Sunday, 24 October 2010

219 Oxford Street W1

The Festival of Britain spawned a mass of art, music and literature, but nothing as curious as these three plaques on an anonymous shop/office block in Oxford Street.
The architects, Ronald Ward and Partners, clearly felt the need to acknowledge the Festival even though they were not involved and Oxford Street is miles away from the site. Perhaps they wanted to associate the building with the sense of a new beginning that the Festival projected - 219 Oxford Street was apparently the first new commercial building to go up in London after war's end. Ironically, by the time it was complete most of the Festival buildings had already been cleared by the incoming Churchill government, which regarded them as too socialist.
According to City of Westminster archives the sculptor is unknown.
The plaques show (above) the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon, with a clutter of navigational paraphenalia; (middle) the Festival plaque by Abram Games with the date; and (below) the Festival Hall, the old shot tower with the curious 'radio beacon' that was put on top for the duration and a clutter of musical impedimenta.
I remember my father pointing out the shot tower as we walked over Hungerford Bridge on our way to a Robert Mayer Childrens' Concert about 1960, raging at the announcement it was to be demolished. It came down in 1961 to make way for the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street WC1

I am all for appropriate decoration on the facades of our great institutions, such as the figure of Justice on the Old Bailey or the statue of Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament. But the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine might have crossed a line with the gilded bronze sculptures on its balconies.

Fruit fl
Sensitive people might get the heebijeebies.
Most of the creepy-crawlies are unpleasant but not generally lethal, like the flea or the bedbug.
Fruit flies are almost completely harmless and are even contributing mightily to medical knowledge because of their position as study species of choice for scientists.
Even the cobra does not kill many because it is too large to survive in competition with housing estates and roads.
The rat is more of a hygiene problem than a mass-murderer. Bubonic plague, spread by a parasite on the brown rat, has not been significant for years.
There are two real killers here, however.
The Anopheles mosquito spreads malaria and the Culex mosquito distributes Nile fever and a number of other nasty diseases round the tropics.
Biodiversity notwithstanding, I for one wouldn't weep if they went extinct tomorrow. 
Culex mosquito

Anopheles mosquito

I am indebted to Emma Golding, assistant archivist at the LSHTM, for identifying the creatures.

Friday, 15 October 2010

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street WC1

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was built in 1926 by P. Morley Horder and Verner O. Rees, with a huge budget from the Rockefeller Foundation. It was designed in a stripped-down classical style - where the entablature would be has a band carved by Alan Howes with the names of famous medical men.
Over the front door is a stone version of the School's seal, designed by Allan Wyon. It shows Apollo and his sister Artemis riding in the sun-god's chariot.
Both deities were associated with medicine. Apollo was god of prophecy, music and medicine and Artemis combined roles as goddess of hunting and chastity with that of comforter of women in childbirth.
The palm behind recalls their birth on the island of Delos, when a palm tree sprang up miraculously to give shade to their mother Leto in her labour.
The seal also includes the caduceus or snake-entwined rod of Asclepius, god of medicine and Apollo's son, but the sculptor has replaced it with four snakes writhing dramatically on either side.
Was this the work of Howes or Wyon himself? The sunburst behind the seal would be typical of Wyon - take a look at his East Wind on the London Underground building.
One odd thing - Artemis is holding the reins as Apollo aims his bow. A woman driving a man? Never happens in real life.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Old Patent Office, Southampton Buildings WC2

I used to spend a good deal of my time in the Patent Office in another life a long time ago. Today the Patent Office is in Newport, Gwent, and the Victorian building has been converted into serviced office suites. 
The facade looking out onto the lovely little garden of Staple Inn was cheaply rebuilt after war damage and again in 2003, but this time they saw fit to reproduce the Victorian design in detail, something I thought was illegal under the Architecture That Makes A Statement For Our Time Regulations. It is particularly strange as it is right opposite Holborn Gate, an outstandingly boring Statement for 1965, which replaced the amazing Doulton phantasmogoria of Birkbeck Bank (right) in a scandalous demonstration of what can happen when greedy developers enlist modernist architects to defeat supine planning authorities.
The Patent Office developer, bless him, didn't just slavishly reproduce the old design but went a step further and created a memorial to the great Victorian inventor, author and founder of the Patent Office Library, Bennet Woodcroft. His head appears below the bow window at the centre where his name is carved in big letters. Woodcroft was fascinated by the history of invention, and when the South Kensington museums were founded he persuaded them to let him buy interesting industrial artifacts for display. It is solely due to him that such world-changing machines as James Watt's beam engine, the world's oldest steam locomotive Puffing Billy and Stevenson's Rocket are preserved. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Bush House, Aldwych WC2

Bush House looks quintessentially Imperial, a grandiloquent Edwardian Beaux Arts design. This impression is reinforced by its position between Australia House and India House. But it was an entirely American concept and design and wasn't constructed until 1923, when International Modernism stalked the land.
Designed by Helmle and Corbett of New York (Corbett had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris), it was built by Irving T. Bush as a centre for merchants trading with America.
Once you know, its 100% USofA origins are obvious. Buildings like it are all over Washington DC - think Lincoln Memorial.
The figures standing on the entrance screen with the inscription 'Dedicated to the Friendship of English-speaking Peoples' were sculpted by Malvina Hoffman, a New Yorker who had moved to Paris to study with Rodin. Unfortunately Rodin was unaware of this, and she had to spend some time badgering him into it. On completion of her studies, he advised her to return to Manhattan and spend a year dissecting bodies at the School of Physicians and Surgeons, which gave her an unrivalled knowledge compared with most artists of what goes on under the skin. She also got involved with bronze founding and other skills that artists often leave to the craftsmen. Apparently, the sight of this little woman scuttling about with whacking great hammers and chisels six storeys above Aldwych attracted quite a lot of comment.
Her figures of Britain and American holding the Torch of Friendship over a Celtic-style altar thing are dramatic and evocative.
In one of the ironies that make wars so entertaining in retrospect, the Clasp of Friendship was blown apart by the blast from a German V1 in 1944, leaving the American waving a stump at the Brit for over 30 years. It was finally reinstated for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Elizabeth II in 1977 by an American who worked for the Indiana Limestone Company and persuaded his employers to send a arm and a stonemason to attach it.