The Slab (4)

Every time I see a picture of the building proposed for the bend in the river half way between the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s, I cannot believe my eyes:-

How on earth did a building of such ludicrous, over-scaled monstrosity get so far through the planning system and why on earth wasn’t it vetoed at Stage One of the process ? How did the members of the Lambeth Council planning committee possibly think that a building of this scale was legitimate right next door to the National Theatre ? Why was it not vetoed by the Mayor ? Today is the last day of the Planning Inquiry and I hope the Planning Inspector will say, which should be obvious, that it is grotesque.

Standard

Sir Christopher Wren

I was asked last night to speak at the annual dinner of The Worshipful Company of Architects about Christopher Wren, whose tercentenary we are about to celebrate on February 25th.

It is not easy to condense what one knows about someone who lived to the age of ninety two into eight minutes, but what follows was my attempt:-

• I have been encouraged to say something about Sir Christopher Wren, the three hundredth anniversary of whose death we will commemorate next month, on February 25th, exactly three hundred years after Wren sat down in an armchair of the house he had leased in St. James’s Street after lunch, having caught a chill on his way travelling from Hampton Court, where he had retired after leaving the Office of Works.   His servant came in later in the afternoon and found him dead.  

• Wren had spent most of the previous five years thinking not so much about issues of architecture as about Longitude, the problems of which he had not been able to solve and wanted to before he died.   In some ways, he remained at heart the scientist he had originally been, before being persuaded to switch to architecture by Charles II.

• The issues I want to consider very briefly are:- What sort of man was Christopher Wren ? And what is it about Wren’s career which makes it so worth paying attention to three hundred years later ?

• The first thing is that he was pretty, although not entirely, philosophical about changes in taste, the changed attitude to design which made his way of working seem old-fashioned, too much influenced by the court, by the time of his death.   Instead of getting upset about the fact that he had been removed from his office after fifty years of devoted royal and public service, he settled down with his son to provide a detailed documentary record of all his work, later published in 1750 by his grandson, Stephen Wren, under the title Parentalia, which includes full details not just of his architectural work, but also his scientific experiments early in his career when he was a Fellow of All Souls and Gresham Professor of Astronomy, together with drafts of his ideas about architecture.   He understood the importance of documentation to any future interpretation of his career and he wanted to make sure that there was plenty of evidence for his achievements.

• The second thing worth paying close attention to about Wren and his career was how immensely pragmatic he was.   If one looks at the repeated changes in the design of St. Paul’s, one can see Wren shifting and adapting according to the requirements of his clients, the cathedral clergy, who wanted a design which was much more conservative than what Wren proposed in his Great Model in September 1674.   Even though he would probably himself have much preferred the design represented by the Great Model, still extant and housed at St. Paul’s, he accepted the criticism of the clergy, who felt that the Model was insufficiently Cathedral-like, and he produced a new and adapted design, the so-called Warrant Design, which had a more conventional nave and choir, although still with a great dome which had been at the heart of all of Wren’s proposals from the beginning, even before the Great Fire had destroyed the old St. Paul’s.  

• Although Wren was immensely able and could occasionally show traces of impatience, as when he decided to make no more models of St. Paul’s because he did not wish to have to submit his drawing to those he regarded as ‘incompetent Judges’, he was willing to subordinate his ego in a way which was highly admirable.   He did not regard himself as what we would describe as a ‘star architect’.   He worked closely with those around him, including John Vanbrugh.

• The third thing which is very admirable about Wren is his sense of the city as a whole.   He was a London person.   He threw himself into the redesign of London after the Great Fire, submitting designs to the King for wider and straighter streets and a proper quayside — his plans were based on what he had seen the previous year in Paris — only about four days after the fire had ended.   His plans were thwarted by the desire of the citizens of London to reconstruct the City as fast as possible, based on existing property rights, without going through the huge legal complexities of renegotiating them.   But Wren kept a sense of the way that architecture can, and should, contribute to its surroundings.   St. Paul’s is designed as much as a civic and national monument as it is a holy place, which is probably why it still maintains such a strong hold on the national imagination.   His work on the City Churches was in many ways severely practical, but he allowed for a spirit of free invention in the design of the church towers and spires which would be visible from a distance, as demonstrated in engravings of the City’s skyline.  

• Wren wasn’t remotely interested in the design of country houses.   He wanted to improve the working of the City — its palaces, its hospitals, above all, its churches — and he undertook his work without any particular need for personal enrichment, going to visit St. Paul’s every Saturday to inspect how work was getting on.   He worked as part of a team.   It was the result which was important.

• So, I hope you will all agree that Wren was, in every way, a very remarkable person.   Someone of acute intellect;  an effective draughtsman;  brilliant at problem solving;  but, also, oddly and unusually modest, willing to subordinate his ego to the task at hand.  

• I would now ask you to raise your glasses to salute the memory of Sir Christopher Wren.

