Archive for ‘architecture’

April 14, 2015

2 Temple Place

I have a special knack for making it to exhibitions just before they are due to close, or else just plain forgetting about them until the day after they’ve closed. (Although it’s probably not so much a knack as a lack of organisation which is the culprit…)

2 Temple Place was somewhere I had been wanting to see for a while, but it’s only open a couple of months each year and, what with one thing and another, I never got there, always missing it for another year… Until the Saturday just gone, when I finally made it, only a week before it closes again until January 2016.

2 Temple Place

The house is currently (until Sunday) playing host to a marvellous wunderkammer, and the rooms have been filled with curious artefacts collected by eminent Victorians, but in this post I’m going to focus on the incredible details in the house itself.

(I apologise in advance that the photos aren’t the greatest quality, but the house was dark, and I forgot to charge the battery of my proper camera, so I had to make do with using my phone.)

2 Temple Place

The house was originally called Astor House, and was built for the American William Waldorf Astor (politician, publisher, hotelier, faker of his own death — by all accounts an interesting fella). It’s a gothic fantasy, covered in carvings inside and out — and the perfect place for such an exhibition as is currently on display there.

inside 2 Temple Place: cotton in a vase / marble floor / stained glass roof / lanterns in a corridor

As I mentioned, there are carvings everywhere inside the house, but they’re a bit more unique than the usual stuff you see in these places, and many of them are charmimgly characterful.

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

inside 2 Temple Place: carved details

Many of the carvings represent characters from some of Astor’s favourite books, including plays from Shakespeare, The Last of the Mohicans, Rip Van Winkle, The Scarlet Letter, and The Three Musketeers.

inside 2 Temple Place: carved figures on the staircase
carved figures from The Three Musketeers

There’s also some lovely stained glass, which throws pretty colours across the wood panelling whenever the sun shines through.

inside 2 Temple Place: stained glass

inside 2 Temple Place: stained glass

The attention to detail was even noticable in the ladies’ loo, which had a very grand door, and nice views out of the windows. There was a pipe that for some reason had been painted to match the grain on the wood-panelling, and I noticed that the pretty piece of vintage cotton on display under the mirrors was embroidered with golden thread.

inside 2 Temple Place

From Cotton To Gold is closed today (Tuesday) but open from tomorrow until this Sunday, the 16th. If you can’t make it (though I recommend you do), then you can read a pretty detailed account of the house here.

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October 14, 2014

a ride on the Woolwich ferry

Last month my mum and me enjoyed a quintessential part of London’s history, and went on the Woolwich ferry. I meant to write about it sooner, but I forgot about it (oops) until I spotted a lovely Betty Swanwick poster on Quad Royal yesterday, and read this post on Londonist about the proposed Silvertown tunnel today, and then I remembered again.

We actually went to Greenwich for the Tall Ships Festival, but the riverfront was really crowded and we couldn’t really see much of the boats (and there weren’t that many to see right there). Instead of fighting through the exhausting crowds, we decided to visit the Queen’s House, have lunch in Greenwich Park and then go on to Woolwich to see the boats there.

The Queen’s House is actually one of my favourite free museums in London, never very crowded and always full of amazing art. The current exhibitions, The Art & Science of Exploration and War Artists At Sea are both recommended (and on until next year), but the permanent collection is wonderful, anyway. It’s a beautiful building, too, not just because of its famous Tulip staircase, but because it’s all so well-proportioned (we were impressed to notice how the edge of the upper balcony overlooking the Great Hall is perfectly aligned with the edges of the doorways).

In Woolwich, there were lots more boats, but it was less crowded and there were less tourists, more locals. We had as much fun people-watching as we did boat-watching, and decided that as we were there we’d go home via the Woolwich ferry.

Woolwich isn’t a part of London I have much reason to visit (although it has a very interesting history) and I’m not a driver so I don’t have much of an opinion on the new tunnel, but I’ve always loved the ferry. Or rather, I’ve always loved the idea of it, because — never really having had a reason to travel from one side of Woolwich to the other — I’ve only ever been on the ferry once before, but it’s kind of fun to do. I think it would be a sad thing if the ferry disappeared completely — I’ve always felt there ought to be more boats going across the Thames, not just up and down (the only other one I know about is Hammerton’s ferry near Richmond, which has also been on my list of things to do for ages).

