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 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 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

 

Penge By Design: Edwin Nash


st-john-window-1

 Penge’s church of St. John the Evangelist on the corner of St. John’s Road and the High Street, built in 1849-1850, was designed Edwin Nash & J.N. Round.  

st-john-general

 It was one of Penge’s landmark buildings erected from the 1830s as it made its transition from semi-rural hamlet to railway suburb.

 Although Round is credited as joint-architect, he never seems to have had a substantial career. His only other project that I can identify was in the 1860s, again working with Nash. More of this below.

 Edwin Nash on the other hand, although never a great architectural name, was active for nearly forty years in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. These were the years of the Gothic Revival, and to understand his career, we need to understand what the Gothic Revival was all about.

 Whimsical buildings reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with ‘picturesque’ pointed arches, cropped up occasionally from the mid-eighteenth century, and insistently by the 1820s. Then, in the 1830s, Augustus Pugin burst on the scene. A devout Catholic and talented designer, he published a manifesto arguing that the medieval ‘Gothic’ (i.e. non-classical) style was the authentic expression of Christendom; that its revival was a religious duty; and that new Gothic buildings should faithfully follow medieval practices and designs. Many agreed, including power-brokers in the Anglican Church, and the 1830s and 1840s saw a fashion for historically-correct churches built in close imitation of the ‘Early English’ and ‘Decorated’ styles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  

 By 1850 the Gothic was triumphant, but some architects were feeling constrained by Pugin’s historical correctness. They started to mix styles and motifs from different medieval moments; designs became less predictable, clearing the way for soaring asymmetrical masses of brick and stone; there was a passion for colour, pattern, mouldings, and contrasting textures; and the Gothic look, already seen in schools and colleges as well as churches, was now thought appropriate for hotels, offices, railway stations, warehouses, statues … This eclectic style, with its free-wheeling elaboration of the omnipresent pointed arch, is known as the High Gothic and it dominated architecture in the second half of the century.

 Edwin Nash’s career began in the 1840s, in the era of historical correctness, and his early jobs reflect this. In three busy years from 1849 to 1852 he worked on three churches in north-east Surrey and north-west Kent: St. John’s, Penge; St. James, North Cray; and All Souls, Crockenhill. St. John’s and St. James were in the fourteenth-century Decorated style, while All Souls was thirteenth-century Early English.

 The features that define St John’s as ‘Decorated’ include both its overall design – nave and transepts, tower at the west end, a striking ‘broached’ spire 

st-john-spire

 – and its detail, such as the stone tracery within its windows, which allowed bigger window-spaces and more light while still providing secure housing for the glass.

 The south windows facing the High Street suffered bomb damage in the War, but two of the original windows survive on the north side, complete with Nash’s stone tracery and stained glass from William Morris’s works at Merton.

st-john-window-2

 But the single most striking internal feature is the roof. An open, high, timber truss runs down the nave, reminiscent of medieval hammer-beam roofs such as that in Westminster Hall.  

st-john-timber-vault

 And in the transepts, timber beams leap from the corners to meet in mid-air.

 st-john-beams

 These beams impressed the architectural historian John Newman as “especially provocative” when he visited in the 1960s. They are not strictly historically accurate – they are not a typical fourteenth century feature – but it seems to me that they are apt. The Gothic style in all its variations aspires to height and space and light. It seems to me that Nash’s airy timber roof, and his flying timber beams, respect that aspiration. 

His career from the 1850s, once his first three churches were complete, settled into a different pattern. Most of his work involved assisting with restorations and re-buildings, rather than taking overall responsibility. He contributed to medieval restorations and re-builds at St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield; St. Mary, St. Mary Cray; and St. Nicholas, Sutton. And he added to or enlarged newer nineteenth century churches at St. Bartholomew, Sydenham; and All Saints, Beulah Hill. His particular specialism was in restoring, rebuilding or adding the chancel, the area around the altar which includes the choir and sanctuary.  

But in two busy years in 1863-4 he did take on two complete projects. Firstly, he returned to Penge to design and build St. John’s Cottages at the bottom of Maple Road.

 

st-johns-cottages

 Just across the road from St. John’s church, these modest, secluded (and now highly desirable) homes were originally built as alms-houses, presumably connected with the church.    

Secondly, together with his former collaborator J.N. Round he designed the nearby church of St. Philip in Taylor’s Lane, next to Wells Park in Sydenham. Their work here reflected the dominant High Gothic approach, combining elements of Early English design with an unusual, short and contained overall plan. St. Philip’s was badly damaged during the War, grappled with continuing structural problems, and was finally demolished in the early 1980s. (More information at http://southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/SYD05.pdf). 

Edwin Nash was a safe pair of architectural hands in South London’s Gothic Revival, He left his mark on Penge and many other places, with variations on the Gothic theme which defined the Victorian city.