevity, I will refer to simply as St. Mary Magdalene). But it does, and it attracted Ian Nairn’s attention back in the 1960s.

The architect was Edward Buckton Lamb, who in the 1850s and 1860s designed three eccentric neo-Gothic churches: Christ Church, West Hartlepool in 1854; St. Martin, Gospel Oak in 1865 (shown here);

St Martin Gospel Oak

and the Addiscombe church in 1868. All were commissioned by unconventional clients: at Christ Church, the West Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company; at Gospel Oak, a wealthy evangelical philanthropist. But Addiscombe was the most unusual of the lot: here, the guiding spirit was the Reverend Maxwell Macluff Ben Oliel.

Ben Oliel was a fascinating figure, a Jewish convert to Christianity who embraced  Anglicanism, landed the post of curate at a church in Croydon, built up a personal following with his dazzling preaching, and in 1866 led his followers out of the Church of England to found their own independent evangelical congregation. The church in Canning Road was the result: Lamb was engaged to design it, and the money came from Ben Oliel’s wealthy brother-in-law. While this independent congregation survived, the church was named for St. Paul, but before long Ben Oliel had fallen out with his own followers. After the inevitable period of mutual recrimination during which the building stood empty, he sold it to the Church of England which promptly consecrated it as the Anglican church of St. Mary Magdalene.

Given his record of building deviant churches for unusual clients, Lamb has acquired a reputation as a “rogue architect”. In fact, much of his work, and many of his clients, were entirely conventional. But his three churches, and above all the Addiscombe church, are proof that although he knew how to play the respectable architectural game, he also had a gleeful hankering to ignore its rules and do his own thing.

The eccentricity of the Addiscombe church derives from two of Lamb’s great architectural obsessions: roofs, and timber. These obsessions figure at West Hartlepool and Gospel Oak, but it was at Addiscombe, which he completed just one year before his death, that he pushed them to the limit.

St Mary Canning Rd #5

In Nairn’s London in 1966, Ian Nairn had this to say:

“… (Lamb) was obsessed with a huge timber roof … what he was after was a colossal cruck construction with no walls at all … in the transepts there is open war … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #3 (2)

Given that Nairn celebrated architectural boldness, and delighted in seeing rules successfully broken, I interpret terms like “obsession” and “open war” to signify praise, not horror.

And yet, just four years earlier, St. Mary Magdalene had been described in rather different terms:

“ … this east front … cannot be sufficient preparation for the nightmarish interior, a debauch of High Victorian inventiveness … purposefully composed cacophony … ruthless individualism … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #1 (2)

This is from the 1962 Surrey volume in The Buildings of England series, written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and … Ian Nairn. In the ‘Foreword’ Pevsner briefly summarises their division of labour, but without clarifying which of them would have visited St. Mary Magdalene. However, judging from the language, I think it must have been Nairn. Pevsner’s entries are clipped and constrained, sometimes little more than lists of architectural features, whereas Nairn always seeks to convey an overall impression, his language expansive and florid. Phrases like “nightmarish interior” and “debauch” are definitely Nairnian rather than Pevsnerite. But, unlike the 1966 commentary, they  hardly sound like praise.

It looks as if Nairn changed his mind about St. Mary Magdalene between 1962 and 1966, and shed his earlier nightmarish vision. If so, then he was right to do so. I’m backing 1966 Nairn against 1962 Nairn. I think St. Mary Magdalene is just great.

As 1966 Nairn says, there is a certain restraint in the relation of stone to wood at the west end, and in the apse at the east end.

St Mary Canning Rd #7 (2)

But it all breaks loose across the nave and transepts where there is a glorious chaos of timberwork, magnificently gloomy, overwhelming, great beams leaping from far down near the floor to far up in the high roof, crossing and clashing with each other. But it is chaos with a purpose, because its effect in daytime is to draw the eye through the dark web of timbers to the lantern, a single, high, concentrated source of light poised above the centre of the church. As 1966 Nairn says:

“ … the timber lantern, the real centre of the church, looks down, unwinking, on it all … ”

St Mary Canning Rd #6 (2)

This focus on a high, central point was a Lamb trademark, represented at West Hartlepool too by the lantern, and at Gospel Oak by the crossing. Whether Lamb intended this as an aesthetic effect, or whether it had some spiritual significance for him, I cannot say. But at the magnificently eccentric St. Mary Magdalene in Addiscombe, it’s rather wonderful.

