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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: London 6: Public Buildings

It's hard to escape ghosts in London, but we turn here toward buildings built for practical purposes by or for government.

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The Tower of London was fortified with two walls in the 13th century--one by Henry III and one by Edward I. The moat, now in benign grass, was to be flooded by the Thames. And is that the whole story? Sorry, but this place, like so many others, got a Victorian makeover. As Ian Nairn writes, "the chance of a memorable place to look at was lost with preposterous mock-medieval outer walls of the 1840s... every bit as silly as Windsor and far less fun: all subsequent repairs have accentuated the stage-set or comic-opera character" (Nairn's London, 1966, p. 35).

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The site, in the southeast corner of Londinium Augusta, was used by the Romans as a barracks. It was chosen again by William the Conquerer, shortly after his victory in 1066 over Harold II. Did William have in mind a fortress against foreign invasion, say by the Danes? More likely he intended to build a refuge from a periodically enraged British populace. By the way, the last king to actually live here, even part-time, was Henry VIII.

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The central structure is the White Tower, originally built of limestone imported from Caen, across the Channel. (That word "originally" must make you wonder what's coming. But you know, approximately. Nairn writes that the tower was "heartlessly made over with yellow instead of white stone." It doesn't look so yellow here, but it certainly isn't white, either.) The tower was last used as a fortress when it briefly held Rudolf Hess. For most of the last century, it's been a tourist attraction. Half a million traipsed through in 1900; now the figure is five times that.

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Ambassadors to the United Kingdom are accredited to the Court of St. James, which is a little puzzling since they actually present their credentials to the monarch at Buckingham Palace. There really is a St. James Palace, however, just at the northern edge of St. James Park. (Will wonders never cease.) The palace is the official residence of the sovereign, though only members of the family have lived here since Victoria. The gatehouse seen here was built for Henry VIII in the 1530s; the ogee cupola was added about 1700; the clock, in the 1830s.

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St. James Park, on the other side of the palace, is a reminder that Henry VIII loved hunting. Is the lake natural? Negative: it was created about 1730, during the reign of George II.

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And Buckingham Palace? It began as a country house for the Duke of Buckingham. In 1762 George III bought it for Queen Charlotte. It was a different place then. George III hired John Nash to gussy it up. Nash worked for five years before being dismissed for excessive spending and probable corruption. That left the East Face, shown here, to be finished in 1837 by Edward Blore. What we see today, however, is the result of a still-later revision, hurriedly designed and executed by Aston Webb in 1913 to mark the coronation of George V. That's when the three Greek Temples made their appearance.

Americans, ferociously democratic in their political principles, prove oddly reverential when they get here, more so than the British themselves, who have the advantage of having observed the class system closely enough to know sentimental twaddle when they see it. What, then, do the architectural critics make of the shrine? "Insipid," says Pevsner (6:645). "Feeble and run-of-the-mill pastiche," say Jones and Woodward (A Guide to the Architecture of London, 1983, p. 216). "Elegant but insufficiently strong," says Alistair Service (London 1900, 1979, p. 243).

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Other sides of the palace suggest an earlier, simpler appearance. But think how gratifying it is that even the Windsors have a cluttered garage. Makes my day.

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We're still hanging around St. James Park. Here, to the east of St. James Palace, is the 31-bay Carlton House Terrace, built about 1830. It's one of two designed by the same Nash who had so much trouble at Buckingham Palace. The Doric columns are an early example of cast iron in disguise, but Pevsner doesn't mind. He writes that "the group is conceived on a remarkably large scale, and the ranges may rank as the greatest terrace houses ever built in Britain" (6:440) Today much of the block seen here houses the Royal Society; notoreity attaches to the block at the very end, which was the German embassy in the early 1930s and was altered by none other than Albert Speer.

