Friday, 14 June 2013

Britannic House


Architect: Edwin Lutyens, 1921-5.


Lutyens' first large (and lavish) corporate project, in which he achieved maximum floor-space, yet failed to disguise the building's bulk with classical ornamentation stretched over seven storeys.

The crowning structure of Dance the Younger’s Finsbury Circus (designed well over a century earlier), Britannic House was Lutyens’s first foray into the Square Mile, and represented a marked shift in scale as the earliest of his London behemoths. Taking its cue from Northern Italian Mannerism, the structure was built for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, a joint-venture between a London millionaire and the Shah to capitalise on Iran’s newly discovered oil reserves. The stately grandeur of the building is testament to the growth of the company following investment from the British government (principally to ensure fuel for the Navy), that eventually led to the renaming of the company as British Petroleum in 1954. It is said that Lutyens revelled in the lavishness of his tycoon patrons, a scenario far removed from the endless quibbles over government budgets experienced in New Delhi.

Built in what Lutyens himself termed the ‘High Game’ of classical architecture, requiring "hard labour, hard thinking, over every line in all three dimensions and in every joint," the edifice is an exercise in precision and opulence. Spanning seven storeys, the curved Finsbury Circus frontage sits on a rusticated base with arched openings mirroring those of the upper storey. The latter comprises giant Corinthian columns connected by garlands, perched on a balustrade and surmounted by a recessed attic storey. The entire building is bejewelled with fenestration of various shapes and sizes; several of the second storey windows appear to have been pressed into the fabric of the building, squeezed between two columns, with the composition surrounded by lightly etched horizontals. Such detailing accentuates the unusual flatness of the elevation, punctured only by its windows and sculptures of Britannia and an Indian Water Carrier, a quality even more emphatic on the straight Moorgate facade.

The interior was remodelled in the late eighties by Inskip and Jenkins, a sensitive refurbishment including a vast central atrium. More work has been done in the last few years by Gaunt Francis Architects, creating over 16,000 square metres of new office space. The building is now occupied by Natwest Bank.

Best time to visit: the building is not open to the public.

Address: 1 Finsbury Circus, London EC2M 7EB.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Bracken House



Architect: Albert Richardson (1955-59), conversion Michael Hopkins Architects (1989-1992).


A double helping of exceptional architecture; where Richardson's original Financial Times building played down its industrial nature, Hopkins' office conversion did the reverse (although the exposed 'structural' metalwork doesn't actually support much).

When Michael Hopkins undertook the commission to rework Sir Albert Richardson’s post-war masterpiece in 1989, he was presumably dealing with a similar set of philosophical questions to his predecessor: how to design for the future whilst preserving the past? For Hopkins, the problem was, in essence, material: how to replace the iconic octagonal printing room of the former Financial Times headquarters in a way that would stylistically, sensitively and functionally reconnect the original sandstone wings. For Richardson, it was a question of representation: how to design for an institution whose reputation was rooted in its heritage, yet its success as a financial newspaper relied on its ability to anticipate and speculate on future events.

Richardson’s solution was an elegant arrangement of two wings composed of Hollington sandstone piers and rose-coloured brick (perhaps to reflect the publication’s famous pink pages), sandwiching a central glass construction. Stairwells on the south side resolve in turrets, with a patinated copper cornice lining the flanking structures and an astrological clock by Philip Bentham above the north door. Classical in its consistency and monumentality, eclectic in its use of materials and carved detailing, and modern in structure, bold surfaces, and functionality, the celebrated building was deemed worthy of heritage status in 1987, the first post-war building to be listed in Britain. It is for this reason that Hopkins connected the preserved flanking parts of Richardson’s structure with a glazed steel-framed core that stays true to its predecessor’s restrained modernism. Now a glazed, six storey office block with a central system of exposed elevators and working parts, the interior space feels mechanical, perhaps a reference to the days of the press. On the exterior, the façade bulges as if squeezed by the heavy wings, a device that emphasise the lightness of glass and agility of its exposed bronze and gunmetal supports. 

Best time to visit: access to the interior is prohibited to the general public. However, the exterior is unmissable. 

Address: 1 Friday St, London EC4M 9JA.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Blue Fin Building





Architect: Allies and Morrison, 2005-07.


It says much about Bankside's recent office architecture that blue metal fins are considered interesting enough to name a block (even allowing for the jokey tuna reference).


