Jonathan Meades on the works of Douglas Stephen, Georgie Wolton, Frederick Pilkington, Sextus Dyball and Gino Coppedè … Why they’re so good – and so neglected
The proposition that cities are free museums is self-evidently true. Truistic, even. The streets, towers, offices, monuments, fountains, spires, alleys, bridges, parks, boulevards, palaces, churches, apartments, exchanges, barracks and so on, are the exhibits in the most engrossing shows on earth. A gallery without a roof. Even the official museums are part of these de facto museums.
It’s all happenstantial, of course. Cities were not founded as museums, but as sites of commerce, industry, worship, belligerence and so on. They are, however, institutionalised and exploited as museums. This process reduces a city to a collection of sites. Or, rather, parallel and competing collections. Thus: imperial Rome, renaissance Rome, baroque Rome, fascist Rome (for specialists only). These are the Romes we are likely to be apprised of, which have staked their place in history, which we tick off in our guide books, which we visit because they are sanctioned, commended. We are letting ourself down, depriving ourself, failing in our autodidacticism and in our duties as cultural sheep if we neglect to visit the Coliseum or Piazza Navona. Just as we would be were we to overlook the great masterpieces of painting in a closed gallery.
One effect of ever more widespread technologies of reproduction is that we inhabit a world that is not merely cartographically but photographically mapped. We know what we’re going to see before we get there. There are few surprises left. Which is not to say there are none. But we can hardly search for them: surprises are not susceptible to being tracked down. They are more likely
to be discovered by chance, by serendipity. And serendipity is, in this instance, achieved by ambling, idling, strolling in a spirit of curiosity, of hope rather than expectation. Had it not been for this base appetite for farniente, I guess I’d never have encountered most of the somewhat marginal architects whose work is shown here. When I say marginal I intend no deprecation, no patronisation, no faint praise. Far from it. I would suggest rather that they are artists who never, for a variety of reasons, achieved the recognition they deserved in the course of their career and that such contemporary indifference has duly afflicted posterity’s opinion.
It is, evidently, hard to hold an opinion about something of whose existence one is ignorant. It was a photograph by Bill Brandt that drew me to Campden Hill in Kensington in my late teens:
Nobody was bolshier than Frederick Pilkington. the greatest of his few London buildings, Windsor House in Victoria Street, is described as 'the crowning monstrosity of Westminster'
it showed a heavy and exhilaratingly coarse terrace of grand late-Victorian houses on a slope. Needless to say, my eye did not lend it the sullen mystery that Brandt’s lens had. I walked on. A group of very different buildings caught my eye. Sheer, white, neat, crisp, cubistic – and thrilling. They belonged, surely, to the 1930s. Yet there was something about the details … The Mount was the first of Douglas Stephen’s buildings I saw. It was completed in 1965, and was entirely out of step with its time: it was at odds with both the fey Festival style and with the sculptural brutalism that was the conventional reaction to the Festival style (and which Stephen had essayed). But Stephen belonged to no school. That, I suspect, is why he is overlooked. The Mount retains its extraordinary freshness. So does his David Murray John Tower in Swindon, that town’s most (only?) striking building, a mini-skyscraper that has affinities to a design of Frank Hampson’s for Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future.
The same conviction – that I had chanced upon an unrecorded tour de force of the 1930s – overcame me when I first encountered Cliff Road Studios in Lower Holloway. Again, wrong. This beautiful complex was built in the late 1960s to the designs of Georgie Wolton – whose other work includes, so far as I can ascertain, one house and the garden of The River Café in Hammersmith. A one-hit wonder then? Maybe. But what a hit. It is currently on the point of a makeover whose plans are on show at Future House in City Hall. A case could be made for Stephen and Wolton being at the head of the very earliest vanguard of that tendency that burgeoned in the early 1990s, and that continues to this day, that tirelessly reworks the forms of early modernism to the point where they are hardly distinguishable from their models.
When modernism is revived it mysteriously doesn’t count as revivalism or pastiche. When the gothic is reinvented, it is automatically revivalist. Even Frederick Pilkington’s gothic is thus classified, although it is difficult to imagine an architect more wholly striving for originality. The high Victorian generation to which Pilkington belonged was preoccupied with the creation of a new architecture. Pilkington succeeded in this. Only the untutored could confuse a Pre-Raphaelite canvas with one from before the time of Raphael. Similarly the proportion of Victorian building that can be mistaken by a sentient spectator for one of the medieval period or, indeed, any other past era, is slight. Nonetheless, a kind of false antiquarian prejudice is directed at the Victorians.
