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.
I was pleased to be asked by the flower arrangers of St Albans Cathedral to make a bowl for the Lady Chapel in memory of one of their members, and today I went to see how they had used it. Cascades of white flowers under the statue of the Madonna almost obscure it (above), but you can just see it there.
I went through the Cathedral, took pictures of some familiar things, and saw some things I hadn’t noticed before.
The flowers are always wonderful.
The guide told me that the Shrine of St Alban (below) contained the saint’s shoulder blade, donated by Cologne Cathedral in 2002. The bones had been taken to Rome in 429, then went to Cologne at the time of the Great Schism.
The site of the original tomb, the holy grail of archaeologists, is unknown and sceptical historians think St Alban may have been invented to control English heretics, but my guide didn’t agree.
The carved figures and capitals are in good condition and I wondered how they escaped the Puritan iconoclasm. “They didn’t,” said my guide, “They are 19th century restorations.”
I knew the medieval wall paintings in the Norman arches, but there was a smaller painting in one of the chapels that I hadn’t seen before.
Votive candles and personal prayers.
Britain was never at home with modernism. We are comfortable with the 1930s semi, the fag-end of the vernacular revival, made from builders’ pattern books. Hatfield, a new town, built during the 1950s, is now being extended in this style. It’s bad enough when town planners won’t allow any new buildings that jar with the Georgian or Victorian townscape, it’s worse when they allow Tudorbethan buildings in an essentially modernist town.
My own town, St Albans, has few modernist buildings. In The Buildings of England, Nikolaus Pevsner singled out the Express Dairy in Branch Road, a good sub-Bauhaus building. The college of further education had a modernist extension that attracted a Civic Society award. Both sites have been converted to housing, the Express Dairy butchered but the college building thankfully preserved.
Housing developments in continental Europe don’t defer to the past like ours and people live more happily in the present. The irony of the British desire to heritage everything, and to make every building look old, is that that it leaves no heritage of our own time.
So I was pleased to see the mounting campaign to save the Preston Bus Station (top), an outstanding Brutalist building, designed by Keith Ingham and completed in 1969. It is faced with demolition by Preston City Council. All parties on the council want it to go, although the people of Preston recently voted it their favourite building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as a bus station, but less versatile modern buildings have been preserved – for example, the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City with its monumental grain silos (above). The bus station could certainly find a suitable use for the 21st century.
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