In April 1856, the Metropolitan Board of Works sought to transform the London borough of Southwark by knocking through a new street linking London Bridge station with the West End. 150 years later, Southwark Street was again the focus of a major improvement programme, with over 40% of the borough subject to that controversial  euphemism – ‘regeneration’. The Blue Fin building, or Bankside 1 as it was originally known, was the first phase of a trio of buildings (Bankside 1, 2 & 3) developed by Land Securities in 2005 as part of this process. Providing around a million square feet of mixed-use floor space behind the Tate Modern gallery, the three buildings, designed by Allies and Morrison, occupy a former industrial estate and the sites of Tabard House and St Christopher House, the latter of which was inhabited by the Ministry of Defence. 

The Blue Fin building is the most striking of the three structures, named after the blue aluminium fins that shade the glass curtain wall facades. These are undoubtedly the most exciting part of the building (which isn’t saying much). With huge 42,000 square feet floor plates, the structure is essentially an open plan office building with a glazed exterior that forms occasionally interesting angles. The ground floor contains retail outlets and restaurants, lining walkways provided by exposed concrete piers or pilotis. A large but relatively uninspiring addition to the increasingly corporate streetscape of Southwark.


Best time to visit: after a trip to the Tate Modern. The offices are inaccessible to the general public but most of what ought to be seen can be viewed from the retail and restaurant units on the ground floor.


Address: 110 Southwark Street, London SE1 0SU.


Thursday, 6 June 2013

Bishopsgate Institute


Architect: Charles Harrison Townsend, 1895.


A little bit of non-city in the City; the Bishopsgate Institute was established to relieve the perceived social and cultural deficiencies of the Victorian metropolis.

Hidden in the looming shadow of Broadgate opposite, you could be forgiven for walking straight past the curious façade of this socially-progressive institution. Designed by C H Townsend, who later achieved fame for the Whitechapel Gallery and Horniman Museum, the structure is one of the most surprising in the City. Without any obvious precedent stylistically (although the broad-arched entrance may have been influenced by the American H H Richardson), the building incorporates symbolism and skilled workmanship that was intended to reflect the institute's cultural aims. The main Bishopsgate elevation is a symmetrical terracotta composition, with twisting tendrils (variants of the Tree of Life) embracing turrets capped by what appear to be stylised beehives (emblems of industry and cooperation). Between them, a finely-worked panel proclaims the institution's name. The  architectural ethos of the building derived from the Arts & Crafts movement (designed to be built by artist-craftsmen, not wage-slaves), but its sinuous detailing owed much to continental Art Nouveau.

Overall, Townsend's arrangement is grand yet domestic in scale, a successful contradiction befitting the establishment's enlightened, charitable role. Opened in 1895 "for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts", the institute was founded with the help of educational reformer, the Reverend William Rogers, using funds from the nearby parish of St Botolph. Recent refurbishment has helped revitalise the building as a centre for culture and learning, hosting educational events and evening courses for adults. Its domed, wood-panelled library (championed as one of the first public libraries) is open to all, and a specialist repository for literature on the labour and cooperative movements, political activism, and free thought. Nevertheless, the new glass fronted cafe (by Sheppard Architects) adjacent to the Brushfield Street side-entrance, now buzzes with mezze platters and iPads aplenty.


Best time to visit: open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10.00 – 17.30.

Address: 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Battersea Power Station


Architect: Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott, 1929-35 & 1944-55.


The once mighty cathedral of power, often celebrated in London’s popular culture, yet now a forlorn mouldering ruin; too loved to lose, but a nightmare to save.

When the first part of Battersea Power Station was completed in the 1930s its bold geometrical form was a symbol of progress adorning the landscape of London. Built in two identical phases (1929-35; 1944-55) and designed by Theo Halliday with Giles Gilbert Scott (of red telephone box fame) as consultant to the exterior, the structure was one of the first super-power stations to be built under the aegis of the London Power Company, the new, publicly owned supplier of electricity established under an Act of Parliament in 1925 to quell the inefficiency and inconsistency of competing interests. The largest brick structure in Europe, the power station was strikingly moderne at the time of construction with a hard-edged aesthetic informed by its function, yet acquiescing to detail in the grooved towers, fluted column-like chimneys, and elaborate parapet. This exterior, however, stood in contrast to Halliday’s unexpectedly sumptuous interior, which comprised a rich display of faience tiles, bronze doors with relief sculpture, and marble walls – a decadent celebration of industry somewhat incommensurate with Gilbert Scott’s utilitarian outline. The station’s cooling system in turn provided heating for the Churchill Gardens housing estate on the opposite side of the river.