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Where did government do its ministerial business? An early surviving example is Somerset House, designed by William Chambers and built to house the Exchequer, Navy, and other offices. This side, facing the Strand, was the first block to be built, about 1780. The last government office left in 2013; the building was turned over not only to the Courtauld Gallery and the Royal Society of Literature but to an artist's colony, with studio space and below-market rents for over the hundred artist. Why? The director's reply: "London likes to think it is the creative capital of the world. But if we don't nurture and celebrate our artists, how can it be." Jonathan Reekie continues, "The traditional arts centre is a shop window for culture. This is the R&D lab, the factory and the shop window rolled into one." (See Charlie McCann in The Economist 1843 Magazine, February-March, 2017.)

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In case that Strand face seems small for an organization with such ambition, here's the much grander south side, presenting to the Thames a facade more than 800 feet long, chunk after chunk like a parking lot full of fancy motor homes.

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Here's the view from the river-front Embankment.

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A more central view.

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In between the two facades, there is a very large courtyard, over 300 feet square. The fountain, of course, is entirely new, from 2000. How times have changed: allowing children to play in the water (and even skate in winter).

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The courtyard entrance to the south building.

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Not every side is dressed to kill. The outside of the west wing, hidden from the street by a parallel wing, provided residential quarters for navy commissioners. The mysterious hanging doors aren't leftovers from Robert Louis Stevenson; they were originally at ground level, but about 1870 the foundation was excavated and lower floors added to bring the building down to the level of the Embankment.

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The Houses of Parliament (technically the New Palace of Westminster) look older than Somerset House but are actually considerably younger. A fire in 1834 had destroyed the previous building, and a competition was held two years later to replace it with a building in the Gothic or Tudor Gothic style. The winning submission came from Charles Barry (age 40) and Augustus Pugin (a mere 25). Barry handled the floor plan; Pugin the ornament. Pugin has been described as "the only man alive in the 1830s who could design such Gothic detail" (Victorian Buildings of London 1837-1887, by Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery, 1980, p. 18). The two worked well together, with Pugin saying he could not have planned such a huge building and Barry saying that he did not have the necessary knowledge of Gothic ornament. The building seems to have taken its toll on both men, however. Barry died in 1860, the same year the Victoria Tower, seen here, was finished. Pugin had died eight years earlier, at age 40. He had already been confined to Bedlam--London's infamous hospital for the insane.

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Despite the medieval dress, the Yorkshire limestone is cladding on a brick building with iron joists and cast-iron roof plates. Despite the Gothic trim, too, the profile of the building is classical, which is why Pugin told a visitor, "All Grecian, Sir, Tudor details on a classic body."

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The building was heavily bombed in 1941 but was rebuilt by 1951.

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James Fergusson called this "perhaps the most successful attempt to apply Mediaeval Architecture to modern civic purposes which has yet been carried out" (Stamp and Amery, p. 21). Recent security measures go some way toward spoiling the effect.

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We've come to the Admiralty, specifically the third of three clustered Admiralty buildings. This one is Admiralty Arch, completed in 1911 as part of the processional path between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. The arches echo the triumphal arches of ancient Rome but combine that symbolism with office space for a growing navy. The architect was Aston Webb, who of course had also worked on Buckingham Palace. He wasn't pleased that the Admiralty kept insisting that he load this arch with offices. In 2011 the building was vacant and for sale.

Near the right edge, Captain Cook keeps watch with splendid posture.

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Admiralty Arch abuts the Admiralty Extension, now occupied by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The building grew in stages between 1888 and 1905, though the green domes were a later addition. Pevsner is a little hard on the "radio masts and wires like giant washing lines" (6:253).

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At the edge of the Admiralty Extension is the very plain Admiralty Building, built in 1726. It's now the Ripley Building from its designer, Thomas Ripley, although he seems to have made very short work of his task.

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We've come to the other side of Horse Guards Parade and to the home of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This massive building was designed by George Gilbert Scott and opened in 1875 for the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and India Office, each with a corner of the rectangle. The corner shown here is at the northwest, facing St. James Park and built for the India Office. The first floor quadrant room housed the office of the Secretary of State for India.

