Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been less than kind about my home town of Sunderland’s attempts at public art and architecture, though the posts were so long ago that I feel safe in raising the issue again, because the town’s decision makers just keep doing it again.

The Millennium may seem a long time ago now, but it was a time when many cities around the UK marked the occasion with new constructions, and many, perhaps seeing it as a metaphor for the passage from one period of time to another, chose to build bridges.  London has its famous crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Glasgow built the Clyde Arc and the Tyne was crossed once more by structure known to many as the Eye.

None of them were actually open on 1st January 2000, and in fact they all needed extra work to stabilise or protect from shipping but each has become a landmark.

The Eye “winking”

Sunderland opted to join this bandwagon by announcing an international design competition in 2005, which among the entrant included one from Frank Gehry, whose buildings around the world are icons of design (Guggenheim Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture) to the extent that there is a phenomenon of economic regeneration that such buildings produce called the Bilbao Effect.

Tees Infinity Bridge

I’ve no idea what his entry was like, but he didn’t win.  Instead a design from Spence Associates was chosen.  I’m not really up on who the power players are in the world of architecture apart from a few (Rogers, Foster, Lloyd-Wright, Hadid, Piano and of course Gehry) but I’d never heard of Stephen Spence.  He played a part in the design of the Tees Infinity Bridge (another in the spate of white bridges) though his input was bitterly disputed by a partner firm at the time.  I suspect Gehry’s design was too radical (missing the point Sunderland).

Even the Spence option scared them, so they commissioned a design for a cheap and basic option, then sat on their hands for three years before inviting the public to choose between the two.   Spence won and the council backed the extra expense on the grounds that an ambitious design would attract more business to the area.  Years of failing to secure funding and willing contractors followed and it seems the council lost their nerve again.  In 2013 they dropped the Spence design.

Five years later they have a bridge; The Northern Spire.  The council website makes no mention of the designer.  It’s the tallest structure in the North East of England (size isn’t everything guys) but that’s about all that can be said for it.  I don’t see people flocking to the city because of it and bringing that regeneration.  Perhaps voting Remain to protect their biggest employer (Nissan) might have been smarter.

Funnily enough, just upstream from the bridge is a reminder that big ideas involving concrete aren’t always money spinners.  Slowly (very slowly) decaying on the riverside is a concrete boat.  Yes, a boat made from concrete.  It never caught on.


On my short exploration of the parts of England that I don’t usually reach I eventually arrived at Hackney, and Sutton House.  Now Hackney is not just a place-name, without the capitalisation it is defined here as

Middle English: probably from Hackney in East London, where horses were pastured. The term originally denoted an ordinary riding horse (as opposed to a war horse or draught horse), especially one available for hire: hence hackney carriage or coach, and the archaic verb hackney meaning ‘use (a horse) for ordinary riding’, later ‘make commonplace by overuse’ (see hackneyed).

As a Tudor mansion standing in modern London’s East End, there is nothing commonplace about Sutton House, but it has certainly seen a lot of varied use over its lifetime, as evidenced by the varying decor as you pass through the Tudor kitchen and onto rooms decorated in Jacobean and Georgian Styles.

Head below street level and on one side of the property you’ll find a cellar with medieval foundations, and on the other an Edwardian chapel.  Lift trapdoors in the floor to see original beams, slide moving panels to reveal a patterned wall decoration whose design anticipated the panelling that now conceals it.  Some of the most informative staff I’ve encountered in a National Trust property are keen that you should miss nothing (including London’s oldest loo!).

The house was originally built for Henry VIII’s Secretary of State, Ralph Sadleir, (known to fans of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as Rafe Sadler) in 1535 at a time when the majority of buildings had the familiar Tudor timber construction of a frame of beams with the spaces between filled with wattle and daub.   Sadler’s choice of a different material marked this out as a grander building; one that was referred to as “the bryk place”, though a decade later he upgraded again and moved to an estate in Hertfordshire where on his death he was claimed to be “the richest commoner in England”.  I wonder what he would have made of some of the later inhabitants of his brick mansion.

Though bequeathed to the National Trust in 1938, the house’s location in one of London’s less than leafy suburbs left them unsure as to its viability, and so over the years it was rented out, abandoned, considered for conversion into apartments, and occupied by squatters.  This last fact produces another surprise for in the loft space you come upon a graffiti’d room that represents this period; as valid a historical record as any other.

One of the ways in which the Trust run’s Sutton House in an area where fewer history buffs are likely to visit is to use the property for community events and exhibitions, often in the former scrubland to the side of the property now restored as The Breakers Yard.  When I was there though the Trust were creating controversy with an installation of their own.   A number of Trust properties around the country hosted LGBTQ events and exhibits and a building as fluid as Sutton House played host to a series of beautiful photographs by Sarah Moore of black trans activist Munroe Bergdorf.  Perhaps Sadler would have been less surprised by this; he lived in a period when every female role on the stages of London’s theatres would have been played by a man.