Today the power station is less a symbol of progress than a memorial to it, standing derelict as London’s greatest modern ruin. Decommissioned in 1983, the Grade II* listed carcass has been at the helm of a controversial planning and heritage war for the last two decades, with proposals for a football stadium, concert venue, urban park among the many suggestions for its redevelopment, all falling prey to conservation laws or financial hurdles. Of course the true value of the building to developers is as prime real estate and it is a scheme for a primarily residential area, in the form of Rafael Viñoly’s masterplan, that the site currently awaits. Restoration of the structure is due to commence this October, lasting three years, and it seems likely the new Malaysian developers (since former Irish owners, Real Estate Opportunities, folded in 2011) will see the project through to completion. Nevertheless, given the building's chequered history, it's not unreasonable to suppose Battersea Power Station might yet remain an evocative relic for some time to come. 

Best time to visit: the building shell cannot be entered, but is easily seen from afar.

Address: Kirtling Street, London SW8 5BN.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Barbican Estate



Architect: Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, 1959-1981


The City of London’s project to re-introduce a residential population to the historic ‘Square Mile,’ set within a spectacular Modern urban landscape.

There are two common misconceptions about the influential and imposing Barbican complex. The first, that it was the product of post-war socialism, constructed as council housing. The second, that it is ‘Brutalist’ to the core. To dispel the first myth, this modern-day fortress was commissioned by the City Corporation to provide its middle and professional class workers with not so affordable but highly desirable accommodation. Conceived as a residential village (the arts centre was in fact an afterthought, completed eight years later in 1981) by architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the chosen scheme was the fourth version for a coveted 35-acre site (testament to the diverse political interests of the LCC and the City) that had lain empty for over twenty years following the decimation of the Blitz. 


To dispel the second myth, you only have to spend time journeying through its complex maze of high-walks to notice that the considered detail, rich materials and picturesque rhetoric of ‘surprise and delight’ are anything but brutal, frequently denying rather than obeying the mantra of structural honesty. Comprising three triangular, 125-metre high towers (the tallest residential blocks in Europe) with jagged cantilevered balconies, alongside giant low-rise blocks (supposedly the longest in Europe at the time), the designs are highly sculptural, their mass reinforced by the homogenous colour of the concrete, appearing to be carved from a single block. The latter is not, in fact, the exposed structure of the building, but a rich aggregate concrete facing with dark Welsh granite, pick-axed (by hand!) to give a rough texture and dull finish, as if to pre-empt its inevitable weathering. 

Wrapped around a large central lake with private residential gardens, the water feature is both a scenic addition straddled by graceful pilotis, and an ingenious form of secondary insulation for the new stretch of Tube line below – the invention of Anglo-Danish engineer, Ove Arup. Contrary to some public opinion, the estate is highly sensitive to its historic surroundings, embedding parts of the old Roman wall and fortifications into its fabric, preserving and framing historic sight-lines and restoring the medieval church of St Giles. Receiving heavy criticism for its complex circulation system and harsh aesthetic (and consequently ‘softened’ by various refits in the last two decades), the arts centre contains a library, exhibition space, concert hall and theatre. The fly-wall of the latter is the centrepiece to The Conservatory above, a glazed structure housing plants, birds and fish pools, opening onto the (empty) crescent-shaped sculpture court.

Best time to visit: take one of the brilliant Barbican Architecture Tours for an informative overview and access to hidden treasures such as the ominously named ‘Sample Room’ containing swatches of the various concrete experiments tested for the exterior.

Address: London EC2Y 8BD.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

No. 1 Poultry



Architect: James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates, 1997.


Stirling was a world-renowned architect, but on such a celebrated and valuable site it was almost inevitable that planning and commercial considerations would take priority.

Standing brazenly among three institutional icons (the Mansion House, Bank of England and Royal Exchange), Stirling’s design reads like a ship that has run aground at the most prominent intersection of the Square Mile. Originally intended for Mies van der Rohe’s tower and plaza, the site, owned at the time by developer Peter Palumbo, was subject to twenty years of debate concerning the shape of its new building. The planners were finally persuaded by Stirling's jaunty, allusive wedge; seemingly a happy compromise acceptable to both conservationist and contemporary factions.



Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the building received a mixed reception. For many, it was a posthumous exercise in Post-Modernism, a movement that was arguably dead and buried. For others, Stirling’s undulating and dynamic edifice perfectly encapsulated the unforgiving pace of the deregulated City, whilst its classical references (the ‘all-over’ rustication effect, exaggerated entablature, and sculpted frieze above the courtyard entrance on Poultry) point to tradition and longevity - the key to the City’s success. The Pevsner Guide considered the building’s "expression of interior volumes" rendered it a triumph: jagged fenestration seems to burst through its bulging pink and yellow limestone skin. When viewed from Cornhill or Threadneedle street, the structure’s bloated form seems to resist its pinched perspective. A synthesis of solid and void, its apparently swollen mass is disrupted by arched openings on either side, leading into a large courtyard allowing another access point to the Underground. The view of the City from the rooftop restaurant Coq d’Argent is worth seeing.



