Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Ally Pally

I've been busy lately. One job, two jobs, three jobs at certain times. The book is now 'launched': thanks to all who came out to see me, either in London or in Oxford, they were both great nights with some lovely people there.

The last few months have been a maelstrom of stresses and various worries of one kind or another, some pointlessly conjured out of thin air but also some of them genuine concerns, not least of which was a prolonged period of quasi-homelessness which began at Christmas and will only be properly over by April. My return from Oxford recently was a strange experience in that I had nowhere to go until much later I was due to stay on the couch of a friend. With me I had a large, ugly purple rucksack filled with clothes that I had recently washed, my hard-worked leather satchel (manbag!) and a black canvas bag containing my battered old laptop and a bottle of whisky which had been given to me the previous night in Oxford after my lecture.

From Paddington, London's rail gateway to Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, it's only a short walk to St. George's Fields, perhaps the most exclusive of all the London modernist estates. Gated away and hidden behind various terraces, it's very easy to not even notice that these buildings exist. 

Sitting literally across the road from Hyde Park, St George's Fields were, according to wikpedia, designed by Patrick Hodgkinson (of the Brunswick Centre fame) although it's not clear that this is actually the case. Nevertheless, the buildings share an obvious similarity to the Brunswick Centre and also Stoneleigh Terrace, although in this example they are set in a deconsecrated graveyard which is verdant and introverted, rather than having a public shopping space or pedestrian street in between them.

It's a really rather strange situation - modernist housing like this is routinely decried as being inhumane, 'brutal' etc etc, and yet people are more than willing to pay ridiculous sums to live in them, when someone like me or perhaps you, who genuinely appreciates architecture like this, hasn't a hope in hell of ever being able to afford it. It's an infuriatingly tantalising problem, in that London's modernist housing is simultaneously reviled and desired, degenerate and luxurious. Standing there in the mews lane that you see above, carrying all the possessions that I required to get by for another week or so, I saw a father pushing a pram into the gate which he then shut behind him, and felt utterly crushed by London's mute resistance to special pleading. 

But one shouldn't write these things just to moan about silly problems.

Eventually, after a quick lunch in one of those identikit Australian-style coffee shops seemingly everywhere now, all flat-whites and butternut squash, I boarded a bus, one of the very first that came along. I had the vague urge to travel north, but for what reason I wasn't sure, perhaps something to do with achieving some altitude and looking back down. The lack of terrain in London can sometimes feel oppressive - not only because of the inability to see further than the next set of buildings, but also in the very monotony of its flood plain - London can seem like an artificial environment, without topography. Eventually after maybe half an hour's motorised drift I began to pass through streets I didn't immediately recognise (always a privilege when you've lived in London for years and haven't frequent opportunities to wander like you used to), before emerging in Muswell Hill.

And then a tiny glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye suddenly made perfect sense, so I disembarked and headed towards the Alexandra Palace. 

A guilty feeling - I've may have written a book about iron & glass architecture but until that day I had never visited Alexandra Palace, one of the last surviving beasts of that era. It'll be up to others to judge whether this is a terrible omission on my part, however the actual visit felt like a complete vindication of  the arguments from the book. Strangely, it also reminded me of another visit to another building I'd made and written about, at what now feels like a remarkably different time in my life, of which more later.

The Alexandra Palace was not a particularly original building when it was conceived, not only because iron & glass fever was already well under way, but because it was literally recycled, being built from the remains of the 1862 International Exhibition, held on a site which is now occupied by the Natural History Museum (indeed, the dismantling and recycling of iron & glass buildings was remarkably common and is perhaps something that I should have paid more attention to in the book). The 1862 Exhibition was the inevitable let down after the glory and back slapping of the 1851 Great Exhibition, with the architecture unappreciated, the finances in the red and the establishment still in mourning for the death of Prince Albert. It took ten years to resurrect this exhibition building as a 'Palace for the People' up on Muswell Hill (at that point a number of miles outside of London, to be accessed by a newly built railway), and it wasn't ready until 1873. 

