LUTON/VIENNA

My recent trip to Vienna was my first outside the UK for two years and required more preparation than I’m used to. An up-to-date smartphone is essential: Kati, who went on to Budapest by train, had difficulty on the way back because her ancient device couldn’t open the Patient Locator Form.

Outbound, Luton airport was eerily quiet (above). We could spread out on the plane and pretty well sit where we liked.

But the return trip was trying. Vienna airport is large and it’s a long walk to the health centre for the lateral flow test. If I was in the right place it was on the wrong level and if I was on the right level it was an underground car-park.

The Wizzair desk, after a long wait, told me I needed my Passenger Locator Form before I could check in.

“But I need to check in first because the Passenger Locator Form asks for my seat number.”

“Oh, just put in anything.”

Back to the end of the queue.

PUBLIC ART: THE BLOKES

The row over statues seems to be dying down, but someone on Facebook posted a picture (left) that illustrates how they have been democratised – Standing Man by Sean Henry in Paddington Basin, a Bloke on the Ground sort of sculpture that Henry specialises in: anonymous, ordinary people without plinths, natural size and at the same level as the viewer.

For contrast I add The Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones, the 1907 equestrian sculpture in Whitehall that is so familiar that it is never looked at, representative of the 19th-century statuary that populates our cities: grand, elevated, establishment and not a little oppressive.

The latter sort is being gradually reviewed and sometimes suddenly and violently removed, but the process of democratisation that the review is part of began long ago with the Blokes on the Ground who are slowly and silently replacing them.

“THE THINGS WE SEE”

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In the late 1940s and early 50s, during the era of post-war reconstruction, Penguin Books published an attractive, well-illustrated, large-format series called The Things We See, setting out the principles of good design in an attempt to raise visual literacy. There were volumes on Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, Gardens and Ships. The introductory volume was called Indoors and Out, by Alan Jarvis, Director of Information at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID).

The Things we See was descended from the South Kensington museum’s Chamber of Horrors through the Arts and Crafts movement and the art-and-industry debates of the 1930s. Alan Jarvis’s volume, although illustrated with contemporary designs like a factory-built house and an Underground station on the Piccadilly line, expresses ideas about design, taste and industry familiar since Ruskin’s day. He said that the degradation and shabbiness of the built environment resulted from public indifference to the way things look and from liking the wrong things. This had a tinge of immorality about it. When someone said to Henry Cole that people’s tastes varied, he replied, “I think to act on the principle of ‘every one to his taste’ would be as mischievous as ‘every one to his morals’.” The sentiment persisted.

roads-and-railways

Jarvis said that modern housing is wrong because the Englishman has modelled it on the castle instead of designing at an appropriate scale. He disdained the suburb and the Tudorbethan house (as all design reformers did), but by the late 1940s anti-suburb snobbery had clothed itself in democratic ideals: “Just as manorial rights, feudal economics and a rigid system of social castes are inappropriate to a modern industrial democracy,” said Jarvis, “so are the architectural forms which we still copy.” It was a precept of the good-design movement that one material should not imitate another and that previous styles should never be copied, but the Georgian Revival had played into Jarvis’s thinking and he held up the Georgian house as a model of elegance and restraint.

He compared good and bad taste in design with good and bad taste in food and drew interesting parallels between, on one hand, a modern bedroom and a wholemeal loaf, and, on the other, a bad-taste bedroom and a plate of sticky iced cakes.

There are Arts-and-Crafts attitudes throughout. Industry bred a new type of man detached from the land and confined to the factory. Modern transport systems spoiled the town and the countryside. Mass production debased the quality of goods and suppressed individuality. There is only a grudging acceptance that mass production brought cheaper commodities and no recognition of the value of predictability and reliability.

bisf house

Jarvis held out Frederic Gibberd’s modest and democratic factory-built steel house (above) as the hope for future design. It had harmonious proportions and no ornamentation other than the integral patterns of brick, roof tiles and fluted panels. It was simple and practical and did not refer to the past or have any connotations or extraneous meaning.

ornament

He viewed decoration and ornament with suspicion. He acknowledged the human urge to decorate and admitted that it had to be indulged if we were not to go down the route of “crude or second-hand satisfactions, with a synthetic taste in visual things, like a taste for soups and custard made of powder.” There was the predictable worry about vulgarity and a reminder of Adolf Loos in Jarvis’s horror of tattooing.

At the same time as this Penguin series came out, Barbara Jones, in The Unsophisticated Arts and the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade, was recording and celebrating vulgar and popular art including tattooing, fairground painting, confectionery and funerary art, at the start of an anti-design movement that accepted demotic taste and even democratic bad taste.

HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

karlskirche
Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.

PSEUDO-GEORGIAN LONDON

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After reading my post on Suburban Modernism, someone drew my attention to Pablo Bronstein’s 2017 RIBA exhibition on Pseudo-Georgian architecture. There was a book (above) to accompany it.

“The reality is,” said Bronstein, “that we have created much more pseudo-Georgian architecture over the last 30 years than any other kind of building. For most of us, it seems, a cheap yellow-brick facade evokes almost effortlessly a rosy everlasting British prosperity.”