This building was a key marker in the "battle of the styles," with Scott's preferred Gothic losing to a classical style insisted upon by Palmerston, the prime minister. Scott exacted some small victories by producing an asymmetrical building with this rounded corner and a tower with granite columns. He tells the story this way: "Lord Palmerston, however, sent for me, and told me in a jaunty way that he could have nothing to do with this Gothic style, and that though he did not want to disturb my appointment, he must insist on my making a design in the Italian style, which he felt sure I could do quite as well as the other. That he heard I was so tremendously successful in the Gothic style, that if he let me alone I should Gothicize the whole country...." (Personal and Professional Recollections, 1879, p. 185).

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A near-twin opened in 1915 as New Government Offices, more recently the Treasury. It has obvious similarities to the FCO building but fewer idiosyncrasies.

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Here's the FCO building again, with unidentified heroic figures gazing down on the bronze Clive. Scott continues his story: "I was in a terrible state of mental perturbation, but I made up my mind, went straight in for Digby Wyatt's view, bought some costly books on Italian architecture, and set vigorously to work to rub up what, though I had once understood pretty intimately, I had allowed to grow rusty by twenty years' neglect.... The struggle through which I had fought the matter, step by step, was such as I should never have faced out, had I known what was before me" (p. 199-200).

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The opposing Treasure Building. The Clive statue was moved to this spot in 1916, the year after Gandhi returned to India. Clive could almost overhear the discussions about India slipping away.

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Whitehall is the street running between Parliament and Trafalgar Square. Here is the massive facade of the Treasury Building on that side.

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The portico.

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In comparison, the Whitehall face of the FCO seems low key, especially because to save money the corner towers were never built. The building does have those heroes in their niches, however. The Home Office occupied the left and center; the Colonial Office, the right.

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The battle of the styles finally reached the House of Commons, where Palmerston on July 8, 1861, said, "Sir, the battle of the books, the battle of the Big and little Endeans, and the battle of the Green Ribands and the Blue Ribands at Constantinople were all as nothing compared with this battle of the Gothic and Palladian styles. If I were called upon to give an impartial opinion as to the issue of the conflict, I should say that the Gothic has been entirely defeated." He was wrong. He had won the battle of the day, but Gothic would not die so quickly.

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Seen together, the two buildings, Treasury and FCO, don't seem so different from one another. For more on the stylistic struggle, see M.H. Port's Imperial London, 1995, and Bernard Porter's The Battle of the Styles, 2011, both illustrated.

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This building, completed in 1847, preceded both of them and was built to house the Home Office, Board of Trade, and Privy Council. If it resembles in its massing the Houses of Parliament, that might be because the architect was Charles Barry.

Today the building houses the Cabinet Office.

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Between the Cabinet Offices, here on the right, and the FCO building, twenty steps to the left, Downing Street with its Nos. 10 and 11 has fallen yet another victim of the quest for security. The bobby at the front door doesn't have much to do except pose for the TV crews.

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It's very easy to walk past all these buildings and ignore this smaller one, which is on the other side of the street. It's the Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622 as a place for court ceremonies. Pevsner, along with many others, treats it with great respect and writes: "The sobriety, the gravity, the learning of Inigo Jones must have been overwhelming by comparison" to older buildings (6:239). Pevsner goes on to characterize the building: seven bays and two storeys raised on a basement; windows generously spaced and with alternating segmental and triangular pediments; composite columns over Ionic; three middle bays projecting with attached columns instead of pilasters; coupled pilasters at the corners for emphasis; the upper capitals linked by garlands. Jones had wanted a couple of things done differently. His plan called for a pediment at the top, not the balustrade. It also called for stones of contrasting colors, not just the same-old, same-old limestone. The sash windows are 1713 replacements of the original (fixed) mullions and transoms. Still, Pevsner calls it a "dazzling building" (6:240). The appearance of two stories is an illusion: the interior is all one room, a double square measuring 55 by 110 feet and with the ceiling 55 feet above the floor.

