Monday, February 25, 2008

Home Counties/Low Countries

Brick, for me, always stands in for things of which I disapprove, in much the same way as ‘concrete’ does for (many, many) others. It irritates me immensely when a material so plastic, so tactile, so varied as concrete is dismissed simply because it gets a bit soggy in the rain. Brick, though, as the de facto material of most (at least residential) building always seems unbelievably prosaic, leaden, a material to use when you aren’t really interested in ‘materials’. Actually, it’s even worse when the builder decides to do something a bit fancy with it, hence those Cotswoldy worn and scuffed yellow bricks used often, for some reason, for Halls of Residence. Brick, like crap Beer, seems the material of all that is drably lumpen and underambitious in Britain.

Obviously, this is complete nonsense. Anyway, in Amsterdam a couple of months ago I spent lots of time (usually while getting lost attempting to find a Chinese) admiring the intricacy and geometric beauty of mundane brickwork, and the different kinds of bricks – intense reds, browns, all in precise little slots rather than stocky lumps. This is probably a legacy of the Amsterdam school, the Socialist-Expressionist architects who remodelled the city in the 1910s and 20s, and buildings designed in what were no doubt second-rate imitations of their style are all over the place. Theirs was used by Reyner Banham as one of those alternative Modernisms that didn’t quite come off – where ornament wasn’t crime, where new forms weren’t allied with technocracy. They’re lovely, inspiring buildings, and even the lesser knock-offs are charming – such as the former Pathological Anatomical Laboratory, where I spoke (my reason for being there is reviewed here), a little engineering school whose bricks inspired this particular morphing of a Tecton kiosk.

There’s a book worth writing on the permeation of this kind of low-key, low-countries Modern into Britain as the less scary version of continental Kulturbolshewismus, as pithead baths, cricket pavilions, the odd public loo. Dudok’s remaking of stylistic antipodes De Stijl and the Amsterdam School into an aesthetic acceptable in Hendon was always more favoured than Sachlichkeit’s severity. There's more attempts to Anglicise Dutch Modernism than there are for the purer equivalents, and sometimes this leads to a deceptive familiarity. For the last 5 years I’ve lived in the vicinity of the 1938 Greenwich Town Hall, a beautiful example of this lost style – naturally, I signed on there for a couple of months. It’s an asymmetrical, reddish-brick thing, in a corner of the borough’s nice bit, ignoring the Georgiana without making a fuss, rising to a tower that would once have been the tallest thing in the area by some measure. At the top of the tower is a razor-cut window, presumably with a public observation post inside, although I doubt anyone observes from there anymore. Like any good civic monument it now houses all manner of wrongness, from a dance school to MBA courses to Alpha god-botherers; but the clock-tower is one of the least-sung, but most important kinds of building – something you see day in day out without really thinking too much about it, then gradually realise is an extraordinary little work of art.


Anonymous Steve said...

The tower at Greenwich is indeed a lovely little work of art.

The observation post is certainly off limits, The Greenwich Phantom blog has been looking into this lately and hit a dead-end, which a real shame as I bet the view is amazing.

Oh, and while dance schools do bring horror to my face, the one based there is pretty good and inclusive - plus they have awesome 40s style tea dances there, which are completely non-ironic and have the pensioners of South-East London strutting their stuff. is not all legwarmers and interpretative dance there.

2:58 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Wow! There's nowhere i'd rather go to a teadance. I shall look that up, cheers.

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