Thursday, 1 August 2013

At Golden Lane: old wine in new bottles

The postwar Golden Lane Estate, on the northern edge of the City of London, is more lovable and more human than its later and bigger cousin at the Barbican (though both are good, with plenty to inspire those designing high density housing today).

Golden Lane has also been been more extensively customised (before listing put a stop to all that at both estates), most notably in the case of the Shakespeare pub - originally a modern design admired by Ian Nairn, but now with an Olde England pubbe makeover, complete with retro joinery mouldings, repro carriage lamps and twiddly typography on the fascia (the big sans serif lettering on the white wall on the right looks original).

It's hardly surprising, of course - the modernist pub, as opposed to bar, is an oddity that has never found much favour.  A rather fine postwar example in St John's Wood, the Rossetti, on the corner of Queens Grove and Ordnance Hill, with open plan split level bars, did flourish - it was knocked down and replaced by as banal a neo-Geo housing block as Westminster City Council have ever approved, which is going some.

Across town, at the 1950s Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico - which should also be on the study tour - the architects spared a Victorian pub from demolition and put up modern slab blocks around it: securing the pub's long term future, rather than 'harming its setting' as might be claimed if you tried the same thing today; adding to the richness of the townscape; and avoiding the problem of how to design a modern pub.

As with the half-timbered neo-Tudor bar fit-outs that you can find inside modern air terminals at Heathrow and Gatwick, there's something faintly disturbing about the kind of 'old in new' conjunction found at the Shakespeare.  Frank Duffy's formulation of 'Shell, Services, Scenery and Set' explained how buildings and bits of buildings are replaced on progressively shorter cycles (for offices, perhaps 50, 15, 5 years, and a few weeks or months respectively).  When you find the 'Shell' of a 500 year old crumbling stone building in the centre of Rome fitted out with a crisp and shiny new shopfront with bronze glazing bars ('Scenery'), that seems like the natural order of things, and you're relieved that Roman Heritage or whoever deals with such matters hasn't insisted on timber stall risers and bolection mouldings - as they might have done in some places I can think of.  Modern interventions in old buildings brought out and bring out the best in some architects. Carlo Scarpa was better when intervening in something interesting that was there already than when starting from scratch; similarly Haworth Tomkins are an example of present-day London architects who do their best work in existing buildings (putting them in the same sentence as Scarpa should prevent this observation being read as criticism).  The Shakespeare's fit out did not bring out the best in anyone.

But cheer up - a few doors up from the Shakespeare in Goswell Road you can find original Golden Lane shopfronts with original typography, still looking good (and with the original three-letter phone code too).

Like many architects, probably, I find myself conflicted between the instinct that a visually well-ordered world is better than the alternative, and the feeling that there's a limit to how much you can hope to, or should, exert control on aesthetic grounds on what happens in the environment  (see the entire UK planning system passim).  Corbusier's Frugรจs housing at Pessac was good when it looked coherent; so, for different reasons, was the pimped-up people's Pessac that followed.  If (as I suspect from a Streetview inspection) architect-y types are moving in there and trying to restore it to its original state, then perhaps a free market in coherence can exist after all - although the Second Law of Thermodynamics suggests this is unlikely to happen to any great extent.

The issues are made clearer by considering Duffy's formulation.  Shells should be controlled; Sets (the flowers and sandwich board in the picture above, for example) obviously shouldn't be (though I think they may be in Singapore). The Shakespeare's Scenery - old wine in new bottles - is in the contentious zone between the two.

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