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We've jumped to the Bank of England, safe behind John Soane's perimeter wall, a "grooved cliff of Portland stone" (1: 275). In the 1920s and 30s the Bank was subsequently enlarged (and abused, as many see it) by Herbert Baker, whose touch included the "gruesomely hipped pantile roof" (1:278). The columns in the foreground mark Tivoli Corner. They are Soane's work, to which Baker added the copper-roofed rotunda and the gilt statue of Ariel.

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"Baker's great pile dominates most of the more distant views" (1: 277).

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Wellington before the south front on Threadneedle Street, "the only place where a coherent (if domineering) relationship is achieved with Soane's perimeter wall" (1:277).

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We've walked down to the Royal Courts of Justice, where the Strand turns into Fleet Street. Pevsner says that this is "not a popular building now and perhaps never will be. Even when new it appeared somewhat out of its time" (6:312). That was in 1882 except for the clock, which was added the next year as a memorial to G.E. Street, the just-deceased architect. Street was a pupil of George Gilbert Scott, but Scott gave him no quarter on this building. "Mr Street had but a poor plan, while his architecture was unworthy of his talent, and had evidently been very much hurried...." The competition judges, Scott complains, "pitched upon Mr. Street, whose arrangements no one had ever spoken in favour of.... I at once protested," but "Mr. Street complained of my protest...." (Recollectionsp. 275).

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The main entrance and the gable of the Great Hall. Street wanted an enormous Record Tower, but the Commissioner of Works, A.S. Ayrton, axed it.

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Here is that hall, no easy thing to photograph today, with security concerns so prominent. Ayrton wanted to axe this too. The walls have been much brightened by recent cleaning, whether for better or worse is hard to say.

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One author has described this hall as "the perfect embodiment in stone of the majesty of the law." Nairn is more subtle: "...the Law Courts put an end of G.E. Street. There was never enough feeling to go round, and it was concentrated into one stupendous room. The rest of his practice--all the outside, all the country churches of the 1870s--was clever, heartless hack-work. Nothing but duty would entice you through the main entrance, yet inside it is all different. The Great Hall is a superb room, useless only by those legal definitions of architectural function which recognize merely the visible part of the iceberg... And there it is, magisterial in all the good senses of the word: ordered, compassionate, direct and to a huge scale." (Nairn's London, p. 89).

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A cross view of the far end of the hall. Street got his polychromatic floor mosaic, but not the mosaic he wanted on the walls. Norman Shaw, one of Street's pupils, recalled that being Street's assistant didn't offer much room for imagination: "When a new work appeared, his custom was to draw it out in pencil in his own room--plans, elevations, and sections, even putting in the margin line and places where he wished the title to go... There was little to do, except to ink in his drawings, and tint and complete them... I am certain that during the whole time I was with him I never designed one single moulding" (Stamp and Amery, 112). No wonder Street died almost as soon as this building was finished.

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A corridor leading to one of the building's many courtrooms. Nairn chortles about "stuffy Dickensian rooms where lawyers argue endlessly through civil actions whilst their principals are miles away."

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Speaking of courtrooms, here is Norman Shaw's famous New Scotland Yard, with its convict-quarried granite base, its orange-red brick and stripes of Portland stone, its angle tourelles and aedicules with broken pediments and obelisks. In a fine demonstration of the principle that there is always an architect or architectural critic with barb in hand, one has called this building a "a Dutch-cheese warehouse from the banks of the Dort." Shaw defended himself: "My aim has been to have less of what I should call 'style', and more of what I should call character... a genuine building, in which we have no sham or shew fronts" (Stamp and Amery, p. 152). Pevsner remarks that "imitations... may be seen all over England" (6:248). And not just England. There's a fine replica in Calcutta, not far from the Writer's Building.