 

Nairn’s Waterloo Bridge: Effortless

Waterloo Bridge #5

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn described Waterloo Bridge as:

“One of those structures which make the whole complicated process of designing look absurdly easy. It is effortless, making its small slam without a qualm …”

The bridge is now well into its seventies, but still it retains that appearance of elegant ‘effortlessness’. And yet, as Nairn implied, appearances can be deceiving.

Waterloo Bridge #2

The first bridge

The bridge we know is the second at Waterloo. The first was designed by one of the industrial revolution’s great engineers, John Rennie. When work began in 1811 its intended name was ‘Strand Bridge’, but by the time it was finished in 1817 Napoleon had fallen and the bridge was re-named to commemorate his world-historic defeat at Waterloo. We now refer vaguely to this whole area of riverside South London as ‘Waterloo’ and assume – wrongly – that the name derives from the railway station. But Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge pre-dated the station by more than 30 years.

Rennie’s bridge was a handsome classical affair with nine arches and Greek Doric columns on the piers, and was well-known to thousands of soldiers in the Great War, a century later, as they milled around the station, off to the front or back on leave. And not coincidentally, throughout the War, Waterloo was one of London’s most notorious red-light districts. Most business was done on Waterloo Road itself, but it spilled out in all directions, including the bridge. One of the soldiers who passed through was Robert E. Sherwood, an American, passionately pro-British, who hadn’t waited until his own country entered the War but instead had crossed the border and came to fight with a Canadian regiment.

Sherwood survived, and returned to the USA and a career as a writer and playwright. By the late 1920s he was highly successful, a name on Broadway and attracting attention in Hollywood. And one of his plays, made into a feature film not once but twice, was Waterloo Bridge. It deals with a romance between Roy, a soldier, and Myra, a prostitute. It was based on a brief, real-life encounter in Trafalgar Square, but when Sherwood came to write his play he re-located it to Waterloo Bridge, using its reputation to signal his theme. The two film versions were James Whale’s 1931 film with Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery aka Kent Douglass, and, in a cameo role, a very young Bette Davis; and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. LeRoy’s 1940 version is better known: Leigh came to it fresh from her triumph in Gone With The Wind, and it was a box office hit. But Whale’s 1931 version is the better film, more honest about Myra’s work as a prostitute, and more sensitive in its handling of sexual morality, personal integrity and class privilege.

Rennie’s bridge was declared unsafe in 1923. A ‘temporary’ iron bridge was erected (and was still there almost 20 years later) while rival proposals for a new bridge were endlessly debated by Parliament, press, and the London County Council. The design that we see today was finally agreed in October 1934, to be built by construction company Rendell Palmer & Tritton, which had just successfully built the new Chelsea Bridge; and architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who had just successfully designed Battersea Power Station.

Design

When Nairn referred to the bridge’s “effortless” appearance, the point he was making was that appearances are misleading, that design is always difficult and intricate. But why and how does Waterloo Bridge appear to be ‘effortless’ in the first place?

Waterloo Bridge #3

The key, I think, is the horizontality of the bridge’s design. Its five elegantly shallow arches, and plain facing of light Portland stone, and low parapet, and elongated hand-rails, and the absence of visibly-vertical features or obstructions, all combine to create the impression of a cool and confident horizontal leap across the river; the sort of leap we associate with an arched bridge.

Waterloo Bridge #4

But despite appearances, Waterloo is not an arched bridge. It is a box-girder bridge. Behind the appearance of five elegant arches the real work is being done by reinforced concrete box-girders, cantilevered on the piers, relying on the sheer brute strength of their material: high quality concrete, and thousands of reinforcing steel bars held together by 1.5 million welds. The effortless-looking arches are, as Pevsner says, “disguise”. None of this makes Waterloo Bridge any less elegant in appearance. And yet, absurdly perhaps, I find it disappointing. The effortless simplicity of the form is so striking that we want it – or at least I want it – to be matched by a similar effortless simplicity of function. But it isn’t.