Oliver Wainwright wrote a haughty review of Bronstein in The Guardian: “His pen and ink drawings, drafted in a quaint style reminiscent of postcards from National Trust gift shops, depict a world oozing with aspiration. There are humble homes gussied up with pediments and plastic porches, as well as banal commercial apartment blocks with facades arranged in vaguely Georgian proportions.”

Bronstein noticed a connection between pseudo-Georgian and the Conservative right-to-buy-policy, which encouraged council tenants to purchase their own flats. In their own homes they turned from modernism to nostalgia. The parallel with Tudorbethan is inescapable: between the wars, when home ownership was rapidly expanding, there was a similar turn to designs that evoked the past.

A few years ago I organised public consultations in Hatfield and met people who had been asked by officials about the design of the new town in the 1950s. They recalled that they were listened to and then ignored. They may not have wanted Tudorbethan or Pseudo-Georgian, but the leaders of good taste and good design had already decided what they should have.

W.T.CURTIS AND WILLIAM BURCHETT

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Kenton Public Library (1939)

I wrote earlier about W.T.Curtis and William Burchett, architects to Middlesex County Council, who were responsible for many schools and public buildings in north-west London, including the iconic Kenton Public Library, recognisable by their brick construction, strong horizontal emphasis, flat roofs and prominent staircase tower. I was pleased to find that they’d designed my primary school, Pinner Park, in 1934, which used innovative construction methods. (Mentioned in Pevsner’s The Buildibgs of Middlesex. No usable pictures, alas.)

My secondary school, Harrow Weald Grammar, a mock-Jacobean brick construction, opened in 1933, was very different. As the building is now being converted to housing, I became curious about its designer. I was amazed to find that it was also W. T. Curtis. Curtis’s change from traditional to modern was very sudden.

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Harrow Weald County School (1933)

In their page on Curtis and Burchett, Modernism in Metroland explain how it came about:

The Wall Street crash and world financial crisis of 1931, one year into W.T. Curtis’ reign, forced a change in the departments’ designs in order to cut costs. Aiming to reduce spending by 30%, Curtis and Burchett adopted a more modernist utilitarian approach to school building. Their first innovations were using steel framing at Uxendon Manor School, Wembley (1934), and then concrete slab floors supported by pillars at Pinner Park School (1934). These techniques allowed flexibility in internal planning, whilst also keeping the traditional Victorian school courtyard layout.

CROMWELL, IRELAND AND THE JEWS

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Does anyone imagine you can understand the past simply by looking at statues?

That’s not exactly what’s meant by saying statues are “part of our history”, but it implies that if statues are removed people will know less about history. The history they record, however, is not the deeds of those commemorated but the beliefs of the age that made the monuments.

Most people don’t know much about history. I had an educated colleague who thought the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie were Jacobins and that Oliver Cromwell came in with the Glorious Revolution. The statue of Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, which has just been vandalised by anti-racists, wouldn’t have helped him.

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The protesters daubed FASCIST, RACIST and COCKROACH on the plinth. The pretext was Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, which was pretty savage. Cromwell, as it happens also readmitted the Jews to England after an exile ordered by Edward I. If you want get het up about that too, there’s a statue of Edward above the street at 114 High Holborn and a prominent one at Burgh by Sands.

In Ulysses James Joyce wrote about about Ireland’s attitude to the Jews:

Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being
the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No.
And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

It’s complicated.

LUTON TOWN HALL

town hall

I’ve been reading my diary for 1993 when I worked for Luton Borough Council, where I moved from the London Borough of Camden.

Luton was the worst example of callous post-war town planning in England. It was cut in half by the massive Arndale Centre (now called The Mall), where ghosts of old vanished streets lingered in the names of corridors. In the deserted side roads, old trades survived – a grocer with a bacon slicer, a bag and case shop with a window full of jumble, a stove enameller – and an exceptionally large number of nonconformist chapels. I liked Luton, which was untidy, varied, comic and glum. Although it was in the south, it felt like a northern city, largely because of Vauxhall Motors.

The philosophy of town planning was very different in the 1990s from what it had been in the 1960s and the Council was trying to atone for its sins. The district surveyor, who was on the point of retiring when I arrived, told me that the greatest regret of his professional life was acquiring the land for the Arndale. In the town planning guidance of the period, modernism was bad and Victorianism good.

I was reminded how much I liked the town hall. It was built in 1935 to replace the old town hall burned down in the infamous Peace Day riots of 1919, when disgruntled ex-servicemen revolted against their mistreatment and their exclusion from the official celebrations. Although the mayor was lucky to escape with his life, the riots had a funny side when a music shop was looted and a piano pushed out into the street to accompany a rendering of Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The listed building by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope is a mixture of civic classical and art deco, with a Doric entrance and a neon clock. The council chamber is walnut-panelled and lit by cubist pendants and retains original fittings and finishes in timber, plaster and metal designed by the architects.

luton council chamber

When I worked there, the office doors had PRIVATE in gold letters on frosted glass panels but no name of the officer who worked inside. The building was beautifully preserved and smelled of furniture polish, a welcome change from working in Camden town hall, whose walls were smothered in unofficial placards and whose stairways smelled of piss.