After years of paying no attention to the Post Office Tower, I keeping seeing it – an emblem of postwar optimism floating above the rooftops of central London like a visitor from outer space. Tonight I spotted it down a side street off Oxford Street, looking ethereal:-
One of the consequences of taking photographs for this blog and paying more attention to the detail of urban fabric is that I have become aware how much fine, but neglected, late nineteenth-century terracotta decoration there is in London. Tonight I walked down from Simon Lewty’s exhibition in Eastcastle Street and was confronted by a building on Oxford Street which was neglected, but with interesting detailing. As ever, I checked in Pevsner to find out about its history and discovered it is described somewhat dismissively as nothing more than ‘a Jacobean phantasmagoria’. I have discovered a little bit more about it from its listing. Designed by Gordon, Lowther and Gunton, it was constructed in 1897 for a firm of chemists called John Robbins. They vacated it the following year and it was taken over by the Wholesale Co-operative Wine Association. At least, English Heritage aporeciates its Jacobethan strapwork decoration:-
I like seeing London from unexpected angles. Today I was at a lunchtime meeting in an anonymous office block on Cavendish Square T.P. Bennett 1957) and looked out of the window to see Regent Street (originally called New Street) from above – John Nash’s noble intervention into the complex streetscape of the West End, connecting Regent’s Park to Carlton House and separating the sinks and stews of Soho from the rich residents of Mayfair:-
I have been reading Rowan Moore’s new book about London, Slow Burn City, which, like every book about London, includes a chapter about the role of the Thames and the grand transformation of its sewerage by Joseph Bazalgette.
On Friday, I looked down river towards the changing skyline of the City:-
Today, as the towpath was covered in mist and the tide was turning, I saw the sun break out over Canary Wharf:-
I look out of the window at work across to the Oxo Tower. The building was apparently originally a power station to supply electricity to the post office and was only acquired by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who make Oxo, in the 1920s. They then converted the building into a cold store, adding the art deco tower in 1929. They had been refused permission to have an illuminated sign as advertising is forbidden, so the way the windows spell out OXO is a visual cheat:-
By chance, my prep school was in a country house previously owned by Charles Gunther, chairman of the Leibig Extract of Meat Company in the 1920s. It had OXO as a decorative motif on some of the stone balconies. Was this coincidental ? The house had been built for a Birmingham industrialist called William Cotterill in 1870. Or did the balconies belong to the great ballroom (Pevsner calls it ‘elephantine’) which was added by the Gunthers just after they bought the house in 1903 ?
I have been meaning to do another blog about Unilever House because there is a widespread misapprehension repeated in our annual report (in my section no less) that it was designed by James Burnet & Partners who were the executant architects of the building after the Crash. It wasn’t. It was designed by James Lomax-Simpson, who, as I’ve written before, was a member of the board of Lever Bros. and designed many of the houses at Port Sunlight. He handed over a set of signed drawings in October 1929, as reported by Charles Reilly in Progress, the in-house company magazine, in an article in Summer 1932. Reilly described how ‘in all its essential lines and in the plan of the building it is the conception of the architect-director of Unilever House, Mr. J. Lomax Simpson, who realised the whole project and worked it out in a remarkably short space of time, while carrying out the ordinary work of the company’. I am grateful for this correction to his daughter, Rosemary Lomax-Simpson, and apologise for the mistake:-
In doing some background reading on the Post Office Tower (thank you, Otto) I have discovered, which I did not know, that the Treasury was implacably hostile to the use of telephones in the 1950s, did not allow them to be advertised and kept the cost of calls artificially high. In 1961, the Post Office freed itself from Treasury control with the Post Office Act. So, the Post Office Tower can be viewed as a single digit gesture of defiance on the part of the GPO again the constraints of Treasury control. The best description of it came from Tony Benn who opened it to the public as Postmaster General in 1966 and described it as ‘lean, practical, futuristic, symbolises the technical and architectural skill of this new age’.
I was lurking around Bow Lane waiting for my breakfast meeting when I wandered into St. Mary Aldermary, which is a Wren church which has been half turned, rather successfully, into a coffee bar. It must have been the recent memory of the several medieval churches on the site, as well as a generous legacy from a citizen whose widow is said to have insisted on a stylistic reconstruction, which led Wren to provide a much more scholarly version of fan vaulting than would have been possible a century later:-
The Post Office Tower is a building which I have cheerfully ignored throughout my adult life. I suppose there was a time when I might have hankered to have lunch in its revolving restaurant, but never did. Then, its restaurant was closed by the threat of IRA terrorism since which the Tower has been strangely invisible even if – perhaps especially if – one is walking up Cleveland Street. So, it was with a slight sense of awe that I looked out of a nearby tower block and saw it pencil-thin, still vaguely futuristic, silhouetted against the evening sky and dominating everything around it:-
The view of the Euston Road wasn’t bad either:-
I went last night to what I thought was the grand re-opening (it was the grandest invitation) of Maggs Bros in its new premises on Curzon Street opposite Trumpers, the royal barbers. But it turns out that it has been open since Christmas. I scarcely penetrated its magnificent former town house on the west side of Berkeley Square as it always felt too forbiddingly antiquarian even for a bookaholic like me. But the new premises is more easily visited with the best library steps that I have seen, a yellow lacquer library table designed by Marianna Kennedy, saucy French pornography on the top shelves and an unexpectedly strong holding of twentieth-century Japanese photography.