Construction

When construction began in 1937, it was carried out by thousands of regular building workers – men, of course. When war broke out in 1939 labour shortages started to appear, here as elsewhere, as men joined the forces. The new bridge might, in principle, have been abandoned or mothballed, but wartime had transformed it into a strategic priority, a key river-crossing. In other priority sectors – agriculture, munitions – labour shortages were met by drafting in women workers. Did the same happen at Waterloo Bridge?

Waterloo Bridge #1

There is a longstanding conviction in London that it did. For years the bridge has been known, to some at least, as ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’ in memory of the women workers who were said to have helped build it. Until recently there was no hard evidence to back this up, but now there is. Historian Christine Hall has found witnesses and photographs which confirm it, and film-maker Karen Livesey has made a short film about it: you can watch it online at http://www.theladiesbridge.co.uk/. The Women’s Engineering Society is also on the case: more info at http://www.wes.org.uk/content/ladies-bridge

A majestic colonnade

Waterloo Bridge’s clean, elegant, apparently ‘effortless’ leap across the Thames is therefore deceptive. Behind it lies a hard-working, muscular feat of engineering; plus complex histories and memories of this bridge, and of its predecessor.

I have indulged in a certain disappointment that the ‘effortlessness’ of the bridge’s form is not matched by a similar ‘effortlessness’ of function. But this is of course entirely naïve, because if all that hard work were not being done behind the elegant façade, there would be no bridge, and therefore no façade to beguile us with its elegance. Nairn was right: the point about Waterloo Bridge is that it looks effortless, but isn’t.

The bridge opened to traffic in August 1942, amid much excitement. The local press reported that the first person to cross was 16-year old Leonard Mitchell from Balham, on his bike. It’s clear that the opening fuelled a real sense of London pride, partly because the job had been done during and despite the worst of the Blitz, and partly because it was just so handsome.

One feature in particular caught the attention – a feature which is only possible because the arches are essentially cosmetic. The Builder (14 August 1942) described it like this:

“An unusual effect results from the employment of twin piers and arches … enabling a view to be obtained underneath the bridge along its entire length”.

Nairn was just as enthusiastic, twenty years later:

“ … the arches don’t run the full width of the bridge; there is a deep channel between them, which gives a breath-taking view from directly underneath … looking down what seems to be a majestic colonnade”.

This majestic view is still there for us today, just outside the entrance to the National Film Theatre, next to the second hand book-stalls.

Waterloo Bridge #5

 

Nairn’s Streatham – English Rundbogenstil

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Christchurch #3 (2)

 When Ian Nairn admired Christchurch, Streatham, back in the 1960s, it was as we see it today: handsome, striking, refusing to be discomfited by the endless flood of traffic on the South Circular Road. Nairn was effusive in his praise: he found the church:

“ … noble strong and sensitive … unselfconscious style … incredibly delicate and completely original”.

And he was right.

Christchurch was designed by John Wild at the age of just 28, and completed in 1842. Nairn accuses Wild of allowing his talent to “curdle” after this job, which is a bit unfair: he went on to supervise the architectural section of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and then to teach. But in terms of his surviving works, it’s true that Christchurch is his greatest achievement.

Christchurch #7 (2)

Its design has been variously described as Italian (it has been called both Italian Romanesque and, bizarrely, Italian Gothic); German (Pevsner regarded it as English Rundbogenstil, of which more below), and Byzantine.

Let’s start by agreeing that Christchurch is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Gothic. It doesn’t have a Gothic brick in its body. In Nairn’s view, its significance lies precisely in its un-Gothic character:

“This is how nineteenth century church architecture could have gone if Pugin had not dashed in with his inspired lunacy”.

The lunacy in question was, of course, Pugin’s frantic advocacy of all things Gothic, and Nairn’s comment has a ring of truth. But it still invites us to celebrate Christchurch for being not-Gothic, rather than for being what it is. Which brings us back to the question: what, architecturally, is it?

Let’s break it down. The main body is a basilica: rectangular, aisled, with an apse at the eastern end.

Christchurch #4

The building material is brick – London stock mostly – not stone. The windows, both along the aisles and in the celestory, are round-arched.

