Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Austin A40 Light Commercials, 1951

A sales brochure from the Festival Year, 1951 – when British-built vehicles ruled the streets. Brexit roads where Japanese cars were as yet unknown and only the occasional Fiat or VW intruded on an Anglo-Saxon virtual monopoly. Not only that, but in the pre-container era large volumes of British vehicles were hoisted on to merchant ships for distribution across the Commonwealth and Empire. The cover illustration is an unlikely sun-drenched evocation of a typical mid-century city centre (minus the bomb-sites) where sturdy Neo-classical Edwardian buildings tower over streets busy with pedestrians. Post-war optimism unlimited – with a curious absence of street lighting. On the inside pages air-brush artists have been busy creating flawless likenesses of all the new models in their natural habitats. Plus exciting cutaways of advanced technical features. All-steel construction and dependability were key selling points as well as “congenial driving conditions”.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Hoover Building, Western Avenue

It’s indicative of Britain’s hollowed-out industrial base that so many of our best known factories are now carefully preserved relics of a lost age of manufacturing. This example alongside Western Avenue in Perivale, built for Hoover (1932-35) is perhaps the most famous and the most esteemed. Architects Wallis, Gilbert & Partners specialised in designing long, low and deep factory premises for the wave of American manufacturers of consumer goods expanding into the UK in the inter-war years. For American business, advertising and promotion began with the factory facade and a prominent location. Wallis Gilbert & Partners rapidly developed unique expertise in the provision of eye-catching buildings tarted up with newly fashionable Art Deco detailing.

Western Avenue and the Great West Road offered highly visible development sites on newly expanded arterial roads to businesses that saw the future in terms of road transport rather than rail. Internally the new factories embodied all the latest efficiency thinking in production line technology and conformed to contemporary best practice in placing the journey from raw materials to finished product entirely under one roof. The Hoover and Firestone factories (the latter on the Great West Road) became the best known of these dazzling and exuberant facades designed to please and were viewed with affection by the passing public despite the generalised aversion to Modernism in the wider population. After 1980 when the Firestone Building was destroyed in an act of corporate vandalism there was renewed public support for conserving what remained of these time capsules as a result of which the redundant Hoover Building, by now II* listed, was redeveloped in 1993 to accommodate a Tesco supermarket behind a carefully preserved facade.

Joan S Skinner (in her book, Form and Fancy, Factories by Wallis Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939) takes a dim view of the Hoover Building. In her eyes it’s visually incoherent and lacking in unity – an unhappy combination of individually interesting but unrelated forms. She points out the uneasy relationship between Egyptian and Native North American design traditions. Modernist sensibilities were also offended by what they saw as vulgarity and frivolity, an absence of rigour and a regressive aesthetic. In 1951 Pevsner delivered his verdict (in the Buildings of England, Middlesex) – “perhaps the most offensive of the modernist atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories”. Pevsner’s seal of approval was reserved for the purest expressions of Modernist geometry – never to be found on Western Avenue. This is architecture as advertising – a working building with a flashy facade, best seen when floodlit after dark from the windows of passing Armstrong-Siddeleys, Lanchesters and Alvises cruising by en route from Denham Studios, Gerrards Cross or Beaconsfield to the West End.

The present situation has endured for more than 20 years but all is about to change. IDM Properties are preparing to convert the former (and now untenanted) office accommodation inside the Hoover Building into apartments. Planning permission and listed building consent for 66 apartments (zero affordable) was obtained on appeal in February 2016. Assuming the facade is refurbished and protected and there is no plan to provide car parking in front of the building this may be no bad thing, although from a social perspective, the all too familiar provision of zero affordable is deplorable. The external finishes are showing signs of decay so redecoration would be desirable.

Monday, 11 July 2016

India of Inchinnan

One day last June we drove through the rain along the A8 en route for Wemyss Bay and a ferry to Rothesay. On our left hand side, west of Renfrew, this crisply defined and immaculately maintained building shone through the gloom. When completed in 1930 it was known as India of Inchinnan and it began manufacturing tyres to meet increased demand from the rapidly growing band of motorists. It was an early example of a factory in a countryside location on a major road, far from canals or rail connections. The land on which it stands became available when the construction of World War 1 airships on the site came to an end.

