The Whitechapel Bell Foundry (106)

I think it is probably worth saying that the group of people who were involved in trying to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry between 2016 and 2021, including Adam Lowe, who has demonstrated so clearly and brilliantly through Factum Foundation and now the London Bell Foundry that it should be possible to re-establish a working and commercially successful Foundry, have now reconvened. We are constructing a plan to do what should have been done in 2016 ie how to keep it going as a working Foundry. We will need public support and, I hope, this time round will have the support of the relevant public agencies, particularly Historic England and the Department for Levelling Up.

Watch this space.



In the intervals of planning how on earth to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry now that it can be bought, we went out to the old 1835 lighthouse at Penmon Point:

It was stormy weather:

But we were rewarded by a magical rainbow:-


London Bells

Well, the timing of this is a touch odd.

It was planned as an opportunity to reflect on why the campaign to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry failed last time round (mainly, I’m afraid, because Historic England decided early on, for somewhat eccentric reasons, to support the plans of the developer).

And now it will be about how to make sure the campaign succeeds second time round – with, I trust, the support of Historic England.


The Whitechapel Bell Foundry (105)

I woke up this morning to the news that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was for sale. I suppose this was inevitable. COVID has changed the economics of development. I can’t help noticing that there are now a vast number of new hotels round Aldgate, including a new Hilton in the Minories, a big new hotel at the bottom of Brick Lane, and a new hotel right opposite the Bell Foundry in Whitechapel Road. The development proposed depended on acquiring the adjacent site, but the option on its sale has now lapsed. So here we are at the beginning of the next phase of trying to preserve it.

I hope the heritage authorities will now come together to help save it. The great irony is that Re:Form and Factum Foundation had an entirely credible, fully costed, alternative plan to preserve it as a working foundry which has now morphed into the London Bell Foundry which is successfully making bells with artists. Let’s hope that Historic England and the National Heritage Lottery Fund can join up to support this plan. The fabric of the Foundry is still in good order. Some of the original equipment survives (ironically some of it was bought by the developer). So, it ought to be possible to reinstate the Foundry as was, its historic fabric reasonably intact. Alan Baxter has drawn up conservation plans.

The battle for its preservation begins again.


Magdalene College Library

This is a timely publication of Magdalene College Library ahead of next week’s judging of the Stirling Prize on August 13th. (see below). The Library is deliberately traditional, as it needs to be given the extreme sensitivity of its location, but it is clever in that it is not revivalist, but with a strong and individual character of its own. It has been built to last four hundred years, which, in an environment when a twenty-year life span is considered normal, is itself a good lesson. The interiors, which the photographs do not fully convey, are beautifully considered, providing small private spaces for reading, as is appropriate in a college library. If the Stirling Prize is about the best architecture of the last year, then it is hard to see the other contenders having the same calm authority. But I’m sure it will be hotly contested.


A monument to the Queen

Much the best informed of a number of discussions as to how best to commemorate the Queen has appeared as an editorial in this month’s Burlington Magazine. It has been thought that the fourth plinth has been reserved for an equestrian statue, but I’m not clear who, if anyone, makes such decisions, nor that the planning of commemorative statues is subject to any long-term planning; rather the opposite – they seem often to be the result of ad hoc private initiative, currently on the part of backbench MPs.

The issue will be not just where, but who is competent to make such a statue. It’s not easy. The equestrian statue in Windsor Great Park by Philip Jackson turned out to be pretty successful, but I’m not convinced that an equestrian statue, good as a form of commemoration in wide open parkland, is necessarily appropriate to express the Queen’s humanity.

Maybe there should be an architectural competition, in which architects seek an appropriate sculptor. As it happens, the current statue on the fourth plinth is unexpectedly powerful, I presume created through photogrammetry, reconstructing a historical figure from a photograph. Most sculptors are dismissive of this on the grounds that it is purely reproductive, but it could help solve some of the potential problems in the absence of a living tradition of monumental sculpture.


Designs on Democracy

I have been reading Neal Shasore’s admirably detailed account of architecture between the wars, Designs on Democracy: Architecture & the Public in Interwar London. He is studious in making clear that his account is strictly historical and should not be read as in any way celebratory of the more cautious, neo-Georgian, pro-Swedish approach of so many of the architects of the 1920s and 1930s, who were interested in values of civility and deferential to the inherited environment (‘These are not buildings or personalities with which it has been easy to empathise’). And yet, even though Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement was first published in 1936 (strangely only listed in the bibliography in its later, revised edition), Pevsner’s views, so hostile to any form of revivalism, have coloured so much of later scholarship that it is a relief to find the architecture of the period studied on its own terms.

It is clear that there was plenty of reformist zeal, knowledge of what was going on in Germany and desire for civic improvement long before the Bauhaus émigrés arrived. And there are even people who it ought to be possible to admire: Laurence Weaver, the former Architectural Editor of Country Life; F.R. Yerbury, who was Secretary of the Architectural Association and already deeply knowledgeable about the work of Le Corbusier in the 1920s; Grey Wornum, the architect of the RIBA; not to forget P. Morton Shand, the lover of fine wine, pomologist, importer of furniture by Alvar Aalto, friend of John Betjeman and grandfather of the Queen.


The Stirling Prize

The Critic has kindly posted my article on this year’s Stirling Prize well in advance of the announcement of the winners on Thursday 13th. October.

I wrote the article before the bookies had declared their odds-on favourite as Mae Architects’ Sands End Arts and Community Centre which I recognise as being attractive in a low-key, community oriented way, entirely worthy and estimable. But I don’t feel it has the considered and heavyweight seriousness of Niall McLaughlin’s new library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which strikes me as an extraordinarily impressive achievement in inserting a new building into a very tricky site and doing it with such intelligence and integrity.

I will repeat two pleas.

The first is that the RIBA makes the judging process wilfully opaque. How come the regional winners are all knocked out in favour of a shortlist of which four of the six projects are in London ? Who chooses and on what criteria ? The judges were only announced in early September long after the shortlist had been drawn up.

The second is that the RIBA does nothing to encourage visiting the projects which are a good way of seeing new architecture. Could they not in future do an online map and visiting arrangements ? I can’t be the only person who enjoys seeing them.


Charles Jencks (2)

The other thing which Jill Nicholls’s film about Charles Jencks conveyed very clearly was his career switch in the mid-1990s, following the death of his second wife, Maggie Keswick and his own prostate cancer, when he stopped being so much of an architectural writer and critic, apparently a bit disillusioned by what had become of postmodernism (this was demonstrated by Michael Graves’s Swan Hotel for Disney World), and devoted himself instead, first, to the commissioning of the Maggie’s Centres, an astonishing achievement – there are now thirty three – and to the construction of grand earthworks, of which the first was at Portrack, their house in Dumfriesshire. I had not appreciated how many there are: there’s the one outside the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and another I haven’t seen in Jupiter Artland, and one in South Korea. But there is also one I didn’t know about at Crawick near New Cumnock in Ayrshire which looks properly prehistoric. A visit calls.