The ride itself doesn’t take very long — less than 10 minutes, but as I said, it’s kind of fun to do.

waiting for the Woolwich Ferry, watching a tall ship go through the Thames Barrier
Waiting for the Woolwich Ferry, watching a tall ship go through the Thames Barrier — you can just see it in the middle, near the Canary Wharf skyline. The cranes and chimneys on the right belong to the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery in Silvertown, which used to be the largest sugar refinery in the world. It has an interesting history that you can read about here.

waiting for the Woolwich Ferry

boarding the Woolwich Ferry

aboard the Woolwich Ferry

aboard the Woolwich Ferry
Below decks there’s not much view of the river but then you find nice old stuff like this. Well, I like it!

aboard the Woolwich Ferry
There’s a tiny outside platform above these steps that everybody crams onto so that they can see the river.

aboard the Woolwich Ferry
I think they added the bunting for the Tall Ships Festival but they should keep it always! Bunting on boats is so jolly.

aboard the Woolwich Ferry
Looking back towards south Woolwich

exiting the Woolwich Ferry

north entrance to Woolwich foot tunnel
Entrance to Woolwich foot tunnel, which goes under the river where the ferry goes over it. That bus to Stratford takes the same amount of time as the DLR, but it’s less faff (I love the DLR though).

In a city that was built around a river, it’s always puzzled me how little access people really have to being on that river, without spending lots of money. The Woolwich free ferry remains one of the last few ways to do so that isn’t privatised and doesn’t cost lots of money. I hope it manages to stay that way.

October 1, 2014

the Isokon Gallery

NB: this is a very link-heavy post, but all the links are about interesting people and places, so they’re worth a bit of your time.

Over the past few months I’ve spent quite a lot of time just walking around the area I live in (I’m still trying to work out where the neighbourhood ends), and I keep coming across reminders and new discoveries about the interesting and often influential people who have also lived around here. It’s mind-boggling when you stop to think of how much interesting history has happened (and probably is happening) behind the walls of some buildings, if only they could tell their story.

the Isokon, London NW3

One building near me with a particularly fascinating history is the iconic modernist building the Isokon. Built 80 years ago by the architect Wells Coates in 1934, it was the first residential building in this country to be made out of reinforced concrete, and went on to house many influential and interesting residents (a number of whom I’ve listed at the bottom). It was originally called the Lawn Road Flats, so some people still use that name, but since that implies it’s the only block of flats in Lawn Road, and there are actually several others, I find it pretentious. It’s like calling a pub by its original name, even though you only started drinking there after it got a trendy new refit and a new name to match: you just wouldn’t. In any case, it’s been called the Isokon since 1972, so it’s actually been the Isokon for four years longer than it was ever Lawn Road Flats.

Originally privately owned by its creators, it was sold to New Statesman magazine, who later sold it to Camden council, who left it to rot. The building was eventually passed on to a housing association who renovated it about 10 years ago, and is now mostly filled with key workers.

Ever since being reminded that it had a history of interesting residents, I’ve been intending to write about some of them (as well as some of the other interesting people and events from around the area), a plan which has been made so much easier by the fact that there’s a gallery about the Isokon open at weekends, which is full of information and names to follow up on (at some point).

the Isokon, London NW3

The Isokon Gallery was put together with help from Magnus Englund (managing director of lovely homewares store Skandium), run with assistance from the National Trust. (He currently resides in the penthouse, which you can snoop around here.)

Although it’s only a small gallery, it’s surprisingly crammed full of information considering its small size. The list of former residents alone is really interesting, including as it does influential architects, artists, novelists, archaeologists, physicists, poets, photographers and spies. That’s not even counting all the other interesting people who would visit the in-house bar, the Isobar, some of whom lived close by (and who I also want to blog about at some point). You can only imagine some of the conversations that must have taken place there!

the Isokon, London NW3

It’s amazing how many fascinating and influential people made their home in this one single building (although obviously not all at the same time), including:

the building’s originators, Jack and Molly Pritchard

refugees from the Bauhaus, and associates:
Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, artist and designer
Marcel Breuer, architect and industrial designer
Arthur Korn, architect
Naum Slutsky, goldsmith and industrial designer
Egon Riss, architect and industrial designer

other artists, architects and art critics:
Marshall Sisson, modernist architect
James Stirling, architect
Alan Colquhoun, architect and professor at Princeton
Kenneth Rowntree, painter
Diana Rowntree, architect and critic (the Guardian’s first architecture critic)
Rolf A Brandt, artist (brother of photographer Bill Brandt)
Jacqueline Groag, textile designer, and her husband Jaques, an architect
Adrian Stokes, art critic

spies and suspected spies:
Arnold Deutsch (the man who recruited Kim Philby and Guy Burgess)
Edith Tudor-Hart, photographer
Jurgen and Brigitte Kuczynski (their sister Ursula, aka Ruth was a highly decorated Soviet spy)
Charles Fenn (who recruited Ho Chi Minh into US intelligence)

writers, poets, historians and others:
Charles Madge, poet and co-founder of Mass-Observation
Agatha Christie, novelist
Max Mallowan, archaeologist (and Agatha Christie’s husband)
Stephen Glanville, archaeologist (who provided Christie with information about Egypt for her books)
Vere Gordon Childe, archaeologist
Nicholas Monsarrat, writer and sailor
Philip Harben, the world’s first TV celebrity chef
Montgomery Belgion, writer
Philip Sargant Florence, economist (whose other residence, Highfield in Birmingham seems to have been a cultural equivelent to the Isokon building)

All of those, just in the one building, and that’s not even all of them, but I hope to blog about some of them, and more about the building, in the future. (Also, in finding all these links to attach to the names, I just discovered that Wells Coates’ grandson is Matt Black from Coldcut. I did not know that.)