Standard

The last of Paris

I have been flicking through my photographs of Paris and now post a few late extras:-

The interior of St. Vincent-et-Paul:-

The ironwork outside:-

An unexpected pair of petrol pumps on one of the big boulevards:-

The Fontaine St. Michel, designed in 1856, constructed 1858 to 1860, no lack of urban ambition here:-

We were recommended La Palette for its charcuterie, not its atmospheric interior:-

Two nice doors in the Marais:-

And the entrance courtyard to the Bibliothèque Nationale:-

Standard

Palais Royal

We walked through the Palais Royal this morning – such a treat. I couldn’t remember its history, not surprisingly since it’s complicated. First constructed in the 1630s for Richelieu. Richelieu gave it to Louis XIII, Louis XIV gave it to the Duc d’Orléans. But the character of the Palais Royal seems to have been owing to the construction of town houses round the courtyard towards the end of the eighteenth century by Victor Louis and the construction of shops. But who was Victor Louis ? Only half a neoclassical architect, discredited in the 1750s for inventing classical remains, so that he was never part of the architectural establishment. But the architecture is surely as good as can be, a monument to a certain style of civility:-

Standard

A wheelchair in Paris

I do not normally do posts about the problems and issues round travelling with a wheelchair. But having spent three days navigating our way around Paris, I am going to break my normal rule to give some tips and advice for those who might be planning something similar.

My first advice is of things to avoid:-

The Café Marly

We arranged to have lunch with friends in the Café Marly, convenient for the Louvre. We were made to wait fifteen minutes outside and then another fifteen minutes before being told there was no disabled access. I would have thought they might already know.

The RER

The RER is supposedly disabled accessible. It is if you can find someone to manage the special ramp required to get on to the train, but we did not know this before we arrived on the platform, so missed several trains before retracing our steps to find someone to assist. Not straightforward in Chatelet when we were late for a performance of Cabaret (we left two hours to get there).

The Metro

Lines One and Two are also supposedly disabled accessible. They are not.

Walking

In many ways, walking in Paris is the greatest possible pleasure. But not so much with a wheelchair. The pavements are narrow. Shopkeepers often put out advertisements mounted on an immovable metal base making the pavement impassable. People are, perhaps not surprisingly, annoyed to be confronted by a wheelchair blocking the pavement, especially in the Marais on a Saturday afternoon.

But it was not all bad:-

Eurostar

Everyone on Eurostar in both London and Paris was incredibly helpful.

Buses

Parisian buses are fantastic (when they come) – fast, spacious, easy to get on and off, better than in London. They go everywhere and Google makes finding routes straightforward.

Museums

In general, the people in museums were pretty helpful, particularly one of the guards in the Musée de la Chasse.

G7

There is a taxi app called G7 with which you can book accessible taxis. It worked really well except for the time when none were available.

So, all-in-all, it can be done, but is far from straightforward. In London, legislation must have made installing lifts compulsory, particularly for public institutions, but in Paris, the culture feels very different: much less sympathetic both institutionally and culturally. It makes one grateful for London’s culture of tolerance and helpfulness.

The benefit – oddly – is that everything takes a lot of time, which slows one down and allows one to look about and pay attention.

Standard

Schiaparelli

We made it to Schiaparelli at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, its last day: a beautiful, moving exhibition of the inter-relationship of fashion and the arts in the 1930s – Jean Cocteau meets Schiaparelli, hard to reproduce, although lots of people obviously try:-

A good hat:-

Standard

Smithfield

I have been following the plans for the redevelopment of Smithfield with interest because it is the bit of the City which has so far retained its character and not been subject, as has so much of the rest of the City, to over-development. The attached article spells out the current state of the plans: the Museum of London taking over the west end in plans which look interesting, overseen by Stanton Williams; the more substantial west end to be redeveloped by Studio Egret West into a food hall and conference centre (did I miss a competition for this ?).

The issue is, as the article rightly points out, whether it can be done in such a way that it preserves its character – Les Halles is hardly a good precedent and Spitalfields, too, has become a bit bland. Maybe a big food market is the answer. Marylebone is a good precedent.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-01-21/london-s-historic-victorian-meat-market-gets-a-fresh-start

Standard

Musée de la Chasse

We were encouraged to go to the Musée de la Chasse in the Marais – quite rightly – because it is so beautifully displayed, so creatively and inventively, mingling new and old of the paraphernalia of hunting in an environment of ultra fashionability:-

Kate McGwire, Vex:-

The Night of Diana by Jan Fabre:-

Property of Carolein Smit:-

Pugs:-

Blondi and Eva:-

Francois Desportes:-

Standard

Musée Cluny (2)

The Lady and the Unicorn:-

A man playing chess in Lyon in c.1450:-

An alabaster altarpiece, thought to be from York:-

A polychrome St. John from Prato Cathedral (fourteenth century):-

I have always loved the Musée Cluny, which shows the art of the later Middle Ages better than anywhere in the world.

Standard