And, like so many other iron and glass buildings, it was brought down by fire, not even two weeks after it was opened. Reconstruction began almost right away however, in a typically Victorian gesture of bravado and arrogance, and it took just around 2 years to complete again, to a modified design.

This rebuilt palace lasted until the turn of the 20th century, when it had to be rescued by the local authority as it was due to be sold for redevelopment. In this it was both typical and atypical of iron & glass buildings, as all but a few of them were lost around the turn of the 20th century, unable to earn their keep, perhaps too utopian in their attempts to entertain, inform and 'improve' their audiences. Instead, the Alexandra Palace would carry on, with its mishmash of entertainments struggling to properly occupy its vast spaces.

But then one thing that makes Alexandra Palace quite so architecturally interesting is the fact that it partially burned down again in 1980, necessitating yet another rebuild. This, combined with various adaptations over the years (including the adding of a BBC transmitter), mean that it has become a smorgasbord of different architectural methods and styles ranging over a 140 year period - something that hasn't really happened much since the middle ages, when cathedrals took over a century to complete and their design was passed from mason to mason across generations.

In the book, and in a recent article for Icon magazine, I make the argument for a notion of 'abstract ruins'. What is meant by that is that many of the aesthetic qualities that are appreciated in the ruined building are to be found in the architecture of iron & glass: fragmentation, disjunction, foliage, fragility and lightness are just some of the associations brought forth by 'the Ruin' that are present in these buildings, with the crucial difference that the iron & glass buildings were built like that, were fully functioning even as they embodied such incomplete formal languages.  

Also in the book I utilise the existing distinction between 'pure' iron & glass, eg the Crystal Palace, where above the foundations the building is entirely ferro-vitreous, and 'mixed' construction, where iron & glass is held back behind more conventional masonry structures. This I understand to show a certain retreat away from the extreme dematerialisation of a Crystal Palace towards an architecture more in tune with Victorian attitudes to monumentalism, and is played out in the fact that 19th century railway stations were invariably stuck behind eclectic classical masonry buildings which integrated their vast transitory spaces back into the existing architectural logic.
According to this conception the Alexandra Palace is a step backward, as it was initially a highly composed ensemble of masonry with a typically ecclesiastical arrangement of iron & glas galleries behind; unlike the Crystal Palace which shocked the public and the critics with its very fragility and lack of monumentality, the Alexandra Palace could be easily compared to the heavyweight confections that were common in the late 19th century despite the lightweight hi-tech environments behind its bricks and stones. But on visiting I was taken aback by just how strange a building it actually is now, a strangeness that one wouldn't find at Kew, to take an example of a surviving 'pure' iron & glass building.

I was fortunate enough to come across the great hall when a door was being held open by workmen, and an event was being set up inside. The shadows that pass diagonally across the translucent surface are those of the actual structure of the main hall, which was rebuilt as a large but simple triangular trussed structure after the 1980 fire. The strange fabric here seems to serve three purposes: it blocks excessive solar gain from the glazed roof, it creates a mimic (a ghost, even!) of the form of the hall that existed before the fire, and it no doubt has acoustic benefits as well - the Crystal Palace Company had to install a large canopy above its orchestra after their first Handel festival because the space was so reverberant as to be near-useless as a concert hall.

And then that emptiness that I've identified again and again and again - being drastically overwhelmed by a space that is too large. As I've said before; ruins generally have it, Crystal Palace Park has it, the vast axiality of its layout highlighting the void where the palace ought to be, and Alexandra Palace has it - the large pub with only two patrons, the empty halls, the huge spaces in front of the building with only a couple of people strolling around: it's as if the 'windswept plazas' that are such a cliche of criticisms of soviet architecture actually present themselves whenever there is an egalitarian spirit guiding construction.

Apparently the ongoing financial woes of the Alexandra Palace have much to do with an overspend on the rebuilding after 1980, meaning that even now it has the Damoclesian sword of redevelopment hanging above it,  but it has to be said that the palace was looking in pretty bad state...