Best time to visit: anytime, although public access to the interior is extremely limited.

Address: No. 1 Poultry, London EC2R 8JR.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Banqueting House


Architect: Inigo Jones, 1619-22


A milestone in London's architectural history: the capital's first orthodox Classical building, designed by someone recognisable as an architect.

London looked very different before Inigo Jones emerged as an architect. It was Jones, under the patronage of James I, who introduced fully-fledged Italian Classicism to England, and the Banqueting House, originally part of the Palace of Whitehall, was his most prestigious completed commission. Jones' work displays elaborate levels of detailing and classical harmonic proportions, much of it absorbed during his travels through Italy studying the treatises of Vitruvius and Palladio.

Today's facing of monochrome Portland stone accentuates the building's size, whereas Jones' original design incorporated a subtle, three-tone design of Oxford, Northamptonshire and Portland stones that instead emphasised the depth and sculptural treatment of the seven-bay facade. With its perfect double cube interior, the scheme was hugely ambitious for the building technology of the day in terms of span, height and weight. Nevertheless, one of  the most impressive aspects of Jones' meticulous design was his treatment of corners, from the kissing capitals of the facade, to the delicate gallery brackets of the hall.

Although called the Banqueting House, the structure originally housed two main functions: theatrical royal balls known as 'masques;’ and the reception of foreign ambassadors. At one of these latter occasions in 1634 Charles I persuaded the artist-ambassador Peter Paul Rubens to produce nine canvas ceiling panels for the hall, commemorating the reign of James I and the divine right of kings. Just fifteen years later, Charles was ushered from the building onto a temporary scaffold where he became the first and only British monarch to be legally executed for treason.


Best time to visit: Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm except Bank Holidays.

Address: Whitehall, London SW1A 2ER

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Apsley House


Architects: Robert Adam, 1771-78; remodelled by Benjamin Dean Wyatt, 1819-28.


Now sadly marooned in a sea of traffic, Apsley House provides a rare opportunity to see vestiges of a Robert Adam designed interior in central London.


Today retaining only elements of Adam’s original building, Apsley House has the appearance of a truncated and compressed aristocratic country seat. Customarily given the address 'Number One London,' it was the first house encountered after passing the Knightsbridge tollgate; the point where the gravel of the turnpike gave way to the paved streets of the capital. The residence was initially built for the Lord Chancellor, Baron Apsely, but gained fame as the London home of the Duke of Wellington who took possession in 1817. The house was opened to the public in 1853, shortly after the duke’s death, and acquired by the nation in 1947, although parts are still occupied by the duke’s descendants.

Adam's design incorporated an existing stable on the site, and was a brick construction that aligned with the other homes along Piccadilly. Some changes were made by James Wyatt in the early 1800s but the house was transformed under the architectural supervision of his son, Benjamin Dean Wyatt, who designed extensions, added the portico, and clad the home in Bath stone between 1819 and 1828. Of Adam’s original interiors, the best remaining parts are found in the Portico Room and Drawing Room (with an apse at one end), and include the ceilings, some friezes and a fireplace. His impressive semicircular staircase has also survived. Transformed by Wyatt into a Regency mansion saturated with deep red and gold interiors, the home went through another drastic change under the post-World War II Hyde Park improvement scheme that re-routed Park Lane. The house that once signalled arrival in the metropolis was left stranded when surrounding buildings were demolished. 

Best time to visit: open Wednesday-Sunday 11am-5pm between early April and early November; open Saturday-Sunday 10am-4pm between November and March.

Address: 149 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NT.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

All Hallows by the Tower


Designed by numerous masons and architects, 675 onwards


An extraordinary physical record of London's turbulent past, the full extent of which was only revealed by Second World War damage.

Believed to be the oldest surviving church in the City, All Hallows by the Tower was extensively rebuilt in the post-war period following catastrophic bomb damage during the Blitz. Founded on the site of an old Roman house (the remains of which can be seen in the crypt), the church was established around 675 and an arched doorway from this period survives. The early phases of building made extensive use of recycled Roman bricks, as can be seen in a surviving quoin in the northwest section. Rebuilding took place in the early eleventh-century and remains from this time include parts of the southwest wall. Further reconstruction took place during the fifteenth-century, and in 1650 a nearby gunpowder explosion required the construction of new tower, which is the only structure in London known to date from Cromwell's time in power. Samuel Pepys surveyed the Great Fire of London from here. 