Plenty of surprises then, and far from hackneyed.

Daniel Lobb’s The Grange (1998)

4 Funerals, No Wedding

St Clement’s, West Thurrock

When I was in Essex my friend Bee suggested a visit to West Thurrock.  Not my usual sort of territory for image hunting, West Thurrock’s position on the Thames means it is dominated by industries taking advantage of the riverside for the loading and unloading of raw materials and finished products.  The power station and cement works are gone now, and the Lakeside shopping centre brings an alternative set of 20th century angles, but you see my point.

Nevertheless there is still treasure to be found here; though it is well hidden.  Dwarfed by the Proctor & Gamble soap plant that surrounds it is a Grade I listed church with Saxon origins, though these are no longer visible.  St Clements (not the one in “Oranges & Lemons”) will be immediately recognisable to fans of romantic comedies as the setting for the funeral in Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant’s first collaboration.

St Clement’s, West Thurrock

You can usually tell you’re in the south of the UK when you see flint used in the construction of buildings; quality building stone was in shorter supply here than in the north, and St Clements combines materials including bricks to provide interest.  Being much softer the brick has allowed visitors throughout history to record their passing, though it’s in another sense of that word that St Clements made an impression on me.

Unable to gain access to the interior I spent a little time in the churchyard.  I’ve been in dozens of these places of course but they still provide surprises.  I’ve seen plenty of tombs (though rarely opened like this) and gravestones often have a tale to tell, but here there was something unusual.  Several of the graves featured a long narrow mounded slap along the top; something I’ve never seen before yet there were enough of them here to suggest that it was more than just fashion.  Was this an attempt to prevent grave robbery?  Perhaps not as they’d be relatively easy to lever off by a couple of determined body snatchers.  I’d be interested to hear any informed theories or explanations.

One final memorial marks a tragic event.  A group of 16 teenage naval cadets and their training officer were killed in August 1915 aboard the training ship Cornwall,  a sailing cutter when it was hit by a steam tug at nearby Purfleet.  (The tug captain should have “given way to sail”)  The boys were likely to be there as part of a sentence for delinquency but it proved to be a life sentence.`  Whether St Clement’s was the nearest church to the tragedy I don’t know, but it was probably the most appropriate place for the burials.  Though there are several St Clements the most notable was a former pope who was reputedly martyred by having an anchor tied to his neck and being thrown into the Black Sea.  He is the patron saint of sailors.


From Liverpool to Liverpool Street

The juxtaposition was unintended when I shot these images, but having written about the problems of a scheme to transform the Liverpool skyline with shiny skyscrapers, I have a set of images that I captured outside Liverpool Street Station in London… of shiny skyscrapers.

There was one in particular that I came to shoot; the others just happened to be in the vicinity, and it would have been rude not to include them.

Leading the way for this brave new world of glass and steel was the Lloyds Building.  Designed by Lord Rogers, it took inspiration from France’s Pompidou Centre by placing utilities and services on the outside of the building, but upped the ante by doing it with a greater degree of style and panache.  This is more than a glass box; it is a structure with texture; curves and spirals to contrast with hard edges, and at its heart, an 18th century committee room, designed by Robert Adam and brought here from the building’s predecessor piece by painstaking piece.  What’s more the structure even has a role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy where it is now on the planet Xandar!

The Lloyds Building is neighboured by the Willis Building, a place that doesn’t have the same impact, but at least in its concentric arcs provides a nice surface for interesting reflections.

Soon they’ll be joined by The Scalpel, (surely the market in sharp and pointy has already been cornered by The Shard?) and of course we’re in the same vicinity as The Cheesegrater, and The Walkie-Talkie!  (Does it take as many consultants to name these buildings as to draw up the blueprints?).

What’s interesting is that there’s nothing so new about this.  The Victorians were at it with glass and steel a century earlier than Richard Rogers, as can be seen from the roof of Liverpool Street Station, and right next to Lloyds in Leadenhall Market, a space so enchanting that they ran the 2012 Olympic marathon through it!

But enough digression.  When I first came to this part of London a dozen years or so ago the race for the skies was not going at such a pace, but there was one rather curious shape making it’s presence felt.  Similar in some ways to Barcelona’s Torre Agbar,  but more graceful and far less sexual.  Here the glass has more purpose, the reflections created on these gentle curves producing something far more abstract and interesting than the flat planes of those that surround it.   30 St Mary Axe is the work of another architectural Lord; Norman Foster.  Both it’s silhouette, and the swirling patterns that culminate at its apex give it a far more organic and friendly aspect than the rigid forms nearby, and that organic nature continues in this structure’s nickname.  Welcome to The Gherkin.