... with brickwork spalling, with car parks running up against the building in places and large areas including what should be main entrances gated off and inaccessible.

Large expanses of windowless dingy wall made it seem almost like a medieval fortress, having not been cleaned for a long time, ill-used, unloved.

With windows frequently blocked off, covered over, looking for all the world like a dilapidated country house.

And when I had that thought, I realised something: very soon after I started writing this blog-thing, indeed one of the first serious posts I wrote at all was about a ruined country house in Worcestershire that I had visited named Witley Court. What interested me there were all the different spatial strategies that had been enlisted in the service of making that dangerous and derelict building into a stable, safely enjoyable ruin. I explored these, and wondered about identifying and deploying these strategies in architecture that wasn't in a real sense ruined. What had been unconsciously nagging me as I walked around the Alexandra Palace was that it felt uncannily like walking around Witley Court, a juxtaposition five years and all manner of events later, a memory of a beautiful day seen from the wrong side of time. Having just come to the end of a years-long period of dull anticipation for the launch of the book, the conception of which was born with the initial attempts at writing seriously about architecture of which the Witley Court essay was one of the first, there was something timely about this revelation, something appropriate in its sudden welling up, some kind of symbolic cyclicality which was patently false but was a gentle little phantasm to entertain briefly.

While I don't really have much hope of being able to express how that strange temporal neatness felt, I can briefly explain how it manifested itself through reference to the 'architectural tropes' of creating ruins that I had identified previously. 

What about the use of one type of structure to support another? Seen here is a steel beam holding masonry walls apart after they have lost their roof structure, a disjunctive substitution of structural method, switching materials and structural behaviour seemingly capriciously.

This can also be seen in the rough juxtaposition of the TV tower which seems like some kind of growth out from what used to be a water tower, and makes no real attempt to resolve itself with the existing building. Its strange 30s bay window and its spindly pylon just simply do not belong to the building, yet  have been there since 1936.

Or how about the space frame that covers this one-storey tent-like addition to the building in the area that was most recently burned out? You know how much I enjoy a good space frame.

This image I think is worth a close look - see the steel structure holding up the external wall at this goods yard, and note the awkward way in which the cabin spaces nuzzle up against the wall. This triple structural system both resembles the ruin-space of Witley Court, hold up masonry walls that have lost their lateral support and are in danger of fallling in, but also puts me in mind of the rudimentary futurism of Cedric Price, who in 2007 I wasn't familiar with but who I would later discuss in the book. Price seems to me to be who Richard Rogers would be if Richard Rogers actually behaved according to his own rhetoric. This compelling an-aesthetic that you can see here is akin to the quality in Price's attempts at real architecture that I called 'deliriously dreary'; Frill-less yet exciting.

Then the openings and coverings of various areas that were once perhaps proper openings, now completely out of their original functional contexts...

Not quite inside, not quite outside, industrial-type walkways sneaking in and around the building. 

(I hope Reyner would approve)

And then of course that old mainstay of the ruin aesthetic, the window which frames only sky, which creates screens rather than envelopes, a kind of indefiniteness of where the building ends, a fragmentary condition.

And I suppose that's what it comes down to in the end; fragments. What the stabilised ruin and the overwhelmingly compromised iron & glass palace have in common is this inability to tell a comprehensive architectural statement, this conflict between different elements and methods, this language of incompleteness. But in the fragment is the potential for a different kind of completeness, an alternative. One of the main reasons that the physical language of ruination is interesting is not because of its mournful aesthetic posture, but because it is one of the only ways that architecture is able to express the sense that things could be changed, could be different. Ruins have this sense of fragmentary spark, and I hope that in the book I have convincingly argued that iron & glass buildings have it too. What I found at the Alexandra Palace was that in its current state the palace managed to merge these two different ways of achieving the same aesthetic condition into one massive lonely environment.

And we'll have to wait to see what the next 5 years will bring, I suppose.