Christchurch #5 (2)

All these features refer to Romanesque and Byzantine variations on the classical tradition.

And yet: Wild himself described his cornices as “Egyptian”, and there is also perhaps something “Egyptian” about the two brick obelisks outside the main west door.

Christchurch #6

On the other hand, his use of alternating red and yellow bricks in the window arches (voussoirs) is a lovely detail which is all his own.

Then there is the tower, the campanile, the single most powerful feature of the whole composition, the feature which draws the eye.

Christchurch #3 (2)

But the tower is neither Romanesque (too slim, too elegant) nor Byzantine (Byzantine churches prefer ballooning bulk to towers, they crouch but do not spring). In its placing – not central at the west end as English tradition would suggest, but asymmetrical at the south-east corner – the tower is rather Italian. But in its structure, in its clean brick height, it anticipates modernism. It was designed in 1840, but the vertical simplicity of its pilaster strips seems almost to belong to the 1920s or ‘30s.

What then should we call a church which is a bit Romanesque, a bit Byzantine, a bit Egyptian, a bit Italian, a bit modern, and yet whole and integrated and comfortable in itself? We should call it Rundbogenstil. The term is commonly associated with Pevsner, but he didn’t invent it, he merely introduced it from his native Germany, where it was coined in the nineteenth century. It refers collectively to those European styles which favour the round arch over the Gothic pointed arch: Rundbogenstil simply means ‘round-arch style’.

Christchurch #7 (2)

This notion of eclectic round-arch design was important in Germany from the 1820s, and insofar as Wild was subject to any single influence at Christchurch, this was surely it. But, despite the clean clarity of his essay in English Rundbogenstil, it remained a one-off. The future lay with Pugin and his aesthetic-theological campaign for a revival of the Gothic.

Christchurch #6 (2)

Finally: if you approach Christchurch from the South Circular/Streatham Hill junction, you cannot fail to see the prominent six-pointed star, the Star of David, above the west door. We in 2017 may wonder what this symbol, resonant today of the state of Israel and of Zionism, is doing on an Anglican church. But back in the 1840s, the six-pointed star was treated as a venerable religious symbol not just by Jews, but also by Christians and Muslims. It appeared over many centuries in Christian churches, especially Orthodox churches. At Christchurch, like the basilica with its round-arched windows, it would have been intended to hark back to the early church, to conjure up a sense of Christian antiquity. The fact that its meaning has shifted since then is a sobering reminder of our interesting times.

 

Nairn’s Loughborough Junction: Promise and Perform

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

 

Loughborough #4

Ian Nairn’s 1966 comments on Loughborough Junction are ambivalent. He liked the area’s visual drama, railway bridges in all directions, but couldn’t quite bring himself to praise it:

“No performance, so far, but tremendous promise”.

But he didn’t like the Loughborough Estate:

“ … all artificial relationship … an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place”.

Hmm.

First things first. Why “Loughborough”? What has a midlands town to do with this patch of South London? It’s all down to Henry Hastings, seventeenth century aristocrat, incorrigible Royalist, ennobled as First Baron Loughborough by Charles I during the Civil War. Hastings eventually joined the younger Charles Stuart in exile, and came back with him in 1660 for the orgy of intolerance and vindictiveness generally known as the Restoration. From then until his death a few years later Hastings lived south of the river, in what was then London’s semi-rural hinterland. His home was about here:

 

Loughborough #9

in the triangle now formed by Evandale, Claribel and Akerman Roads on the edge of the Minet estate. He called it Loughborough House.

Fast forward to the mid-eighteenth century and Loughborough House was still the most significant property in the area. In Rocque’s map from the 1740s, there is a hamlet or scattering of smallholdings called Coldharbour. The road on the map which runs to Loughborough House through Coldharbour is today’s Loughborough Road; and the road on the map called Camberwell Lane is today’s Coldharbour Lane.

Loughborough #10 (3)

 

Fast forward another century and things changed utterly. Loughborough House was demolished in the 1850s, brick terraces were going up everywhere, and within a few yards of Loughborough Road several new thoroughfares – Flaxman Road, Herne Hill Road, Milkwood Road – were all emptying themselves into Coldharbour Lane.

