25 September 2012

Chas Baker of Seven Sisters Road, North London

One of my birthday presents this year was a sweet little book given to me by Peter Berthoud called the A-B-C Guide To London. It's a modern reprint of a handbook put together in 1905 listing all sorts of places in London at that time, including some informative maps great illustrations.
The book was actually a piece of very clever marketing material made by a company called Chas Baker & Co Stores Ltd. Almost every other page has a reference to the nearest branch. And at the back there are pages of ads showing the kind of clothes and accessories one could buy at their emporiums.
Their main shops were at High Holborn, Ludgate Hill, Tottenham Court Road and Edgware Road, with a North London branch at 5, 6 & 7 Seven Sisters [Holloway, N7]. Illustrations of the shops are included in the book.
Most of the Holloway building is still there as you can see in my comparison photos, below. The street level and first floor now look nothing like they used to a century ago, but the upper floors are still basically the same. I am a bit confused how the 1905 drawing shows only three windows with pointy bits above them on the third floor, yet today you can see that there are matching ones to the right, but not on the part of the building that used to be the shop! Artistic licence or a matching extension?
I feel the urge to go and take photos of the other four locations now...

21 September 2012

Art At the Mills, Open House Weekend & The Brunel Museum

This weekend three things come together in one place.
Art at the Mills is putting on an arts and crafts market at The Brunel Museum this Sat 22nd and Sun 23rd September coinciding with Open House Weekend.
The museum is jam-packed with info about the great IKB and his fantastic achievements. This weekend, in addition to the regular exhibits more events will available including an apothecary with cocktails, sculpture and sound installations, plus the tunnel will be floodlit.
After your visit enjoy a pint in the nearby The Mayflower pub – the "oldest pub on the River Thames"... check out the deck at the back that overhangs the river.
The whole area of Rotherhithe is steeped in history and interesting facts and I am sure I read somewhere that Rotherhithe Street is the longest continuous road in London.
I will have a stall at the market on Sunday, so I hope to see you there.
Rotherhithe

18 September 2012

City of Glass

I recently posted about The Developing City; an excellent exhibition about the changing architecture in the City of London.
It was split into three sections; the past, present and future. The earlier panels were full of great info and wonderful photos of the City in past centuries. It was interesting to see and mentally compare the changes over time. I was especially intrigued by Cheapside, which has always been a shopping street. However, in the past it was lined with one-off shops selling all kinds of things, but of late it's become just another bland road plate glass shops selling coffee, clothes and phones. The church of St Mary-Le-Bow now looks squashed, out of place and off-scale compared to the buildings either side of it.
London, you see, is being over-run by plate glass.
Old buildings are being torn down and replaced with HUGE glass monstrosities that, despite their shapes and silly 'friendly' names, all end up looking the same. They are, in my view, just glass towers squidged and skewed into strange shapes; vertical glasshouses with no detailing or interesting features except they can reflect a grey London sky or a better better building.
Our wonderful City is going to end up looking all new and shiny and bland like Dubai.
In a few instances listed London fa├žades have been retained; their insides have been gutted and replaced with modern offices, walkways and glass atriums. Or extensions have been added that resemble lean-tos or green houses. Perhaps the powers that be are considering growing tomatoes and runner beans in these places if one day all the computers crash? I am now also gutted, but for a different reason – that although I do like the renovated space inside Unilever House, I didn't see it prior to its re-fit.
Back to the exhib... The 'present' section showed a collection of 80 images that they called 'the best new buildings and public spaces built in the City since 1985'. Looking at these images I could only make out a few structures that were not predominately glass, including The Millennium Bridge and terracotta-clad building in Bishops Square, Spitalfields. The plans for the immediate future show the horrible intensity of tall glass buildings that will be going up during the next decade.
The last part of the exhibition showed some visions of the future that makes it look like the Thames will become some kind of water garden for Teletubbies. Another similar idea for Smithfield had to be seen to be believed.
I cannot be alone with my concerns. One only has to see the queues on Open House Weekend for all the old and preserved buildings such as The Livery Halls, churches and old banking rooms, to understand that a lot of us appreciate intricate mosaics, and hand-carved stone and wood.
Looking forward, I do not see a logical reason to build (any more of) these biggest/tallest/pointiest 'iconic' structures (for iconic, read 'bullying'). They can't simply be show-off statement pieces – there must be more to it.
It can't be that London has a dearth of office space because you only have to look up to the empty top floors around, for instance, Oxford Street and Piccadilly, or wander the streets behind Broadgate).  So, I conclude that there must a financial gain to be made constructing big glass show-off towers.
I rather suspect that a huge tax dodge, or similar, can be achieved by off-setting building costs against profits. Or something. After all these big shiny things aren't cheap you know.
Or perhaps, in addition to growing those vegetables, these megabucks businesses are just trying to keep window cleaners in employment?
The pics in the montage above come from my 'Ugly Beautiful' folder on Flickr. Here's a similar, but shorter post from three years ago on the same subject.

