Wednesday, 18 May 2011

A Trip to SE22

Hello hello, two posts in two days, what's going on?

A couple of days ago I decided to make the trip to go see a building I've been meaning to visit for quite a long time, located half way across the city from where I live. This is a brief report of that journey.

The first steps to be made were to join the new extension to the East London line to take me south of the river. It's a strange thing, the East London Line. I used to live on it before it shut down and it was a strange, disconnected, slightly eccentric relative to the wider network, only really connecting with the Jubilee line, and feeling very much the Victorian relic. My favourite station was always Wapping, for the exciting way you would descend the drum to reach the platforms, the massive sculptural beams holding the walls of the station apart, which were black and ominous, super-dramatic as rain would fall from an unseen lightwell above, to the very narrowness of the platforms (surely the most tight on the whole network), to the hilarious late 80s/early 90s illustrations of media companies occupying the old warehouses on the river, all shoulder pads and brick-sized phones. I was so very relieved when I saw that all the murals of the old stations had been retained during the improvements, as it would have been all too easy to have gotten rid of them. Indeed, I was tempted to get off my train for a second to take pictures, but thought it best to keep my travelling time short.

The new lines feel strange however. They are indisputably a good thing - it is important civically to link up the east and the north, and to somewhat ease the Hackney Hole of transport options (which was never as bad as people made out). But at the same time, as you travel down through Hoxton, looking into the windows of the warehouse flats whose owners never expected to be visible to anyone, gaining strange vistas of areas one thought one was already familiar with before passing through the contested Shoreditch borderland discussed in the previous post, you're forced to wonder about the changing face of the city. You might find your increasingly bourgeois surroundings to be increasingly unpleasant, but you played your part in that process after all. It all feels like the end of something, a cycle concluding, as the East End takes its place next to Islington in the 90s, and further back Notting Hill, and so on. So many people of my class are being pushed further north by the incoming elite, but this is to be idly swept along by these changes. I'm reminded of Robinson's quest for bohemia in the suburbs; perhaps it's high time to abandon the search for large and cheap space close to the centre.

After passing through Shoreditch where, to extend the Keillerian motif, three kinds of people co-exist uneasily (Bangladeshi working-class, hipster middle class and the onrushing wealthy) the train plunges underground, not to surface again until New Cross, before essentially joining the larger rail network. Forest Hill was my goal, an area whose first striking characteristic is that it has terrain, a ludicrously rare commodity near the Thames. Walking up towards my destination, I began to take pictures.

This small building stood out boldly, and further investigation revealed a strange, supernatural quality about the building.

I thought I heard somebody saying something about owls, but I couldn't be sure.

And then, a portal to Sheffield opened up before me.

And then to drift past the Horniman museum. A fine art nouveau-ish effort by C.H. Townsend, he of the Whitechapel Gallery and the Bishopsgate Institute fame, with a fairly hippyish 90s extension to the side. One day I'd like to pop in there, as I'm a fan of the stuffed glass display case mode of display, whether that be the Pitt Rivers or a Joseph Beuys retrospective, but this time I was a man on a mission. However, I did let myself be drawn towards the back of the buildings where...

... my nose for iron & glass sought out a little beauty. This is late 19th century, which is obvious from the elaborate leaf like panes of glass and the profusion of filigree decoration. Towards the end of the iron & glass boom the buildings became increasingly more fiddly in their expression, exemplified by those in Brussels or Vienna, from a similar time to this one here.

A great place to come and work. Perhaps some other time, when it's raining maybe.

A further drift into the grounds and I saw this artifact, a walled concrete bowl with goals at either end. Two sets of people were having a kick-about, but I just couldn't figure out the rationale behind the space. A court like this really needs its own game, like the idiosyncrasies of the yard at Eton written into the rules of Fives.

And then! Oh! There it was, appearing from between the vegetation, a crystalline vision atop the next hill.

Ziggurats? Castles? Defensive Walls? No, Dawson Heights.

But first, there was the uncanny sensation of finding one's self in a parallel neighbourhood. I personally grew up in an estate of 1930s semi-detached houses similar to these, on a small hill in the West End of Glasgow. The character of this zone seemed to be highly similar, there were schoolchildren everywhere, cats a plenty, garages fallen into total neglect, the velux windows betraying signs of loft conversions.

Even the plethora of old telephone lines stretching everywhere. An very strange feeling indeed, almost a dream.

But this unheimlich sensation was quickly tempered by a spot of interesting municipal modernism.

Which had a hint of the Giles Gilbert Scott about it...