Unsurprisingly, the exterior of the church is a picturesque composition of various historical styles, comprising fifteenth-century aisle walls with three-light pointed windows, the mid seventeenth-century tower and a northwest stone porch added by Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson (1892-5). The latter contains crisp carving by Nathanial Hitch, adding to the eclectic exterior assemblage at that corner of the church. The twentieth-century restoration by Seeley & Paget (1949-57) is a quiet triumph, both inside and out. Internally, a smooth concrete cross-ribbed vault supports the nave, with decorative beams joining limestone piers, whilst the green copper Wren-like spire is a sensitive, yet suitably bold, addition to the exterior.

Best time to visit: the church is open 8am-6pm Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm on weekends. The crypt museum contains some of the most important Anglo Saxon and Roman remains in London.

Address: Byward Street, London EC3R 5BJ

Monday, 20 May 2013

Ames House


Architect: Beresford Pite, 1904


A landmark of female emancipation where the reforming agenda is reflected in its architecture.

Once known as the Ames House and Restaurant, this was the first purpose-built hostel for young, unmarried women working in London. The residents of the hostel were part of the new independent class of female workers that was burgeoning in the Edwardian era, notably including typists and telephone operators. At the hostel they found basic, but modern accommodation. Each of the small private rooms had access to natural light, and this explains the generous number of arched casement windows on the corner site with three street-facing facades, as well as the dormer windows that dot the steeply-pitched roof. The women also had use of shared sitting and dining rooms within the interior, although these spaces were altered when the upper storeys were converted into flats.


The complex was also an early model for mixed-use architecture, containing not only residential accommodation, but also a restaurant, shops, and different service facilities. Shops still occupy the ground floor of the block but modern retailers have altered the window configuration and cornice details. Overall, the style of Pite’s design was not uncommon for Edwardian buildings with a socially-progressive programme: a kind of simplified Arts & Crafts with banded brickwork and tall recessed brick niches that emphasise the verticality of the building. The elaboration of traditional building forms, such as bays, chimneys and gables was intended as an expression of craftsmanship, and by association, the supposed sanctity of work. 

Best time to visit: apart from the refitted ground floor shops, the building is closed to the public.

Address: 44 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7RJ.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Athenaeum Club


Architect: Decimus Burton, 1828-30


Gentleman’s club, for those with artistic and literary inclinations, constructed at a time of high optimism following the defeat of Napoleonic France.

There’s an exuberance about the Athenaeum, evident in the gilded statue of Athena, the Wedgwood-like reproduction of the Parthenon frieze and the projecting balcony along three sides of the first floor. Greek Revival architecture was usually sober and monumental, but here a young Decimus Burton, 24 when commissioned, produced a strikingly festive interpretation. Burton's father James was a successful property developer who provided much of the finance, and commercial nous, to complete John Nash's scheme for a residential enclave in Regent’s Park, together with the new thoroughfares of Regent Street and Waterloo Place on which the club stands. Perhaps it is not surprising that Decimus (James' tenth child) would find opportunity to design several buildings in Nash’s London; more so that he generally succeeded so well. 


It is easily assumed that the Athenaeum’s classical references were intended to highlight the supposed erudition of the club’s members, but they also reflect the optimism and confidence prevalent in Regency London. Pall Mall was now gas-lit, and Nash’s new roads had made it possible to travel more quickly through the city. The Parthenon frieze was in part celebrated for its lively representation of mobility, and the balcony enabled members to enjoy the passing scene. Horse mounting blocks for their use still stand in front of the building.

Note: the attic storey is a later addition.

Best time to visit: only open to members and their guests.

Address: 107 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ER.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Angel Building


Architect: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris Architects, 2011


A sophisticated refit and extension of a 1980s office building that produced a genuinely imposing atrium together with exemplary environmental credentials.

The slick, black steel-framed structure standing at the corner of Pentonville Road and St John Street appears a far cry from the dull office block that previously occupied the site, but it is, in fact, largely the same building. Designed in a collaborative venture between AHMM and Derwent London (a partnership that has reworked other sites in the city including the Shoreditch Tea Building), the new construction uses the concrete frame of its predecessor as the skeleton for an altogether more sophisticated, extended ensemble of steel and glass. However its inoffensive exterior does not explain why the building has won so many awards. For this, you need to walk inside.