The 19th-century architecture that is valued today is that atypical kitsch that looked backwards, that was most zealously fake, most doggedly mimetic: twee, Luddite, cosy, merrylie Englishe. The arts-and-crafts movement was all high-minded prattle and good intentions, and it led directly to the despoilation of Britain throughout the 20th century. The most exciting work of that most exciting decade and a half, 1858-1873, is bolshie, bloodyminded and perverse. And nobody was bolshier etc than Frederick Pilkington (though he may not have so considered himself). Nobody was less concerned about the canons of good taste. In The Buildings of England, the greatest of his few London buildings, Windsor House in Victoria Street, is described as “the crowning monstrosity of Westminster, a nightmare of megalomaniac decoration”. Who could disagree? But those words strike me as plaudits. It was, alas, demolished in 1970. Edinburgh – where Pilkington’s practice was based – still abounds in his ferocious, bizarrely scaled, restlessly detailed clinics and houses and churches. After the good manners and uniformity of the Georgian new towns they are marvellously tonic – enduring monuments to the awkward squad’s vigour and sod-you-ism.
These are qualities that are equally manifest in the deepest south London suburb of Upper Norwood. The removal of the Crystal Palace from Hyde Park and its re-erection at Sydenham prompted an untramelled building boom. Villas of all shapes took advantage of the views over the London Basin and Kent. The wildest of them were designed by one Sextus Dyball, a local builder to whom all devotees of inspired ugliness and sinister gracelessness will be forever indebted. Did Dyball know what he was doing? Did he have any idea of the sensations that his creations would provoke? It is improbable that he was out to shock. Rather, it seems that he, like Pilkington, subscribed to an aesthetic system that, although not far from us feels chronologically, seems unfathomably distant – a vestige of an alien civilisation.
The conviction that I had chanced on an unrecorded tour de force of the 1930s overcame me when I first encountered Cliff Road Studios in Lower Holloway. wrong. This beautiful complex was built in the late 1960s
Of course, one facet of these architects’ oddness is the location of their work. What is odd in Edinburgh or London may be almost normal in New England or Paris where 19th-century modernism was more candid about its intentions, less inclined to disguise industrial materials. Pilkington’s Dean Park House (now part of Stewart’s Melville College) is an exercise in the fabulously ornate idiom of the hotels particuliers around Parc Monceau in Paris’ eighth arrondissement. Dyball greedily took from everywhere save the conventional sites of English inspiration: the suburbs of Boston and Paris and Genoa spring to mind. Was he a traveller or was he simply a voracious gaper at illustrated books?
Speaking of Genoa. In the early 1990s, I was working in Rome. Cushy billet, as we used to say in The Catering Corps. Save in one regard. Early every evening I would walk for a couple of hours, mapless. A visual diet of ancient masterpieces becomes as sating as, say, a gastronomic diet of foie gras. One yearns not for banality but for excellence of a different sort. It was one October dusk when I found myself northwest of the Borghese Gardens in a narrow street that mutated into an urban hallucination. There were arches, gravity-defying cantilevers, apartment blocks sprouting gargoyles of a type that rewrote the physiognomy of gargoyles, tiles over everything, high relief fruit and veg. No surface was bereft of encrustations. There was something of Gaudí in the air, something of Escher, something of those turn-of-the-century orientalists such as Pierre Loti and Willi Pogany. Something: but not a lot. This place – and there were several streets and squares and circuses – was entirely unexpected. And it was almost unlike any other: almost. I recalled walking a few years previously in a kindredly off-the-map part of Genoa and coming upon a street that was surely some relation. It was.
The architect was the Florentine Gino Coppedè. He worked first in Genoa and then in Rome, where the streets lined with his extraordinary structures are collectively known as the Quartiere Coppedè. They were, astonishingly, built in the 1920s. They appear to be at least two decades earlier and are therefore the opposite
of the latest thing. Coppedè was at the end of the art nouveau tradition, but so divorced from it that he inhabits a world of one. He led nowhere. There were no disciples. His work exists in a fantastical cul-de-sac. History, real history, is composed of such disconnected fragments. The retrospectively imposed continuum is a soothing fib.
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