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Now King's College Library. Until 1997 this was the Public Record Office, completed in 1895 to James Pennethorne's "forbiddingly functional Gothic design of 1850" (1:326). The tall narrow windows were imposed on the architect by the iron framing of the heavy shelves behind, and so he grudgingly accepted the Gothic "if an ecclesiastical feeling can be at the same time avoided." Pevsner writes that "thus it became the first major public building in the style after the Houses of Parliament, with which it shared the same builders and chief carver."

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Opposite the Record Office, the "cool and correct" building of the Law Society stands on Chancery Lane. The central section is from 1832, with the wings added later.

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The far better known and more heavily ornamented entrance to the British Museum, a few years earlier than the Law Society's building. The building was modelled by Robert Smirke on the ruined temple of Athena Polias at Priene, south of modern Izmir. The pediment sculpture is by Richard Westmacott and shows, with Victorian confidence, the "progress of civilization" from left to right. Despite its Grecian appearance, this is a modern building of iron and brick, with stone slabs held to the brick by metal cramps.

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The central courtyard of the British Museum was converted in 1857 into a domed library. Hopelessly overcrowded, the library moved in 1998 to a new site near St. Pancras station. Two years later, the Great Court surrounding the old library cylinder opened to the public for the first time since 1857 and with a new glass roof designed by Norman Foster. The old reading room was opened to the public, too, though now chiefly as a computerized information center. And how many migrainers look up and find themselves with instant headache and nausea?

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Yet another Greek temple, this one from 1838. It fronts the national gallery and was designed by William Wilkins. Inside the building, there's a collection that has no better; outside, it's a different story. In Georgian London (1948), John Summerson goes to town. "The facade is divided into no fewer than thirteen sections, six on either side of the central portico. Unfortunately, all the subsidiary sections have approximately equal value and the two sorts of pavilions are so similar in weight that one is inclined to evaluate them as alternative suggestions rather than complementary parts of a single design. To make his design still more 'interesting', Wilkins set a dome over the portico and turrets over the terminal pavilions, like the clock and vases on a mantelpiece, only less useful" (quoted in Pevsner 6:305).

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Burlington House, another building dedicated to art, was a private house until 1854. Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, suggested making it a home for the Royal Academy; he was assigned the task of remodeling to suit. Pevsner writes, "Smirke's conversion, of 1872-3, was of High Victorian cruelty. A second, Corinthian storey was added to house the Diploma Galleries, with detail mostly matching but of overbearing proportions" (6:488). Once again, the urge to glorify cultural titans got the better of the designer: up top there are statues, left to right, of Phidias, Leonardo, Flaxman, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Reynolds, Wren, and William of Wykeham. An interesting list, showing how treacherous fame can be. The bronze is of Joshua Reynolds.

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London did finally enter the 20th century, in this case with the Senate House of the University of London, a contender for the title of the city's first highrise. The architect was Charles Holden, and the building (almost directly behind the British Museum) was finished in 1937. Pevsner is harsh: "Steel window frames in such windows always look unpleasantly mean. What there is of mouldings is heavy... Equally baffling are the small balconies representing the only emphasis on the centre of the Senate House front and the balconies and arches squeezed into the corners between the tower block and the lower projecting wings of the tower" (4:276).

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The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, originally (and more simply) the London School of Tropical Medicine, opened in 1929 and is perhaps more interesting. The mosquitoes are a nice touch.

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More heroes of the age; Reed and Ross worked out the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of yellow fever and malaria.

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In retrospect, this may have been one of his better moments. The school was funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Lethal pests, though the literal-minded may wonder at the proportions, which either shrink the cobra or inflate the flea.

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Another kind of school, and one with an imperial echo almost too faint to hear. It's Cooper's Hill, just above Runnymede (or, to put it less romantically, smack under a Heathrow flight path). Now part of Brunel University, it served from 1870 to 1906 as the home of the Royal Indian College of Engineering, famous for the production of irrigation engineers. After 1906 it became a private residence; after World War II it became the home of Shoreditch Training College, specializing in crafts. With their decline, the college merged in 1980 into Brunel University.