Formerly a disused open-air courtyard, the central space has been converted into a vast and impressive atrium. Composed of concrete beams and uprights (poured in situ), with exposed soffits and a glazed box-beam ceiling, the architectural references are abundant; Kahn, Lloyd Wright and Mies are all present here. Despite the monolithic concrete forms, the space is light, with recessing and projecting forms above that seem to slide over each other. The building seems to follow the American model of office architecture: a central plan with glazed perimeter office space above; lifts and stairs tucked away in the wings; ground floor meeting spaces and a large sunken café. Ian McChesney’s giant carbon fibre installation in the centre of the atrium entitled ‘Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness’, a large seat intended to resemble treacle dripping from a spoon (the title itself referring to the motto on the Lyles Black Treacle tin), reinstates the glamour of early twentieth century office architecture, completing the aesthetic.

Best time to visit: working hours Monday-Saturday. True to its American-inspired form, the foyer is accessible to passers-by and is by far the main attraction of the building. Entry to other floors requires a staff key-card.

Address: 407 St John Street, London EC1V 4AB.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

All Souls Langham Place


Architect: John Nash, 1822-24


One of the key focal points of Nash's new Regent Street, intended to lead the eye around an awkward corner where it joins with Portland Place.

At the time of its construction, many commentators pilloried Nash’s All Souls. The architect was depicted impaled upon its spire, and admittedly the church's portico is disturbingly suggestive of a dunce’s cap atop Bramante’s famous Tempietto in Rome. Yet the building has become a familiar and loveable landmark, particularly when seen at night dramatically illuminated against the contrasting backdrop of the new Broadcasting House extension (by Richard MacCormac and others).




Nash was the preferred architect of George IV, enjoying a wealth of commissions throughout London, but this is the only remaining London example of his ecclesiastical architecture. However, on close inspection, the building is filled with surprising architectural anomalies and unresolved details, ranging from lack of an east window to the disembodied putti that adorn the portico's adapted Ionic capitals. The strange arrangement of the portico is further complicated by the way the engaged columns of the circular peristyle awkwardly run into the wall of the church's rectangular body. However Nash was not a details architect, being more concerned with a building’s scenic effect. It is tempting to imagine that he would heartily approve of the new floodlighting.

Heavily damaged in World War II, much of the church's Bath stone exterior and plaster interiors have been restored. One recent restoration project worth noticing is the rust glass mosaic floor of the portico, laid in honour of "peace and victory" following World War I.

Best time to visit: open to the public Monday-Friday 9:30am- 5:30pm; various Sunday services and musical events.

Address: Langham Place,  London W1B 3DA.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Aviva Tower, aka St Helen's



Architect: Gollins Melvin and Ward, 1969


Reaching close to the metaphysical ideal of a minimalist glass tower, Aviva Tower is inevitably, and unfortunately, almost indistinguishable from many other minimalist glass towers.

Sandwiched between the weird and wonderful protrusions of the City’s eastern cluster, and now overshadowed by Richard Rogers' Leadenhall Building (aka the Cheesegrater), this slick sixties skyscraper is much admired by the architectural profession for its structural sophistication and aesthetic simplicity. The twenty-eight storey cuboid is perhaps one of the best examples of the so-called ‘International Style’ of architecture, pioneered by German-American Modernist Mies van der Rohe in the first half of the twentieth century. Originally home to Commercial Union, since merged with other insurance companies to form Aviva, it was designed as one of a pair of similar structures. Its 10-storey counterpart, the P&O Building, was demolished in 2007 to make way for Rogers’ glass wedge, but once provided a visual contrast in its horizontal emphasis. The recent changes to the site have been much criticised as the complex is viewed by many as worthy of heritage listing, a status the remaining tower is unlikely to achieve due to its recladding following the extensive bomb damage caused in the IRA attacks in 1992.

Beneath the stark simplicity of its glass curtain wall and slender mullions, the tower is structurally innovative. Its floor plates hang on steel rods suspended off trusses that project from the reinforced concrete core within the double height plant rooms, both at the top of the building and at mid-height, enabling each office floor to be free of columns. This is particularly evident at ground level where a large open glazed foyer, stepped back from the perimeter of the building, houses giant escalators, modern sculpture and Barcelona Chairs. The ground floor was instated as the main entrance following RHWL’s reworking of the building in the nineties in which the first floor ‘pedway’ system (the City’s unsuccessful and largely unrealised post-war attempt at ‘streets in the sky’) and entry point were removed. The building stands in a large open square, part of the original design and a welcome intervention in the dense street pattern of the Square Mile. 

Best time to visit: the building is inaccessible to the public but the large piazza in front is open to all and an excellent viewing spot for some of the City’s most striking buildings.

Address: 1 Undershaft, London EC3P 3DQ.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

All Saints, Margaret Street



Architect: William Butterfield, 1849-59


A hugely influential design that provided the template for many High Victorian Neo-Gothic urban churches.