The Isokon Gallery is open every Saturday and Sunday until the end of October (although they hope to keep it open for longer), and it’s well worth a visit. You can tie it in with a visit to Erno Goldfinger‘s house at 2 Willow Road and make it a proper afternoon of modernist appreciation (I haven’t actually been to Willow Road for years, but I do recommend it).

More on the Isokon, and other buildings in the area, hopefully to come at some point. For more on similar buildings of the era, check out my post on Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and Marine Court in Hastings, which I wrote about here.

January 30, 2014

haunted by the lamassu

One day last week I woke up with a song in my head. That happens quite a lot, waking up with a song knocking around my head, though strangely enough I never remember what I was dreaming about when that it happens. Anyway, this particular earworm was hard to shift, and it kept popping into my head for days.


Mesopotamia by the B52s

I didn’t think much about it, though (because earworms are just like that), until a couple of days ago, when I suddenly kept coming across images of the same mythical creature, popping up all over the internet for no reason at all. There it was on Pinterest, and there on Tumblr and there on some random blog I’d never looked at before… And where did these beasts originate from? From Mesopotamia (six or eight thousand years ago / they laid / down the law / Ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah haa)

Well, you know me. I like to pay attention to patterns. So on Tuesday, on something of a whim, I decided to go and visit those mythical creatures. Being in London I can do that, go and visit mythical creatures, because they live in the British Museum.

(Actually, you don’t need to go to the British Museum to visit mythical creatures, you can find places to visit them all over the world, and not just in museums.)

There are actually two types of lamassu on show at the British Museum, some with lions’ bodies and some with bulls’ bodies, but oddly none of the captions attached to the displays refer to them by their proper name — they’re just called “human-headed winged lions” (or bulls), which is a bit of a mouthful and rather boring, especially as the lamassu were considered important — they stood at the entrance to the most important temples and the gates of the city, that’s not a job you give to just any old creature.

This one is described as a “winged male sphinx” — although he obviously has the same characteristics as the other lamassu (but on a smaller scale):

According to the Mesopotamia website (which is actually run by the British Museum), lamassus “were there to frighten away the forces of chaos.”

I like the idea of a totem to frighten away chaos, not that I believe it would actually work (it didn’t work for the Mesopotamians against Alexander the Great!), but it’s a comforting idea. The world always feels chaotic, full of randomness, uncertainty, life in flux: the only true constant is change, as they say.

And yet, amazingly, these giant stone creatures are still here, hundreds, thousands of years later, solid and everlasting.


feet the size of my head

[Zeitgeisty side note: I found out while writing this that Lamassu is also the name used by a company that makes Bitcoin ATMs. I still don’t really understand how Bitcoin works, but it’s a fun coincidence.]

One of the information boards mentioned that originally they would have been painted bright colours, as would the buildings they were attached to. That must have been a sight to see. Actually, it makes me think — nowadays cities are a visual overload, with imagery all over the place in the form of advertising, architectural embellishment, landscaping, graffiti etc. but is that really such a new thing? Imagine living in a place where all the buildings were covered in brightly painted intricate carvings, you’d end up feeling the same visual overload, wouldn’t you. But imagine having some of these guys on buildings today.

This is an ugallu, a protective storm-bringer, he looks pretty bad-ass here, someone you’d want on your side:

This is The Queen of the Night, who could be Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, or it might be Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, or hey, maybe it was someone else entirely! They don’t really know. But it just goes to show, owls have always been trendy:

This is just the light switch in one of the rooms. I was amused by the notion that someone could plunge Khorsabad into darkness — just like one of the gods.

I had a look at quite a lot of other stuff in the museum, including a number of old favourites (I never get tired of the Enlightenment Gallery), but I was looking for one tiny little object I saw in the museum once, which I’ve never managed to find again since. I was beginning to think I’d dreamed it up, but I just found it online. It’s a teeny engraved gem from the Roman empire, picturing a grasshopper playing the flute for a butterfly. How magical is that? I wonder, was it from a now-forgotten myth? A folk tale? An in-joke or a visual pun? We’ll probably never know (so we can make up our own stories), but it reminds me of The Butterfly Ball.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you with the B52s again, here’s a camptastic live performance of Mesopotamia live in 1990. Gold trousers! Tiny silver dresses! Huge beehives! Shadow-dancing! I’m totally sure the lamassu would approve.