A Little Wren

The origin’s of the playground round “London’s Burning” are unclear; it seems to pre-date the Great Fire that swept the city in 1666, and the city had form when it came to conflagrations.  The Roman town of Londinium was burnt down twice (most notably by Boudicca), and shortly after William the Conqueror’s invasion it was devastated once again, at which stage construction began on the original St Paul’s Cathedral.

Surely it was the 17th Century fire that gave the tune its popularity and ensured it’s survival through the ensuing centuries, a fire that obliterated the medieval city including nearly 90 churches, destroyed the original St Paul’s and left 70,000 homeless.

Arise Sir Christopher Wren, who famously designed the new cathedral (featured in an earlier post here) but also submitted plans for a complete redesign of the city, (as did several other architects of the era) which might have resulted in a layout to rival Paris.  Instead, due to difficulties in establishing the ownership of much of the affected land, a characteristically British fudge saw new buildings constructed where the old had stood.  Wren oversaw the rebuilding and refurbishment of 50 churches as part of this scheme.  St Brides is an obvious example; its tall and immediately recognisable spire clearly visible from St Paul’s, but between the two is another; St Martin’s Ludgate, though it is easily overlooked as it sits flush with its neighbours in the city.  Only the presence of another tall spire alerts you to its presence.

The Monument, London - - 1572482
The Monument, London – – 1572482 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wren also designed the monument that marks the origin of the Great Fire; a tall Doric column surmounted by a gilt representation of a fire burning in an urn.  Keep that image in mind!

In September 1940 the city was burning again as the German bombing campaign known as The Blitz began with the City of London the focus for much of the destruction.  Nearly half of those killed by German bombs were Londoners.

St Paul’s survived the onslaught this time, and though much of the surrounding area was reduced to rubble the exquisite masonry remained.

Time for more bureaucracy, as over 20 years passed before rebuilding took place, rebuilding in a brutalist style totally at odds with the Baroque splendour next door.  Another 20 years and there were new calls for the site to be redeveloped.  A fierce debate ensured over the direction that should be taken – modernist or classical?  Prince Charles weighed in and was famously quoted as saying

You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.

Plans were submitted, plans were rejected but eventually agreement was given and in 2003 the new Paternoster Square opened featuring architectural styling that owes more to Mussolini than Palladio.  As an office development it would be inoffensive if it were anywhere else.  At its centre stands a column which acts as a ventilation shaft for an underground car park, and which more than anything else that forms part of the development, echoes Wren.

Nevertheless there’s a gem here.  Temple Bar, once the ceremonial entrance to the city, was dismantled in the 19th Century when it became too much of a bottleneck for traffic.  It was reconstructed on a country estate in Hertfordshire where it gradually decayed for over a century until in 2004 it was returned to the City and rebuilt as an entrance to Paternoster Square.   It would be worth a viewing in its own right, but it continues the styling of the great church beyond as well it should.

It’s another design by Wren.




Multi-cultural Part 2

_PW_2578_79_80-EditNote – although published 15th July, this post was written before the dreadful Bastille Day attack in Nice.  I’ve no wish to make political points based on that tragedy so have left the post unchanged.  I’m sure those on both sides of the argument about our relationship with Europe will find justification for their views from it.

My visit to London coincided with Theresa May’s ascension to the role of Prime Minister, just one of the many unforeseen consequences of the recent vote to leave the European Union.  May kept a low profile in the campaign and allied herself with David Cameron and Remain, which allowed her to demonstrate to her peers a degree of loyalty that Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove did not.  At the same time her invisibility prevented her from incurring the enmity of those in her party who detest the European project and everything about it.

It could be argued that compared to those who lead the Brexit campaign she has played a very canny game – she can claim to be onside with those who wished to remain, but in declaring that she will deliver the will of the electorate (“Brexit means Brexit”) she has earned the respect of those who did not.  Would it be cynical to suggest that this week’s outcome was exactly what she sought, and the referendum was just a means to an end?

So much of what we have seen since that date in June has seemed to be about the pursuit of power at any means.  The inaccuracies in the information both sides shared showed that the result was more important than allowing people to make balanced judgements.  Consequently there were people campaigning in social media for the opportunity to go back to the days of eating fish and chips from newspaper because trying to understand the real issues and their consequences was impossible in a fog of misinformation.

_PW_2581Those who espoused that and similar arguments seem to think there is a Golden Age that our exit will take us back to.  An age before immigration (not sure how far back that age would be), when Britain ruled the waves, and a major proportion of the world map was pink.  These are the people who would staunchly defend our right to retain the Elgin Marbles referred in the previous post for no other reason than that we’re British and we were the prevailing world power at the time, so perfectly within our rights to take ownership.  They look to Churchill as our greatest leader and plunder his speeches for evidence of views on immigration.