Butterfield's work at All Saints transformed an awkward site into an experiential tour-de-force, making the church one of the most impressive exercises in the use of space and decoration in all of London. Nestled in a congested block, only the polychrome tower punctures the skyline to mark the presence of the Anglo-Catholic parish. Nothing about Butterfield's scheme was typical for the time: red brick had previously been considered a lowly and antiquated material, the site left no room to follow traditional spatial rules for the layout of a church, and the High Victorian Gothic style was in its infancy. Nonetheless, Butterfield confidently designed the building with complex Tudor-patterned  brickwork, breaking away from prevailing popular taste to create a rich, eclectic mix of elements and materials that did not just revive the Gothic but rather reinvented it in the Victorian Age.

Sacrificing space to a courtyard in such a limited site may seem an odd decision, however the area created an all-important threshold for the church and allowed more natural light to permeate the cramped south elevation. Walking through the church's corner entry door, visitors are met with the tiny chancel and sideways nave that comprise the explosively decorative interior of Butterfield’s pioneering creation. Today the Gothic Revival is easily associated with grim moralising, but Butterfield’s colourful design, reflecting the ideas of John Ruskin, was intended as a celebration of life and creativity.

Best time to visit: open Monday-Saturday 7:30am-6pm with various weekday and Sunday services

Address: 7 Margaret Street, London W1W 8JG



Friday, 3 May 2013

Albert Memorial



Architect: George Gilbert Scott, 1863-72


The national memorial to Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, intended to represent that he had the virtues of a saint.



Most public statues honour heroic individuals, however the Albert Memorial commemorates someone better noted for his ordinariness. Unlike the two previous monarchs, Queen Victoria’s consort was not a womanising dissolute, but a family man who also gave much time to good causes. No doubt he would have been embarrassed by the degree of public grief that followed his untimely death aged 42 in 1861. Souvenir tributes sold in huge numbers, at least 25 public statues were erected, and countless hospitals, halls, museums, bridges and clock towers. However, at Kensington, Scott set out to eclipse them all in terms of “preciousness.”


In keeping with Albert’s reputation for Germanic plain-speaking, the memorial adopted a remarkably literal use of allegory, and its unveiling was accompanied by a large folio detailing the symbolism. The architectural form was based on a medieval altar canopy, surmounted by a spire in the form of an Eleanor Cross. Thirteen of these latter monuments had been erected in 1290 by Edward I to commemorate his deceased queen Eleanor, and parallels were intended between this famously devoted couple and Victoria and Albert. Scott’s “vast shrine” was emblazoned with semi-precious stones and glass mosaics by the Venetian firm Salviati, and supported figures representing the four Christian virtues and four moral virtues. The gilded prince is seated (he’d be 19 feet tall standing) holding the catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition, the patronage of which was considered his greatest public achievement, and facing Albertopolis, the complex of educational and cultural institutions originally financed by the profits from the venture. At the structure’s corners are representations of the exhibition’s divisions (Arts, Commerce, Manufacturing and Engineering), and further out, depictions of the four continents that contributed exhibits.

The frieze around the plinth, depicting the greats of painting, poetry, architecture and music, makes interesting viewing today. Several artists are now virtually unknown, while there are equally surprising omissions. Scott chose for himself “an unobtrusive position behind Pugin (theorist of the Gothic Revival and decorator of the Houses of Parliament)…  to appear as his disciple.”

Best time to visit: the memorial can always be visited during daylight hours.

Address: South Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, London SW7 2AP.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Admiralty Arch


Architect: Aston Webb, 1906-11


The principal national memorial to Queen Victoria, and ceremonial gateway to the processional Mall, which also pragmatically provided additional government office space.

A bold and monumental gateway to the Mall, Aston Webb’s Admiralty Arch is a statement of Edwardian confidence and posthumous monument to Queen Victoria commissioned by her son, Edward VII. Designed as a component in Webb’s masterplan for the Mall, the grand Portland stone edifice was just one of the many imperially-minded grand urban projects executed during this period, such as Webb’s Monument to Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, and the large-scale redevelopment of Holborn. Originally home to members of the upper echelons of the Royal Navy, the Arch was both gateway and governmental building, a hybrid form articulated by the use of giant order Corinthian columns separating three arches at the centre and more tightly spaced fenestration on the flanking arms.