In other words the area was already a road junction before the railways arrived. But it required the railways before it was referred to as a junction.

Although South London had some early commuter lines – London Bridge to Greenwich, London Bridge to Croydon – much of its early railway history focused on longer-distance lines to the south coast and south-west. By the 1860s, however, the commercial value of urban commuter traffic was clear, and railway companies were eager to cram South London – and the rest of metropolitan London – with new routes. The London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. (LCDR)

LCDR

already had a profitable long-distance line, and was now intent on breaking into London’s urban commuter market. In the 1860s the LCDR built an elevated north-south line, on embankments and viaducts, from Blackfriars and Elephant & Castle down to Herne Hill; and, in partnership with another company, an elevated east-west line linking London Bridge to Victoria.

At the point where these lines crossed the company built a railway station in 1864, and called it Brixton Junction. It was briefly renamed Loughborough Road in July 1872; and then Loughborough Junction from December 1872.

The visual drama of Loughborough Junction is created not just by the railway junction above, but rather by its superimposition on the road junction below: a convergence of brick and tarmac, crouched beneath a convergence of steel and concrete; a grubby confusion of urban energy, impatience in all directions and at two levels, hemmed in, compressed and intense.

Loughborough #6

Loughborough #8

Loughborough #5

 

If Nairn was cool about all this, his comment on the Loughborough Estate – “an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place” – is positively unfair. This was a London County Council project, approved in 1952, opened in 1955. The principal housing architect was Whitfield Lewis, also responsible for the famous Alton Estate in Roehampton. Roehampton, however, had a natural setting with all sorts of possibilities – rising ground, proximity to Richmond Park – which Lewis and his colleagues fully exploited. By comparison, the site at Loughborough offered nothing more than a flat patch of South London basin. Perhaps the estate’s geometry, to which Nairn objected so strongly, was an attempt precisely to create a sense of place, an identity, a quiddity, on an essentially featureless site.

If so, it was an emphatically modernist sense of place, and the Loughborough Estate wears its 1950s social democratic heart on its sleeve. Nine eleven-storey slab blocks, fifteen four-storey blocks, one six-storey block. Acres of reinforced concrete and glass. Sixty years on, it looks remarkably good for its age.

Loughborough #2 (2)

And let’s not forget that each flat, each maisonette, would have seemed like paradise to its first residents, after the slums and bombed-out neighbourhoods from which they came.

 

Loughborough #1

 

Nairn’s Deptford: Surrealist Sandwich

 

Deptford St Nicholas #6

 

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Deptford Town Hall

When Ian Nairn came to Deptford in the 1960s, he waxed lyrical over its town hall: “the jolliest public building in London … infectious topsy-turvy composition“. Pevsner liked it too, describing it as “one of the most florid of Edwardian public buildings”.

Deptford Town Hall #1

It no longer functions as the Town Hall – it now belongs to Goldsmiths College – but is still worth a visit. The basic form of the building is nothing special, a neo-classical box and pediment. But the completely inappropriate clock tower sticking out at the top hints at a spirit of cheerful excess which is best seen in the carved ornamentation.

I especially like these two figures above the entrance, straining to support the balcony above.

Deptford Town Hall #2

These are ‘male caryatids’. A caryatid is, strictly speaking, a draped female stone figure acting as a column or pillar – as at St. Pancras Church on Euston Road. These Deptford figures are emphatically masculine, and would probably object to being called anything as girly as a caryatid, but they’re doing (roughly) the same job, and there isn’t an equivalent male name for it, so caryatid it is. Mind you, their upper-body human masculinity is somewhat compromised by their birds’ wings, and their fishy nether regions.

The caryatids’ fishiness is part of a broader sea-going, naval theme. On the first floor, in niches between the windows, we find statues of famous admirals, including of course England’s darling, Nelson himself.

Deptford Town Hall Nelson

And above them, below the pediment, is a man-o’-war in full sail. All of which is entirely appropriate, given that Deptford Dockyard was a crucial centre of shipbuilding from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

And yet these references to the river and the Dockyard are a bit awkward, because Deptford Town Hall is nowhere near the river. In fact it isn’t really in Deptford, it’s in New Cross. But there again, perhaps this is just one more of those cheerful incongruities which Nairn found so jolly. 