_PW_2596We are already seeing an increase in racist attacks in the country as those of the far right take encouragement from our new-found insularity.  No wonder I spotted Mark Darcy, one of the BBC’s political correspondents, staring out into space from Westminster Bridge.  He must be wondering where this will lead.  Behind him on the other side of Westminster Bridge stands Boudicca, perhaps another inspiration to the xenophobic in our midst.

Boudicca Overshadowed
Boudicca Overshadowed

The great warrior queen of the Iceni who portrayed herself as an ordinary Briton whose freedoms had been lost to foreign invaders, rose to drive the Romans from our lands may be an exemplar to those who tell immigrants to go home.  They should remember that she failed.

My birth town of Sunderland was one of the most vocal in calling for Brexit.  It’s easy to blame the unemployment there on immigration, though in my experience there are more complex factors of education and motivation in the mix.  Will the vote for Brexit give them the cosy Anglo-Saxon nation they crave?  A walk around the capital provides the answer.


BTW – the pic of the two guys playing with the basketball was shot in poor light and through some fencing so I was having to focus manually on a moving target.  That’s my excuse for it not being very sharp.  Nonetheless there’s something about the two expressions and the movement in the shot that I really like.  In the split second that followed it the guy in glasses shifted the ball around to his left side and made a perfect pass behind himself.  You’ll just have to take my word for it!

Multi-cultural Part 1

_PW_2448This may seem like a completely innocuous piece of railing and yet on encountering it recently it stirred a flood of memories from almost 35 years ago.  Here I stood for hours on a hot summer’s day, while parents and other relatives operated in shifts to keep me company and supply me with food and drink as those hours passed by.

The railings are in Bloomsbury, a part of central London that is known for the greenery of its garden squares, its cultural and educational establishments, and of course the literati of the Bloomsbury Group.  No surprise to find me here today then, but what was the draw for a young schoolboy?

The clues are still there in the buildings that surround my objective; The British Museum.  On the day of my 13th birthday they opened an exhibition that produced an overwhelming demand from the public, so much so that even though the Museum opened extended its opening hours into the evenings the closing date was put back by three months.  Nearly 1.7 million visitors came to see Tutankhamen, or more accurately his burial treasures.

Whether it was the impact of that visit or not, I went on to study Latin and Ancient History, so the British Museum was an essential element of any trip to the capital during my teenage years.  Naturally I was interested in the Greek and Roman artefacts as well as those of the tribes who inhabited these isles before and after the Romans, but of course I revisited the Egyptian displays too.  What schoolboy could resist the macabre draw of ancient corpses and canopic jars designed to hold human viscera.

Since I last visited a more modern piece of culture has added to the appeal.  Norman Foster’s reworking of the Great Courtyard creates an absolutely stunning interior where people can get their bearings before delving into the collection of their choice or simply relax with some refreshments before doing battle with the Assyrians.

Having satisfied my architectural objective I did a quick tour of the greatest hits, but with one notable exception.  I gave the Elgin Marbles a miss.  Not because I don’t rate the quality of the sculpture, or because I am politically opposed to their presence here, but simply down to a perverse desire to avoid the obvious.  There will be many who walk past these masterpieces from the Sutton Hoo burial simply because they’re small or dismiss them as the work of barbarians.  They should remember that we refer to this period as the dark ages because we’re in the dark about them, not because the people were not enlightened


However I must return to the Elgin Marbles.  There are many who describe Britain’s possession of the marbles as theft; the sculptures were part of the Parthenon and should be returned to Greece, but for me if you pursue that argument to its logical conclusion we all become poorer for it.  If every item in a museum around the world were returned to its homeland we become focused on only ourselves and have no understanding of other views of the world, views that may be alien to us but worthy of our understanding.  Furthermore, the dissemination of this art and the knowledge that it embodies, is a form of protection.  The eggs in one basket argument may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago, but what if all the treasures of the middle eastern cultures were returned home?  How much greater would have been the destruction wrought by Islamic State?  Dissemination of historical artefacts is spread betting for the priceless and irreplaceable.

When I was a teenager the British Museum shop signified the end of a visit; almost invariably to buy a scarab beetle for handful of change.  The products on sale now are more commercially sourced and aimed at the higher end of the market; expensive jewellery and other luxury items prevail.  Amongst them I spotted a scarf designed by Grayson Perry retailing for just £80.  The graphic represented a map of the museum, labelled in Perry’s irreverent yet perceptive style.  The entrance is therefore marked thus

Where the world meets the world.

I’m glad they do.