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Schools need libraries, and here's an important one though not one whose form ever inspired the students within. It's the India Office Library, its unique collection just beyond the south end of the Waterloo Bridge.

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Speaking of inspiration, this is Broadcasting House, since 1934 the home of most BBC radio and television. The Bakerloo and Victoria lines rumble deep underground but are generally inaudible. The figures over the entrance, by Eric Gill, are usually described as Prospero and Ariel. The logic is that the radio, is an act of apparent magic and a spirit of the air.

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Pevsner is unkind to the architect, George Val Myer, calling the building "lumpily neutral" (3:74). The Architectural Review was much more enthusiastic, calling it "the new Tower of London."

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The new spring-mounted east wing. With its completion, the World Service returned here in 2012 after 70 "temporary" years in Bush House, seen a few pictures below.

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Stretching the category of "public building," we'll look at a few embassies. This, of course, is the American, housed in a building designed in 1960 by Eero Saarinen and supposedly blending with the neighborhood. Jones and Woodward are merciless: "the exterior combines fussy, demonstratively non-structural Portland stone facings... with flimsy 'gilded' aluminium trim. Its appearance suggests a large department store..." (p. 181).

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South Africa House, completed in 1933 to a design by Herbert Baker, who was still in his Bank of England humor. It still houses the South Africa High Commission, which is why Nelson Mandela appeared at the balcony in 2001. The gilt winged springbok below was by Charles Wheeler, who also did the Ariel above the Bank's Tivoli Corner.

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Australia House, the home of the Australian High Commission since 1918, was designed by by Alexander Mackenzie and his son and completed in 1918. This was the first of several buildings built for the Dominions, in this case by the Dove Brothers on behalf of the Australian Government, which had bought the land in 1912. The building is at the east end of a bow-shaped cluster all designed in an imperial classical style. That would be Gladstone at the left, enjoying a spot of sun.

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He gets a bit even on rainy days, because the sculptural figures up top are Apollo with the horses of the sun.

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Next door is Bush House, which, wing after wing, opened as a trading center from 1923 to 1935. It was owned by American companies and designed by an American architect, Harvey W. Corbett. Pevsner gives it muted praise for its "big-business classicism," like the entrance to a Roman bath. The figures up top represent a fraternal England and America and are by the American sculptor Malvina Hoffman. Below is the BBC motto ("Nation shall speak peace unto Nation"), a paraphrase of Micah 4:3. The BBC's Overseas Service (in 1965 renamed the World Service) began broadcasting here in 1940, after a parachute mine damaged its space at Broadcasting House. Among the voices coming from here was that of George Orwell, who wrote of his experience: "At present I'm just an orange that's been trodden on, by a very dirty boot." The World Service made its final Bush House broadcast on July 12, 2012, which left Bush House's Japanese owners, Kato Kagaku, in need of tenants.

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Next door: India House, home of the Indian High Commission. This is another Herbert Baker job. Baker had worked extensively in New Delhi, where he designed the secretariat buildings, but the experience doesn't seem to have helped him here. Even though King George unlocked the gate with a solid gold key on 8 July 1930, Pevsner remains intransigent: "The exterior shows off Baker's weakness rather than his strength, attempts at elegance on the wrong scale, and small Indian motifs--sculpture, balustrades and railings--which appeal more to the mind than the eye."

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The Ashoka Columns and lion capitals, ancient symbols of empire, are too small to do their job, which is to express the majesty of India.

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A sly elephant.

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Around the corner, a bust of Nehru keeps an eye on the normally very busy passport line.

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Procedures and permissions.

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Port of London Authority,Sir Edwin Cooper 1912-22,estab in 1908 after Thames Conservancy; "imperial monumentalism"Moved to Tilbury in 1970 and the building was sold.

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Clarence Wing, opened 1904; St . mary's Hospital; Cherry and Pevsner "all the florid glories of late Victorian BAROQUE" ARCHITECT wILLIAM eMERSON


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