The business traded as the India Tyre and Rubber Company and the factory building was designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, famous for the Firestone Factory (1929) and the Hoover Building (1932) in West London. The result was a long and impressive two storey office frontage in reinforced concrete finished in Atlas White cement with a manufacturing block behind. Tyre production ended in 1982 by which time the business was a subsidiary of Dunlop and only the office block survived. 

Almost two decades of neglect followed but after the building was listed Category A by Historic Scotland a restoration project was completed in 2003. The project involved extending the offices at the back and the enlarged premises are now occupied by technology companies. The facade and the entrance lobby are as originally built with the main entrance especially impressive with decorative bands of red, green and black faience applied to the caps and bases of the columns. The main doors are set into a proscenium arch with tiled and faience surround. Geometric Art Deco glazing bars add to the visual drama. It’s an object lesson in the successful reuse and rehabilitation of redundant buildings of special quality. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Hometown Brexit Blues

I normally avoid writing in the first person in this space. Politics rarely intrudes – I have no interest in offending readers. But when we are overwhelmed by a political catastrophe, it’s time to make an exception. I was born in the North East of England, 3 months after the war ended – a middle-class child and grammar school boy. Something about the region got into my bloodstream and the North East (rather than England) always felt like my spiritual home even though I was relocated to Metro-Land with my family from the age of 13. There’s a place in my heart for Metro-Land (an amorphous entity of surpassing strangeness when closely examined) but the North East (especially Sunderland and Hartlepool) has by far the greater claim on my affections. Perhaps the determining factor was a boyhood fascination with the hard-core industrial character of the place – a thrilling spectacle to an impressionable child of blast furnaces, coalmines, petrochemicals and shipyards.

Outside the urban areas was a pleasing variety of countryside to enjoy – majestic Pennine uplands to surprisingly verdant valleys. Plus the City of Durham – a special place with one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all Europe. Locals were neighbourly and affable in a North Country way and humour (often sharp and quick) was never far from the surface. Many had Scottish or Irish ancestry whose forebears had moved there in search of employment. From a North East perspective almost all of England lay in the South, a city like Sheffield might as well have been a land of palm trees and cocoanut groves. When I got to Metro-Land I learned that Sheffield was a dark and distant industrial dystopia.

It wasn’t a great surprise, but no less shocking for that, to discover on Friday morning that the voters of Sunderland and Hartlepool had voted in greater numbers for Brexit than almost anywhere else in England. A great white working-class electorate sent up a howl of protest against the ruinous effects of half a century of de-industrialisation where the dignity of labour for a majority has evaporated. The solidarity of the workplace has vanished in an atomised, insecure low-wage job market and social provision has been systematically and ruthlessly decimated in an ideological crusade to maintain a low-tax regime for the wealthy and tyrannise the unemployed into a world of zero-hours and short term contracts. Lifelong Labour voters finally responded to the question, “What’s Labour ever done for us?” by deserting the party in tens of thousands.

Just how did the last residual loyalty to the Labour tribe finally fray away? Perhaps the beginning of the end was Peter Mandelson’s term as MP for Hartlepool (“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”) during which New Labour did very little to tackle the desperation and deprivation of the nation’s former industrial heartlands. Was it accelerated by the coalition’s austerity-driven assault on social and welfare provision? Almost certainly. Did a 20 year tabloid (and broadsheet) campaign against the mostly fictional deficiencies of the EU play a part? Definitely. And did the utterly unscrupulous and venomous 12 year blitz of xenophobic propaganda by the same newspapers have an effect? Absolutely – otherwise how can the hostility to immigrants in a region that is one of the last destinations for migrants in search of employment be explained? This is a population, cynically groomed by masters of misinformation, opinion formers who would have served the Third Reich with distinction, given the opportunity. Easily persuaded to place the blame for all their discontents on outsiders and remote Brussels bureaucrats.

