I was asked to have breakfast not in the Wolseley, but in the Regency Café in Regency Street, close to Vincent Square where I used to umpire cricket matches. It’s an astonishingly authentic greasy spoon, founded in 1946, with a waitress who barks out the orders in a voice of such startling gruffness that we couldn’t stay for long:-
I have just been grilled by the New York Times about the 2008 competition for the design of Burlington Gardens. I realise that even though it is quite recent and even though I was a member of the RA’s Client Committee at the time, one quite quickly forgets the details of what happened and how the decision was made. This is what I remember, although others will remember more, or differently.
Sandy Wilson had spent the last five years of his life working on a very ambitious Masterplan for the development of the whole of the Royal Academy and its site. His scheme had been costed at £85 million. Following Sandy Wilson’s death, it quickly became clear that it would be hard to fundraise for a project in the absence of its progenitor and that his scheme had been handicapped by a presumption that no public route could go through the Royal Academy Schools. So, a limited competition was held for the development of Burlington Gardens only, which was won by David Chipperfield, who had been elected an RA in December 2007. My recollection is that he won for two reasons:- his sensitivity to the character of the original Pennethorne building and the fact that he had gone back to its original plans (he used the phrase ‘a light touch’); and his determination to reinstate a big daylit public lecture theatre in the space which had originally been occupied by the University of London’s lecture theatre.
At the time, the Neues Museum had not yet re-opened (it re-opened in October 2009). And the idea of linking the two buildings was not part of the original competition entry, but came later.
Unlike the Smithsons, who seem to have retained their status as inspiring outsiders, Goldfinger, who was famously rude, but of a well-to-do Hungarian family and married to Ursula Blackwell of the Crosse and Blackwell family, was only too happy to be co-opted by the Establishment, becoming an ARA in 1971, an RA in 1975, presenting a design for the Trellick Tower as his diploma work and a drawing of 2, Willow Road to the Queen for her Silver Jubilee. He was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and served champagne to the residents of Balfron Tower. Maybe this helps to explain why English Heritage went to great lengths to list Balfron Tower, but failed to list Robin Hood Gardens.
One more Poplar site. Immediately in front of the municipal baths, there is an unexpectedly magnificent statue dedicated to the memory of Richard Green, who joined the family firm of Green, Wigram & Green, which built ships for the East India Company, whose headquarters were in Blackwall. Green was not only successful as a shipowner, but was also a prominent local philanthropist, establishing schools and a Sailor’s Home, and supporting the Poplar Hospital and Merchant Seamen’s Orphan Asylum. The statue is by Edward W. Wyon, a former student at the Royal Academy Schools, who was well known mainly for his portrait busts and who deserves to be known for this fine commemorative statue of Green with his dog and its flanking bas reliefs of his ships:-
I went to an event organised by the Architecture Programme of the RA called Everyday Modernism: about the obvious gap which has opened up between the current romanticisation and idealisation of the small number of icons of modernism – the Barbican, Park Hill in Sheffield and Robin Hood Gardens – all seen through the eyes of Ladybird books; and the realities of conditions of social living during the period – the tendency towards conservatism in room use, the customisation of interiors, the need to use inherited furniture, and the passion for DIY; all of which undermine the images of idealised modernism which survive in architectural photographs of the period.
In looking up information about Robin Hood Gardens, I was interested to discover that, after studying at the King’s College School of Architecture in Newcastle on Tyne, Peter Smithson spent two years at the Royal Academy as a student of Albert Richardson, one of Britain’s most conservative and greatest classical architects, a fact which seems to be left out of some sources, maybe because it is at odds with Smithson’s image as the young Brutus. In fact, he and Alison, who he married in 1949, were not quite as rampantly brutalist as Robin Hood Gardens might make them appear, writing a lament to the loss of Euston Arch in 1968 and Walks within Walls: a Study of Bath in 1971.
I missed the church of All Saints out of the description of my tour of Poplar. It’s a grand Greek Revival building, with crisp Ionic capitals and handsome cast iron railings, designed by Charles Hollis, who was clerk to one of the parishioners and entered the competition for its design under the pseudonym Felix. It opened in 1823, six years after Poplar became a separate parish:-
The rectory, also by Hollis:-