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.
A walk from Deal to St Margaret’s Bay, via Kingsdown and St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, took in a variety of building styles, vernacular and polite.
Flint and brick is characteristic.
I liked the fretted fascia on this house.
Oldestairs House in Oldstairs Road, Kingsdown. Red-brick, roughcast and tile hanging. Large, Edwardian and intrusive.
Kingsdown Cottage, one of a pair of Arts-and-Crafts houses on the outskirts of St-Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, with its roughcast walls, high chimneys and steep-pitched roof, recalls Voysey’s High Gaut in the same village (which we didn’t get to see), but I couldn’t find out anything about it.
Tin shacks pop up everywhere for chapels and clubs. I thought the St Margaret’s Bowls Club looked homely.
Portal House, a Kent County Council special school, is well described by its architects, KSS: “The double pitched roof concept for the new building draws on the local Kent vernacular, and the use of humble traditional materials with simple modern detailing gives the building a quiet but distinct contemporary identity.”
The star of our walk was Ness Point, a bold, orginal design by Tonkin Liu, with curving white walls that echo the White Cliffs. There are plans and more photos, including interior photos, at Design Curial.
We stayed a few days in Deal, which is contributing to the revival of the Kent and Sussex seaside. It’s a sober resort with a couple of little galleries, a maritime museum and a modernist pier built in the 1950s. Norman Wisdom spent a miserable childhood in Deal and Charles Hawtrey a miserable retirement.
We were attracted to The Rose Hotel, which descended from family and commercial house to roughest pub in town. Then it was reinvented as boutique hotel with London chef. Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday. (We stayed Sunday to Tuesday.) There’s nice attention to detail, such as the room numbers painted by a sign writer.
Next door is St George’s Church, neo-classical with 19th and 20th century additions and 21st century subtractions: its happy-clappy vicar has taken out the furniture for pop-music services. Gravestones are stacked against the wall to make a park for dog-walkers and joggers, lovely in the early-morning mist.
The foreshore, as you walk to Kingsdown, is part of a site of special scientific interest, unfortunately without an information board. Wild fennel grows in the shingle and in the gardens. Soon the chalk rises to form the famous White Cliffs.
A flat in this 1920s coastguard house (now a café) is on sale for £1.25m. There’s a bunker underneath it, excavated in the war as part of the Channel defences. Seeing the coast of France 18 miles away made me wonder how we stopped the German invasion. An exhibit at St Margaret’s Bay, evacuated for use by the armed forces, helps to explain.