St. Paul’s Church, Deptford Church Street

The majority opinion on St. Paul’s Church is that it’s a triumph: “one of the major architectural thrills of London” (Blatch); “the finest church in London south of the river” (Leonard); “one of the most moving churches in London” (Pevsner).

Deptford St Paul #1 (2)

Enter Ian Nairn, party-pooper: “forceful enough … but nothing behind it … rhetoric where there should be poetry … towering but empty … one of London’s least accommodating places”.

St. Paul was a product of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, established by Act of Parliament in the early eighteenth century in response to London’s ballooning population. The Commission didn’t get anywhere near its target of fifty churches, but it did put up quite a few, most of them designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architect at St. Paul, however, was Thomas Archer, a member of the Commission, who also built St. John’s Smith Square, and Birmingham Cathedral.

According to Pevsner, Archer’s great achievement at St. Paul was his solution to “the eternal English west tower and west portico problem”. That is to say: the problem of how to reconcile the centuries-old English tradition of a tower at a church’s west end, with the classical tradition of a grand porch at the west end incorporating a row of columns, roof and (usually) pediment.

The most notorious failure to solve this problem is James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which Pevsner describes – generously I think – as “illogical and aesthetically painful”. Let’s speak plainly: St. Martin is stupid and ugly. It fails to get the tower and portico to work together, and it fails even more blatantly to get the two of them to work with the rest of the building. Tower and portico are simply bolted onto the west end of an otherwise elegant basilica in such a way as to throw the whole composition off balance, as if threatening to tip it over into Trafalgar Square. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look.

Archer avoided repeating Gibbs’s failure through two complementary moves. Where St. Martin is all straight lines and angles, he embraced curvature; and where Gibbs conceived tower and portico as separate items and then rammed them together, Archer approached tower-plus-portico as a single rounded conception, balanced by a rounded apse at the church’s east end. The result is a semi-circular porch and round tower with its own clear centre of gravity, opening into a square interior which is also balanced and centred.

Deptford St Paul #7 (2)

I’m no great enthusiast for the classical, and even less for the baroque, which tends to strike my puritan soul as simply silly. But St. Paul’s Church at Deptford is very fine. On this occasion, Nairn got it wrong.

St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green

St. Nicholas on Deptford Green is the original parish church. However,  despite its medieval foundation, the only remaining medieval fabric at St. Nicholas is the lower part of the tower.

Deptford St Nicholas #2

The body of the church was re-built in red brick in 1697, only about twenty years before St. Paul went up. 250 years later it was all but destroyed in the Blitz. The church which we see today is an amalgam of the medieval tower, surviving seventeenth century fabric at the west end, and (shown here) a thoughtful post-war reconstruction at the east end.

Deptford St Nicholas #4

However, what caught Nairn’s attention back in the ‘60s was the accident of place which produced a bizarre encounter between early modern macabre and grim industrial modernity. On arrival, he was much taken by the stone skulls on the church-yard gates: “the sharpest memento mori in London”.

Deptford St Nicholas #5

But beyond them, hard up against the church-yard and looming over it, he found to his delight “a whopping power station”. Nairn loved the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing, and clearly took great delight in relegating poor old St. Nicholas Church to “the filling in this surrealist sandwich”.

But the power station is no more. And it wasn’t just any old power station: it was Deptford East Power Station, on the site of the world’s first-ever station generating at high tension for long-distance transmission. Built from 1887 and operating from 1889, this original station generated power for the West End – which may not seem ‘long-distance’ to us, but was back then. There’s a class angle to this of course: the affluent residents of Mayfair and St James’s got their clean modern electricity, while the working class residents of Deptford lived with the coal and dirt and smog involved in producing it. The station grew steadily over the decades, until in the 1960s Nairn found it casting its giant shadow over St. Nicholas. The CEGB (remember them?) closed it down in 1983, just short of its centenary.

With the power station gone we can no longer share Nairn’s surreal encounter. The church survives, with its church-yard, charnel house, and endlessly grinning skulls. But where once a mighty power station stood, now we find a quiet little housing estate.

Deptford St Nicholas #3