...especially seeing as it housed transformers.

If there is not already a band out there called 'DANGER OF DEATH', who use precisely this isotype as their logo, then it's going to have to be me who does it.

And here is the death of which there is a danger. I've always looked at the trees in graveyards with suspicion, wondering what they've been eating down there.

The lack of terrain in Central London means that difficulties like this never arise. Here the architect has allowed his brickwork to express the falling land in a stepped fashion. Modern architects would be much more likely to set up a 'datum' of some kind that would spring from the top of the hill and find itself above the entrance at the bottom.

And then to rise up again.

These houses are far more salubrious than the ones encountered on the other side of the hill. These are 19th century, and thus have more decoration, more generous floor to ceiling heights, and possibly even a pantry.

And finally, arrival. At the car entrance it presents a fairly blank face to the street, but it becomes clear why soon enough.

Dawson Heights, like any good housing estate, has its own little language of signs and titles. There are two blocks on the site, Ladlands and Bredinghurst.

And they've been generous enough to give us a plan! You can see here that the two blocks are essentially slabs, albeit staggered and concertinaed around the landscape, and oriented directly to the views north (and south).

And like so many blocks of its time, it expresses the stair, lift and service core as the fulcrum of the building, almost separate from the slabs of flats which it serves.

A the bottom of the towers is a rather humungous bin chute. I considered hanging around there in the hope that something would be dropped down from the top of the building, hopefully creating an almighty racket, but there was nothing doing.

In many respects the building has a lot in common with other large housing blocks of a similar time. From the fact that the decks only appear every three storeys we can surmise that the building is made up of maisonettes, either 'in and up' or 'in and down'. This arrangement (with external deck access) can be found prior in Park Hill (perhaps that's what the earlier sign was referring to!) and later in Robin Hood Gardens. Variations of the 1-2-1-2 massing can be found in Balfron Tower and Ben Johnson House (which is perhaps the most successfully massed of all the Barbican blocks).

Another comparison to Robin Hood Gardens (which was built 10 years later) can be made - that of the two blocks encircling a public space, with cars banished to the exterior of the courtyard. There's really very little difference between the two ideas, which perhaps testifies to the disconnect between the perceptions of a place like this and the hellhole that RHG is supposed to be.

Dawson Heights was designed in 1966 by Kate Macintosh for the GLC. She was 26 at the time(!) which is quite frankly ridiculously precocious. You should really check out her contribution to 'London Utopia', if you can. But look at the confidence of the massing of the blocks here! My goodness, it's consummate, with at least four scales of primary form (balcony, corridor, 3 storey 'finger', block) all readable at once, with a similar sense of depth and relief that you can find in the baroque.

And cleverly, at either end the building reduces in scale until you have small blocks of flats in the Ham Common mode.

Which marks a strange aspect to the project - it seems to be riven in two directions between both the force of the sculptural, hard modernism (perhaps erroneously called brutalist) and the more picturesque Pevsnerian modernism. This was an intellectual battle going on at the time, and you can see it writ large here.

But my gosh! How confident is this arrangement? How forceful and yet picturesque!

With the chiaroscuro of the voids in the entrance tower acting as focal points of the entire blocks.

The blocks which stand like the cliffs of volcanic plugs in the hillside.

And yet, it can be as cosy as this little wee ramp at one end of the blocks.

And then to leave. There were a few people around, some mothers and children in the park, and some teenagers returning from school. I wasn't around to see what it was like when people returned from work. You turn away from the building, and there's Canary Wharf.

Turn a little further, and you're faced with this pissy little attempt at a modernist building, which isn't even fit to be blocked in Dawson Height's shadow.

I descended down the hill towards the centre of the great city, down a steep slope overgrown.

The city lurking in the distance. I would dearly loved to have been able to visit one of the top floor flats in there, and get a sense of the space and the view!

Looking back up at the blocks and you can't help but admire their boldness and nobility, set in the parkland, like some ruined castle in a romantic scene.

I mean - tell me that's not magnificent!

My final glance at Dawson Heights as I descended back down towards the floodplain. I decided to drift down towards Peckham, although steering clear of East Dulwich due to the very slight chance I might bump into a ghost. The streets around there are mile upon mile of mile of late 19th century railway suburb, although I did come across -

- a lovely pair of pre-fab houses sitting incongruously inamongst the red-brick.

You don't see many of these any more. These looked to be in ok condition, although one set were far better looked after than the other. The walk descended towards Peckham Rye.