This is all deeply depressing but what is even more astounding is that these voters have placed their trust in Johnson and Gove, a Gilbert and George tribute act in which two slightly weird looking performers attempt to outdo one another with the scale and audacity of their lies. The fight-back against an oppressive establishment elite is to be lead by a pair of former journalists whose careers were built on their ability to distort the truth to fit the prejudices of their masters and readers. Their elitist credentials are impeccable – private income, public school, Oxford. Despite that they are essentially puppets of megalomaniac media proprietors. In the case of Johnson, the strings are pulled by the weirdo Barclay Brothers whose Daily Telegraph pages are besmirched by regular windy diatribes from the pen of Johnson – for which dubious services they pay him £250K per year. The Gove strings are pulled by Rupert Murdoch (CEO, News Corporation) by whom he was employed as a Times columnist for almost a decade. Gove is a regular around Murdoch’s dinner table – who knows what they talk about but I can say with total confidence that addressing social and income inequality has never been a topic for discussion. Johnson and Gove are two of the loudest cheerleaders for the callous neoliberalism that drove their new-found followers to despair. 

What next? Can the Labour party find the language to reconnect with its lost voters? Unlikely at present. Is there a Labour leader in waiting with the skills and personality to make a difference? Maybe – but I couldn’t name one. Can Johnson and Gove deliver the White Supremacist State that the worst of their followers believe they have been promised? If they lack the stomach for a programme of repatriation there are others with no such scruples. The recent ugly scenes in Newcastle may be just the start of something very much worse. Johnson and Gove are postmodern politicians – clever and shallow, puny in stature, devoid of conscience, no grace or gravitas. Will they persuade the Scots to remain in the Union? Do they command the necessary public trust to deal with the unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement? Watch them choke as they attempt the simultaneous ownership and consumption of cake. Their false promises and falsehoods exposed will be their undoing. And they will turn to us, hold out their hands and say – it was only ever a piece of performance art. Get over it.

Photographs of St. Andrew’s, Roker

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Postcard of the Day No. 83 – Hôtel Normandie

The Thirties fashion for maritime themed architecture reached a kind of end point with this example from the Belgian coast at Oostduinkerke near De Panne, built in 1933 as a restaurant. Rather than borrow the sweeping curves and raking profiles associated with marine architecture this developer settled for a coarse and ill-proportioned parody of an ocean liner complete with replica funnels. There’s a long and honourable tradition of this attention seeking, novelty design in the United States where B 52s or diplodocus masquerade as gas stations and drive-ins take the form of donuts and frankfurters – sometimes known as Roadside Vernacular. Without the great American wide open spaces, European planners are wary of architecture that functions as self-promotion making this a rare exception. Ever the opportunist, the restaurateur adopted the name of the French liner Normandie when it entered service in 1937. It can still be seen through the windows of the passing Kusttram between De Panne and Oostende where we photographed it on a wet day last September.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Darmstadt Dioramas

The Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt houses a great and disparate variety of collections, bringing together areas of interest that are normally widely dispersed. It includes a large collection of paintings from the 13th. to the 20th. century, a comprehensive display of fossils from the Grube Messel, classical and Egyptian antiquities, Jugendstil arts and crafts, contemporary German art, Europe’s largest public collection of the work of Joseph Beuys (Block Beuys) and a natural history museum that includes one of Europe’s oldest and finest sequence of zoological dioramas.

The Darmstadt dioramas date from 1904 to 1910 and were the work of Gottlieb von Koch (curator of zoology) and Karl Küsthardt (taxidermist). Over a thousand specimens are displayed in ten dioramas, each populated by a specific region or continent. Generic local environments were simulated with landscape reconstructions, casts of trees and natural forms in front of painted scenes. Much hemp, plaster and chicken-wire was consumed in the process. Conservation has always been a challenge and by the time the museum closed in 2006 for an extended period of refurbishment, every single specimen exhibited evidence of pest infestation. Each item spent two periods of four weeks in a Thermo-King container at -35°C – the first to kill off the pests, the second to destroy any surviving cold-resistant clusters of eggs. In reassembling the displays a conservative restoration strategy was employed to ensure that as far as possible their value as historic records of categorisation and selection priorities remained unimpaired.

For the idle and uninformed observer such as myself the charm of these dioramas is the window they provide into past ways of thinking about the natural world. The sense of wonder they generated in the early decades of the last century has not been entirely diluted by contemporary familiarity with high-definition digital imagery. Indeed in a visual culture that has normalised the Surrealist appetite for the bizarre, the appeal is enhanced when we contemplate the strange and unfeasible combinations of life-forms arranged into unlikely co-existence in confined spaces. As my old friend Chris Mullen put it – where else does the ferret lie down with the Foo Foo bird?