A happy coincidence: 
I wrote most of the above yesterday, intending to rewrite bits of it today. Last night, I sat down to watch the 4th in the series of 'The Shock of The New', a series of programmes made in 1980 by the erudite and much-missed Robert Hughes
This episode, entitled 'Trouble in Utopia', was about modern architecture. Robert put forward his views about the idealist attempts to turn major cities, that have endured centuries of history including World wars, into minimalist Utopias, devoid of life or stimulation. He pointed out that the "inhuman" and "absurd" towers of glass just didn't work; that "nothing dates quicker than people's visions of the future". He showed that by the 80s areas of Brasilia, built in the early 60s, were already falling to pieces. Chandigarh too, Le Corbusier's personal vision of Utopia in India, commissioned by Nehru to reflect the nation's modern, progressive outlook, was also a shadow of its former self
He also pointed out that none of the modern buildings of the 80s displayed any kind of ornamentation comparable to Chicago's Sullivan building, an early example of high-rise steel construction. (They still don't... they are just plain unadorned plate glass.)
He (wrongly) concluded the episode by predicting the death of the Utopian style of architecture, saying it just doesn't work. I'd love to have heard what he thinks of London now, and the plans for its future.
See the programme here.
In conclusion, I think many architects such as, for example, Le Corbusier and Renzo Piano, may occasionally have some brilliant ideas, but are unable to see further than their own noses. These bullying, narrow-minded, control freaks are being allowed (commissioned by sychophants?) to alter our cities too drastically, and too quickly. 
Stop, stop stop. Or at least, just slow down.
There! I've said it!

14 September 2012

The Athletes' Parade

As an London Ambassador I got a ticket to The Mall on Monday for the Athletes' Parade.
I was a rebel and wore civvies, but there were plenty of other people there looking colourful in their volunteering outfits so, conversely, I actually looked quite conspicuous! 
See some of these pics and more at larger size here.

12 September 2012

Cally Festival, Sunday 16th September

Another bit of self promotion, but also a good excuse to put some pics on here of a neglected, and now misunderstood and much-maligned, area of north London.
Starting at Kings Cross, Caledonian Road runs due north for over a mile (I must check that!) all the way to Holloway. In the past the street was well-used by cattle-drovers taking their stock to market in the area that is now Caledonian Park. The park/market area was originally just a stop-over for the herds on their way to Smithfield Market. And in later years there was a thriving antiques and bric-a-brac market there. Only the clocktower, and the shells of former pubs are left these days to hint at the history.
The Cally is a real mix – on the east side there's the Thornhill and Barnsbury Estates with their carefully-designed terraces and managed squares and gardens, including a road once lived in by a recent PM, then on the western side council estates were erected thus creating a real mix of cultures; a "them and us" situation – almost a Regent Street 'divide' of the north. A recent BBC programme about the road only glanced upon the diverse history and, in my view, spent too much time talking about the current dodgy landlords and prostitutes at the KX end.
I travel up and down the Cally almost every week spotting old bits of history here and there and some of my observations are shown below.
But to the point... this Sunday the whole area is coming together for the Cally Festival – a pop-up street celebration of the area's diverse offerings, which will include art, craft, music, dance and more.
The stretch of the road between Offord and Bridgeman Roads will be closed to traffic for the day and, judging by last year, it should be good... I hope to see you there... come and find me at my Amelia Parker stall.

7 September 2012

'Williams Homemade Pie & Eel Shop' sign is finally revealed again on Holloway Road

I have had my eye on this particular shop sign for years...
Though it's not Edwardian, gold leaf or 3D it's still hand-painted and well worth preserving as a reminder of a more recent age when pie and eel shops could be found all over London. Only a few of these establishments are still open these days.
A while back I reported that many old shop signs along the Holloway Road are being preserved as shopkeepers/owners are being encouraged to keep hold of any signage they might find when renovating. Sadly a couple of signs in the area that did make brief appearances (see here and here) did not stay visible for long and I hope they not have just been painted over, or filled in as happened to a relief sign in Finsbury Park.
A few years ago a clever protective etched perspex/glass sign (above left) was put across the 'Williams Homemade Pie & Eel Shop' sign such that during the day the modern sign was visible with lights and in the evening the old lettering could still be seen when the shop was closed. Very clever and similar to the sign at No. 109.
Last year all of this was covered up completely when two subsequent companies moved in and just pasted their company names straight over the top.
Then some of it became visible (above middle), and finally, last week (above right) I noticed that Miss Desire had finally peeled off her layers and revealed the red underneath. As you can see the clear protective plate has now also been removed.
I will keep an eye on it and see what transpires.

This parade in which Williams sits has always been of interest to me. It's one of the oldest stretches in Holloway Road and I used to be fascinated and amused how it colourful and multi-cultural these buildings had become over time.
Then in 2009 (middle pic above) the scaffolding went up and some idiot saw fit to sand blast the No.211-3. As you can see from the right hand image the bricks are now looking way too new, having had their outer coatings removed by heavy-handed cleaning, and dodgy patches of un-matched pointing can be seen between the courses. I think the faded colours looked OK as they were. This clean up job makes it look like a pastiche of buildings further up the street where the unpainted bricks on other buildings of this kind have taken on a nice dirty grey/brown over the years.
No.215 has also been tarted up and given a coat of magnolia paint. It looks marginally better than next door but I do miss that crazy Columbian blue and red, though for some reason the yellow at the top has been retained.
See here for comparisons of the old and new:

5 September 2012

The Mayor's Thames Festival 2012

It's that time of year again... 
This weekend September 8th and 9th will be chock full of wonderful events all happening on, in and around the River Thames. For the full programme listing see here.
I will be there again selling "probably the most Thames-related products.."(!). Find me in the We Make London zone between The Oxo Tower and Gabriel's Wharf.
It's great doing a stall at such a vibrant event but it means I miss out on seeing the wonderful night carnival and what I think is the best firework display of the whole year – it's always blinking good and bright and noisy!
This year the carnival (starting at dusk from the north side of Blackfriars Bridge) will be led by a six metre Lady Godiva puppet wearing a Zandra Rhodes dress (eh? not naked?!). 
Godiva will be arriving in London after a journey from Coventry via Rugby animated by a team of five puppeteers.  
For those of you who had planned to stay in and watch the Paralympic closing ceremony, I suggest you record it or catch up with it on replay... much better to come down to the Thames for some great live entertainment.