Where I was unfortunate enough to meet this academy building, a perfect reminder that the days of Dawson Heights are long gone, but they must return quickly, otherwise there's no other option but to go through another period of Victorian hyper-exploitation before a massed slaughter before we can begin to achieve anything similar again.


Go to hell, aspiration, I have but one of you now : I want to live in Dawson Heights.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

My Favourite New Building in London

SO let's be honest amongst friends here, you can trust me. I know that it's hard to admit because you've made such a massive investment in trying to believe that it's not the case but nobody's going to look down on you for just admitting it:

Today's architecture is officially useless.

It's not like people don't try hard, god knows it's difficult! But everything's stacked against good buildings these days. The most interesting and powerful materials leak and pollute, there's no certainty of expression, while clients are either so tight that they threaten to cancel the project if they're expected to build anything more urban than sky-high sardine-stuffed trading floors with a disgusting 'Pret' at the bottom, or they're spending god knows how much of their money on unbearably juvenile monuments to their own vacuity and serendipitous slide to the top. There's no joy in technique any more either - the cutting edge no longer looks forward but is becoming so involuted it's in danger of cutting its own guts out from the inside. So when someone asks me, as they occasionally do; "What's your favourite new building in London?", I usually just flounce around like a gasping fish, changing the subject as quickly as possible.

BUT! These days I have something I can actually enthuse about, a building that is actually interesting, refreshing, formally inventive and historically rich. It's the golf range at Broadgate!

Ok, so it's a golf range. But just look at it! It's situated on what has been derelict land for quite some time now, situated next to the Light Bar (where I've only ever drank once, I think, at a terrible time when I was worried that a loved one might be very ill, and the barman couldn't even make my Guinness properly). Anyway, the site immediately to the south recently had the Broadgate tower built upon it, a thoroughly banal tower of spec offices for besuited arseholes to not be at all productive within, while the site upon which the golf range sits is earmarked for a bad Foster's building, of which there are a bunch to the immediate south at the utterly wrecked Old Spitalfields Market. We’re very much at the frontline of the City's expansion into the East End, a situation we are surely seeing the endgame of now, what with the depressing arrival of private members clubs, Gucci shops and posh idiots who didn’t even go to art school, not to mention 'pop-up malls' and 25 storey blocks of luxury flats that 'respect the small-scale urban grain'. That said, the golf range (and the five-a-side football pitches beside it) are essentially pop-ups as well, although they seem less about slimy commerce cynically grabbing cultural capital and more about using cheap space for a limited time - London's more old fashioned and somewhat purer commercial initiative.

The building is shaky and fragile in appearance. Sparse scaffolding reaches up to a height of nearly 10 metres, running asymmetrically along the sides of the range. Between these inadequate structures is stretched netting, creating a ghostly veiled form into which the balls are whacked. Into one end is plugged a two storey structure from which the golfers do the whacking, and they gain access to the whacking platform by paying a bit of money at a small booth, and that's about it.

But we can see other things in this building: perhaps the most obvious reference would be Cedric Price's aviary at London Zoo, a steel tent kept up much longer than was ever intended, but a marvellously intangible piece of modernism nonetheless. Beyond that we can see that it has a certain affinity with that period of architecture in general - it is lightweight, it was quickly deployed and no doubt will quickly vanish when the time comes to build the Fostrosity, and it could probably be redeployed elsewhere at some point. But we can go even further, and see parallels with contemporary wibble architecture in its complicated and irregular forms. But it's the formal intrigue that comes not from playing around with computers and then deploying spurious metaphorical justification, but from draping some old netting between rudimentary scaffolding.

Indeed - it has another virtue: cheapness. Nobody gets cheapness right in the city. There's basically two kinds of building built in London these days - an expensive, tailored architecture at the high end of the scale, and then all the half-hearted attempts not to be out-done, built from Kit-Kat wrappers and bog roll, which are almost worthy of greater contempt. If you don't have the budget, you shouldn't pretend that you do - embrace your cheapness! Go further with it! Don't wait for your client to insist you cut the budget, cut it yourself! Make it so cheap it will terrify them, so that they won't recognise it as architecture, make it unbearable to them! Damn the tailored neo-modernism of the contemporary order - let us not forget that every time there has been a modernist lurch in architecture it has learned from rudiments, from what doesn't count as architecture, be it the shed, the silo, the crane, the airship - whatever. Today, architecture is as uptight and constipated as it was in the late nineteenth century, craven and obsequious. I look at this dumb golf range and I see the only building around that has even a hint of modernist energy these days. It is stupid, yes, but no more stupid than anything else around it.