St. James’ Contemporary Architecture Walk

From the Announcement in the Winter 2013 – 2014 Newsletter :

“The Westminster area is a great place to live, work and visit. The historic centre of church and state, and Whitehall, site of a former royal palace, has been the administrative centre of government since the eighteenth century. Here are buildings designed to impress and central to the promotion of an image of empire, albeit stylistically contested. South and west of the historic heart of Westminster towards Victoria, there is a wide range of domestic and commercial buildings as well as the great Roman Catholic cathedral.

Many people will be familiar with the well-known national landmarks like Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, but the area is home to so much more, just waiting to be discovered!
Join us for a 90 minute guided walk past the less noticed buildings in Westminster and St. James’. Our walk will focus on buildings after 1900, highlighting their history and architecture.

Our guide, Ms Daphne Thissen (Cultural Attaché at the Netherlands Embassy, London) who is also an architecture expert and art historian, will show us one of her favourite parts of Central London. Step off the beaten track and discover a treasure trove of wonderful history, heritage and a fascinating mix of modern and traditional architectural developments.”

Report from the S @@ 2014 Newsletter, by Lulu Martyn-David and Pierre Cachia, on our walk.

This special guided walk led by Ms Daphne Thissen, Cultural attaché at the Netherland’s Embassy as well as an art historian and architecture expert, started off in brilliant sunshine opposite the Palace of Westminster. Our group of 24 were looking forward to going off the beaten track, away from the well known landmarks of the Church and State and seat of government that characterizes the area and learning more about those less noticed, perhaps even less celebrated, buildings dating from the turn of the 20th century.

photo shows members of the Society in front of Westminster AbbeyIt was a surprise then to walk down Whitehall, cross into the centre of the street and come to a halt at the Cenotaph, that famous memorial designed by Luytens but our guide remarked that few people ever really stopped to look at it. The Cenotaph had started life as a temporary wood and plaster structure built in time for the peace parade marking the first anniversary of the Armistice. It then met with such immediate popular acclaim for its stern majesty that it was rebuilt in Portland Stone being completed for Remembrance Day in 1920. Holland Hannan & Cubitts undertook the construction and it now stands as the national memorial commemorating the dead in all wars in which British servicemen and women have fought. Interestingly, it was not consecrated as it was to commemorate all who died whatever their faith or beliefs.

Making our way to Broad Sanctuary, en route to a completely different contemporary structure we passed a gateway from the old House of Correction, or Bridewell with date (1655) and inscription, which had been moved here following the prison closure – a wonderful example of the wealth of difference and history easily overlooked in amongst the grander buildings. Our focus however was an edifice clearly much appreciated by our guide, and in her enthusiasm, she brought to life a building perhaps some would discount with hardly a second glance. Through her eyes we saw the diversity of materials used to construct the Queen Elizabeth ll Conference Centre, how the glass, slate and concrete had been used in harmony, and the creativity of the architects Howell, Moya & partners, in their stepped design for the building. It is a good example of 1970’s British architecture and the firm of architects won the RIBA gold medal. Phillip Howell had been called the father of “Humane modernism”, and is also famous for designing the the Skylon on the South bank.

Our tour continued to surprise and delight as well as educate as we took in the Methodist Central hall (1912) with its art nouveau arch and Venetian dome and then in contrast the 1970/80’s UK Trade & Investment building, its 10 floors taking up a whole block on the corner of Victoria Street. We moved back in time to see the turn of the 20th century public baths and wash houses, note the site of an old Abbey (1624) remembered in the name of Abbey Orchard Street before admiring the wonderful design of the Home Office building on Marsham Street. The architect Terry Farrell incorporated different coloured glass that reflected the afternoon sunshine wonderfully on the road and the pavement so that the blues, yellows and greens danced on their surfaces. The building was further enhanced by the water features at the front reflecting the silver birch trees lining the banks and we learned that there were actually three buildings on the site within which were a courtyard and walkways which engendered a real sense of community amongst its users. The building was completed in 2003 won a RIBA award two years later.

In the just over one hundred years of architecture and design that our walk encompassed there continued to be a wealth of different styles and purposes. We saw the social housing of the Peabody Trust (first to be architect designed and with mansard roof ) and now part of a conservation area in recognition of the historical significance of the buildings demonstrating the pioneering Peabody style of social housing and the evolution of its built form over a period of eighty years. We moved to the headquarters of London Underground at the amazing 1920’s St James’ St Station designed by Adams, Holden & Pearson. The building faced with Portland stone was completed in 1929 with sculptures by contemporary artists including Henry Moore and Joseph Epstein added the following year, being carved in situ. William Holden was one of the first to incorporate public art in his buildings. Without our guide we may have been impervious to the beauty – rushing through or round and never looking up to see the East or West winds blowing down upon us or realizing what a gem this building really is. In contrast we then experienced the brutalism of what is now 102 Petty France, home to the Ministry of Justice. This had been completed in 1976 by Sir Basil Spence but not universally welcomed. Our guide added colour and humour to the tour with anecdotes and quotes, this was ‘that irredeemable horror of a building’, Lord Reigate, I believe, echoing Pevsner.

photo of bronze sculpturePublic artphoto of bronze sculpture featured again outside Albany House Petty France – we could easily have walked past the bronze sculptures of a man and woman (1963) on the outside of the building and not have wondered about the journey that brought Willi Soukop, the son of a Moravian shoemaker, to become a sculptor, a Royal Academian and one time teacher of Elizabeth Frink.

Continuing down Victoria Street we came to a high point of contemporary

Ecclesiastic architecture in the form of the wonderfully byzantine inspired Westminster Cathedral in St. Francis Street. The Cathedral Church of Westminster, was designed by the Victorian architect John Francis Bentley. Although the foundation stone was laid in 1895 the fabric of the building was not completed until 1903, thus being included in our contemporary tour. The resplendent red brick Cathedral actually was built on the site of the House of Correction previously mentioned and was financed by public subscription. Although the interior remains incomplete through lack of original funds it contains marblework by William Brindley, a sculptor and marble merchant well versed in Byzantine architecture who had also sculpted part of the Albert Memorial. There are also fine mosaics and the fourteen Stations of the Cross by the sculptor Eric Gill are world renowned. Sadly Bentley never saw the mosaics or sculptures or heard Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius being performed in the Cathedral (1903) as he died the previous year. We, however, were fortunate to visit the tower and enjoy the views of London from 210 feet above, and could look down and appreciate from a different angle the contemporary glass buildings below that have changed the face of Victoria in the last decade.

Nothing could more eloquently describe the journey we had taken in architectural design during the last century than emerging from the Cathedral and onto Cardinal Place and seeing the £200m imposing glass development there, home to Microsoft and EDF energy and built by Sir Robert McAlpine, a fledgling company around the time of the Cathedral’s inception. At the end of our day we reflected that whilst there is much to admire in and learn about 20th century architecture, there’s nothing quite like retreating to the comfort of a nineteenth century pub for a drop of ale accompanied by our knowledgeable and inspiring guide.