Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Architectural Oddity in Victoria

I was working at the Home Office last Friday and today which meant a very pleasant stroll through Victoria from the eponymous rail station to Marsham Street. I thought I'd take you along with me. First off, we wander down Artillery Row and the gloriously art deco Artillery House, designed by Maurice Webb in 1930. It's a huge building that basically occupies one whole side of the street and houses lots of offices and shops. I love the sculpted font in the arch over the door and the tiny stone cannons.

Walk down through Greycoat Place and we pass the Greycoat Hospital girls school. Founded in 1698, it was originally a day school for 50 boys. In 1701, the Governors bought an old workhouse from Westminster Abbey to establish a boarding school. From that year it was also a mixed school, with both boys and girls attending. The founders' aim was to provide the poor of the parish with an education, so that they could become 'loyal citizens, useful workers and solid Christians'. From 1785, 60 boys and 30 girls were admitted. In 1874 it was changed to a girls' school under church management. The school hit the news in December 2008 when it suspended 29 students for joining an open Facebook group known as 'The Hate Society', which focussed its vitriol and abuse towards a member of school staff. Past pupils are called Old Greys.

This is Strutton Ground, a cobbled and bustling street market that runs between Greycoat Place and Victoria Street. The shops are mostly restaurants and book shops - my favourite combination.

Turning into Great Peter Street, we come to tall banks of flats and apartments with names like Perkins Rents and Elizabeth Court. Many bear plaques declaring them to be part of the Peabody Trust. The first blocks were designed by Henry Darbishire as social housing in 1841 but by the 1870s there were 30 providers of these 'model dwellings'. These were eventually sold to the Peabody Trust. George Peabody, an American whose work brought him to London, gave £½ million towards social housing . Meanwhile Sir Sydney Waterlow, stationer and MP, founded the Improved Industrial Dwelling Corporation which built the Coburg buildings in Greencoat Place in 1875. One of the old courts which were once numerous in the area remains opposite this. A gate leads into a courtyard surrounded by dwellings. The curious small blue door was once where coal was delivered.

And talking of coal, just a little further down Great Peter Street, we come to the back of the Home Office building and the site of the old Gas Light and Coke Company. Production ceased in 1875, the gasholders were demolished in 1937 and the site closed completely in 1948. The substructures of the gasholders remained under the building, later occupied by the Department of the Environment, as part of the wartime Whitehall defence system.

Opposite this is the odd little Church of St Matthew. Well, actually, it's not so little. Built in 1849-51 to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott with a Lady Chapel by Ninian Comper, the church was badly damaged by fire in 1977 but was re-built on a smaller scale in 1982-4. Curiously, some of the lost exterior has been replaced by modern developments flanking both sides of the church, so that only the entrance is visible in Great Peter Street with another part of the building emerging in a side street. Despite the tiny outward appearance, inside it is TARDIS-like; bigger than the outside. As you walk inside it opens up into a large and beautiful interior with dazzling gold leaf reredos and high altar. I love it. And I'm an atheist.

Now we come to the Home Office building itself in Marsham Street which, if I'm honest, I think is hideous. Designed by Sir Terry Farrell and Partners and built between 2000 and 2005, it replaced the old building in Queen Annes Gate. It's very modern inside, with high ceilings and open plan floors with oddly organic pods in which to hold meetings. But it's the outside - particularly all of the coloured glass that I dislike. I just find it garish, particularly when surrounded by some wonderful buildings - old and new.

So, meeting over, I headed back towards Victoria Station, passing first by the Channel 4 Building (one of the UK's main TV broadcasters - you might just spot the subtle '4' motif in cast iron) in Horseferry Road. Designed and built by the Sir Richard Rogers partnership between 1991-1994 it has a strange angular look to it ... but it really works. There are two four-storey wings which contain mainly office space and these arranged in an L shape to fit the plot. You walk into the building - a huge concave glazed wall - by walking over a glass bridge spanning a roof-light to an underground studio below. Despite the small site, it also has a garden and rooftop terrace.
The Channel 4 building is sandwiched between more of those social housing blocks I mentioned earlier. I love the sharp contrast between the cutting-edge glass and steel and the dour red brick; between the popstar glitz and the balconies full of old mattresses and pots of dead flowers.

The final part of my walk took me back along Howick Place where we have everything from modernist office blooks, sweeping wave-like glass and steel shopping centres and 1960's concrete tower blocks.

This view is from the plaza in front of Westminster Cathedral. Turn around 180 degrees and this is the view you get.

Westminster Cathedral is nowhere near as well known as nearby Westminster Abbey. But that's because, firstly, the abbey is in picturesque Parliament Square right next to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben while the cathedral is down a side road off Victoria Street. Secondly, the cathedral is Catholic and we stopped being a Catholic country - to any great degree - back in the days of Henry VIII. Thirdly, it is very very ugly. It is everything that Rome and Florence isn't. Imagine what St Peter's Square would look like in red brick. It's extraordinary, huge, monstrous and imposing with many fine features but, overall, the cathedral is not a thing of beauty. It is a monumentally ghastly Byzantine monstrosity. Howeer, inside, it is glorious by comparison with a richness of colour and gilding probably unmatched in the UK. It's a comparatively modern cathedral - the foundation stone was laid in 1895 and the fabric of the building was completed eight years later. Amazingly though, the interior is still unfinished. Meanwhile, I was delighted to read on the official website that 'The Cathedral site was originally known as Bulinga Fen and formed part of the marsh around Westminster. It was reclaimed by the Benedictine monks who were the builders and owners of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently used as a market and fairground. After the reformation the land was used in turn as a maze, a pleasure garden and as a ring for bull-baiting but it remained largely waste ground.' A maze. Bull-baiting. And a marsh! All within five minutes walk of the nearest McDonalds.

Finally, we arrive back at Victoria itself and the lovely Victoria Palace Theatre and adjacent buildings. It's always nice to get a bit of Spring sunshine as it shows off the architecture so nicely against the blue sky. Sadly, the earlier photos were a bit dull but these last few were a lot sharper and brighter.

With so much Victorian architecture to enjoy, the area is well-named. More walks soon. x


Planet Me said...

you should've seen the old HO HQ where I worked a decade ago... it looked like an 13 storey SS bunker.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Was that the one in Croydon or the old building in Queen Annes Gate? I've been to both. And yes, they were unremitingly horrible.

Sent by mobile device.

Anonymous said...

I loved visiting st Matthews, it does have the Tardis type quality.

punk in writing said...

Looks like a lovely day. There's so much history and architecture to be found in London. :)

Over here we've still got snow... No sign of spring yet.

Anonymous said...

GREAT blog, you re
obviously one hot blogger
great pics too.... but

why don t the pics click
to bigger versions ?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Silverstar - Thank you. You're very kind. As for the pictures ... I have no idea. Sometimes they are clickable, sometimes not. I must try to figure out why.