Composed of two back-to-back concave facades (on passing through the arch, the anticipated convex front fails to materialise) attached to large flanking blocks, the structure gracefully handles an awkward plot, successfully resolving the entrance to Trafalgar Square and the connection between the Mall and the Strand – the Royal route between the Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. Adorned with exaggerated Neo-Baroque motifs such as heavy rustication and rich sculpture, with pedimented elevations boldly concluding each arm in the manner of Bernini, the Arch is surmounted by a heavy attic storey and Latin dedication to Queen Victoria, the nation’s figurehead of imperial strength.

Recently vacated by the Cabinet Office the building has been acquired by Prime Investors Capital for conversion into a luxury 100-bedroom hotel by Blair Associates architects.

Best time to visit: the interior of the Arch is not open to the public.

Address: The Mall, London SW1A 2WH.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Royal Society of Arts and the Adelphi


Architects: Adam Brothers, 1768-74


Surviving fragments of the Adam Brothers’ ambitious, but ultimately failed, speculative housing and warehouse development along the Thames.

The Victorian renovation of the Embankment has ensured that little remains of the Adelphi, once one of the most prominent architectural ranges on the banks of the Thames. Conceived by Robert, John and James Adam,  the Adelphi was a speculative venture that reaped success and failure in equal measure. Success was in the creation of a new residential idiom for London, building 24 high quality homes above rentable warehouse space, in a stately yet domestic Palladian style that had never been seen before in the capital. Failure was predominantly a financial affair. After going to great lengths to buy the land and river banks from the city (a matter of great controversy, worsened by the fact that the riverside warehouses repeatedly flooded), the brothers ran into cash-flow problems, had to lay off over 3,000 workers, and eventually resorted to a lottery to raise the funds to complete the scheme – a measure that damaged their reputation in London.


Covering around 3.5 acres of land, the original scheme contained several blocks of houses behind the riverfront showpiece, Adelphi Terrace, that surmounted the arcaded warehouses opening onto the Thames. These latter dank ‘Adelphi Arches’ were notorious in Dickens’ London for sheltering the destitute, and a tunnel leading into them can still be seen in Lower Robert Street. The creation of the Embankment in the nineteenth century altered the complex massively and the central block was entirely demolished in 1936. Today, houses survive in Adam, Robert and John Adam Street (so named after the architects – ‘Adelphi’ is the Greek word for brothers), the most prominent of which is undoubtedly the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The style of the latter is more temple-like than the domestic residences, probably on account of its institutional nature, with the main façade comprising three bays with masonry features such as fluted Ionic columns, a variant of the Venetian window above and with palmette or ‘anthemion’ detailing. The frieze is interrupted by the words ‘Arts and Commerce Promoted’, referring to the Society’s original name when it was founded in 1754 as The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Much of the interior has been altered or restored but some rooms display characteristic mouldings and ceilings, such as the entrance hall and great room.



Best time to visit: to see some of the remaining interiors, attend a talk at the RSA (the institution is generally closed to the public at other times).

Address: 8 John Adam St, London WC2N 6EZ, and surrounding streets.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Adelaide House


Architects: John J. Burnet and Thomas Smith Tait, 1921-5


Steel-framed office building by one of the pioneers in Britain of American Modernism, prominently situated alongside London Bridge.

At 148ft (45m), Adelaide House was the tallest commercial structure in London at the time of building, and perhaps one of the most forward-looking in its steel-framed proto-Modern design. Conceived by Scottish architect Sir John James Burnet (whose training at the École des Beaux-Arts led him to produce a plethora of Neo-Baroque buildings in Glasgow) and his partner Thomas Smith Tait, the emphasis on verticality and flatness echoes that of the contemporary Chicago modernists, probably a result of Burnet’s visits to America in the early 1900s.



Standing opposite Henry Roberts’ Greek Revival headquarters for the Fishmongers Livery Company (1831-4), the lack of classical detailing is acute. The large overhanging cornice, whilst reminiscent of the works of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is distinctly Egyptian, a theme that pervades the entire building. Prior to the commission, Burnet sent Tait to Port Tewfik to look at Egyptian architecture, in anticipation of its popularity due to recent archaeological discoveries.



The building is characterised by regular, tightly set mullions that emphasise its height, punctuated by star motifs and fenestration. The heavy-set cornice exaggerates the weight of the building, stopping short of the corners as if to allow the structural cube to emerge above and behind the three main facades. The use of thick black columns (perhaps the only reference to Greek classicism) at the entrance, and darker stone at the lower levels, reinforce this geometric heft. With central ventilation (an early form of air conditioning), an internal post system and a miniature golf course on its roof, the interior world of this Portland stone edifice couldn’t be further removed from the ancient rituals of the institution of the same material, opposite.

Best time to visit: interior not accessible to the general public.

Address: London Bridge, London EC4R 9HA