These houses are next to one another in a street I visited in Letchworth Garden City today. They were built in the inter-war years in the vernacular, Arts and Crafts tradition established by Raymond Parker and Richard Unwin, and although they’re unique they appear familiar because the Letchworth style dominated suburban England between the wars. Jonathan Meades, in a scathing opinion piece on Letchworth (below), described this kind of architecture as a trip down false-memory lane.
I think it was Colin Ward who pointed out that the design of Letchworth seemed to realise the world invented by Kate Greenaway (below). Its characteristics are whitewashed roughcast walls, gables, dormer windows, hanging tiles, timber boarding, low-slung roofs, casements and mullions.
I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.
Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.
The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that it saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste?
Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.
The Angels of the Apocalypse sculpture on the Seventh Day Adventist European HQ in St Albans faces on to the main street of the town and its angular shapes are familiar to everyone. So familiar to me that, despite having lived there for years, I’d never bothered to find out anything about it.
It’s by Alan Collins, ARCA (1928-2016), an English religious artist who lived much of his life in the USA and who taught at Seventh Day Adventist universities. His sculptures in Guildford Cathedral, better known but less visible than his St Albans angels, won the Sir Otto Beit medal in 1964, and he made the lettering on the Kennedy memorial at Runnymede, a remarkable commission because he did not specialise in letter cutting.
The Angels of the Apocalypse were made in 1965 in fibreglass for the Adventists’ building, a rare piece of
modernist architecture in a conservation-conscious town more interested in its Roman, medieval and Victorian past than in the 20th century.
The picture above, by Alex McDonald, shows two of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s memorable designs: the red phone box and the brick exterior of Battersea Power Station. The overused word “iconic” can be properly applied to both. Pink Floyd put the power station on one of their album covers and redundant phone boxes are now being bought and displayed in gardens, precisely as icons.
Coffee Works, where I took my lunch breaks, served large sourdough-bread sandwiches at £7. The General Store indicates who the local customers are, selling, alongside the croissants and cauliflowers, magnums of champagne and jars of truffles. I didn’t look in the estate agents’ windows, but one of my fellow exhibitors told me I couldn’t afford all the noughts. A local nanny visited my stall and told me she traveled with her boss to her other houses in Gstad and Los Angeles. Friends who moved to Battersea in the seventies told me that in the eighties the gentrifiers had already started calling it South Chelsea and saying their postal address was SW one-one.
Not everyone has been complimentary about the development. In the Architect’s Journal, Owen Hatherley describes it as dystopian and grim and says it is “devoid of planning, intelligence or character – a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces.”
As part of the London Design Festival, I’m exhibiting with London Potters at In Design@Battersea, in Battersea Power Station. Part of the riverside, where we are, has already been transformed, elsewhere it’s one of the largest building sites in London.
Grosvenor Arch, Circus West Village, Battersea Power Station, London SW1 8AH. Underground: Sloane Square. Easy pedestrian access from Chelsea Bridge.
I last went to Margate twenty years ago on August bank holiday, when I saw one man on the beach walking his dog. So when we went to visit Turner Contemporary the other day, I thought things may have changed for the better. They haven’t.
The Turner is a bubble surrounded by poverty, squalor and deprivation, despite the fact that it has free entry and there were a group of very old ladies and their carers in the vegan-inspired café when we were there.
My parents took us to Margate in the fifties, before we could afford to go to Italy, when we jostled to find a space on its lovely sandy beaches. Now it’s the ultimate in left-behind, not only losing its principal industry, tourism, but having been used as a dumping ground for homeless families for a generation. Cliftonville, which Baedeker described as the most fashionable part of the town, now has the most social deprivation and is one of the poorest parts of Britain. The the poorest and most desperate congregate in the neglected 70s College Square shopping centre.
I have to admire the vision of the Thanet councillor who stuck with the idea of Turner Contemporary for twenty years until it was realised, but having worked in economic regeneration for a long time, I can say with confidence that it contributes nothing to the lives of the people I saw in College Square.
The most cost-effective economic development in my experience is targeted basic skills training. For £1,000 you can transform someone’s life. But that’s not visible and trainees are not glamorous. Politicians prefer large, expensive buildings that they can be photographed in front of with important people. Turner Contemporary was opened by the Queen.