Christ Church Spitalfields from Brushfield St., 1990. (This and all photos on this page © David Secombe.)
Ever since they began to rise over London just over 300 years ago, the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1662–1736) have had an ambiguous – even paradoxical – relationship to the city that made them and which they have in turn remade. On the one hand, the churches of St Anne, Limehouse, Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East in the old parish of Stepney, St. Alfege in Greenwich, St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London and St George, Bloomsbury are inextricably bound up with the history of London. On the other, they stand apart, somehow belonging to a rather different time and place, almost as fragments of Ancient Rome transplanted into London.
St Alfege, Greenwich, 1988.
To understand Hawksmoor’s churches and their relationship to the city, one has to go back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. Even as the fire still smouldered, Hawksmoor’s later master, Christopher Wren, was working up a plan for London’s rebuilding that would replace its narrow and irregular medieval streets with grand boulevards. Most importantly, and taking direct inspiration from what he had learned in Paris the year before, Wren’s plan would have imposed a clear spatial order and control on the dangerous and unruly metropolis.
Hawksmoor’s approach to city planning was different. Hawksmoor never created a plan for London in the way his master had done, but he did produce (unbuilt) designs for re-planning Oxford and Cambridge, and parts of London around St Paul’s Cathedral, Greenwich, and Westminster. The easiest way to understand how these would have worked is to look to contemporary landscape gardens: manufactured landscapes littered with classically-inspired temples and follies, structures that dominate the vistas and embody the estate owner’s authority.
St George-in-the-East, Wapping, 2010.
Similarly, in Hawksmoor’s idea of the city, spatial order and control extended not from the street layout, but from monumental buildings that would physically dominate their surroundings. In all Hawksmoor city plans we see a recurring strategy of clearing the areas around important buildings – both old and new – so that they might express their spatial dominion over the surrounding cityscape. What happened in between was of far less importance. It’s hard to imagine the effect of these unbuilt plans when described in the abstract, but to see their principles in action we only need look as far as Hawksmoor’s churches.
St Luke’s Old St. (Hawksmoor & John James), photographed before its 21st century restoration, 1988.
Even now, the areas around Hawksmoor’s three churches in the old parish of Stepney still retain the ‘edge-lands’ feel they must have had when they first grew up in the decades following the Great Fire. Today that energy is manifested in the clash of different cultures and economies as the City of London encroaches on East End communities. In the early eighteenth century the energy arose through the rise of dissenting religious groups, outside the orbit of central Anglican control, with all the social and political ramifications that that held. As a result, Hawksmoor’s churches were conceived from the off as outlying beacons of the city’s spiritual and political centre – monuments of state and Church authority in areas that had none.
Entrance to Bank tube station showing part of the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth, City of London, 1988.
All three of Hawksmoor’s Stepney churches are colossal structures, deliberately sited to be seen in the round, that dominate their environment by sheer scale. Not surprisingly, their overbearing size has played a part in their subsequent neglect. In a 1975 letter to The Times, the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddlestone, was at great pains ‘to make it clear that the state of disrepair of Christchurch, Spitalfields is in no sense due to the failure of the local Christian community, nor, in my opinion, to neglect by the authorities of the Church of England’. Such a building of ‘cathedral-like proportions’ was, he argued, an ‘appalling responsibility for the Church’.
In addition to their size, Hawksmoor was able to make his churches stand out by his choice of material: white Portland stone, as opposed to the red brick of the surrounding city. Hawksmoor’s churches appear as if fully formed from a single gigantic block of stone. There’s the sense that this is the form the stone wants to be – a testament to their design, the final and most enduring aspect of their differentiation from the surrounding city.
St Anne’s Limehouse, 2010.
Having risen up through Wren’s office in the 1680s and 90s, by the beginning of the eighteenth century Hawksmoor was arguably the best-trained architect Britain had ever seen. Classical architecture was his intellectual and aesthetic bedrock, but he was also fascinated by Gothic architecture and in particular its origins – as he saw them – in the churches of the early Christians of the near east. Hawksmoor’s genius was to bring all this learning to bear in creating a series of church designs rich in reference, resonance and allusion. The result was a series of buildings in which architecture was taken back to its very origins, with ideas and references built up in complex layers of masonry, imbuing these structures with the authority of the architectural past. This is architecture conceived through a sculptural sensibility to create buildings that speak to us but indirectly: through our senses and our emotions.
St George Bloomsbury, 2016.
There are few buildings in London that look back to the past while at the same time prefigure the future. While part of London’s history, Hawksmoor’s churches exist in the future too, yielding ever more secrets as the city changes around them.
… for The London Column. Owen Hopkins’s book From The Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor is published by Reaktion Books.
© Owen Hopkins. All photos © David Secombe.
From Building Design, 19 November 2010:
The controversial plan to tear down the Robin Hood Gardens estate will move a step closer in the next few days when a winner for its replacement is named. Proposals by Tower Hamlets Council to take the wrecking ball to the housing estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, caused outrage among the profession, with more than 2,000 people, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, backing a BD campaign to have it listed. This week Simon Smithson, architect son of Alison and Peter, again condemned the decision to knock the estate down. “If it’s pulled down I think history will view it as a real act of vandalism,” he said.
In the wake of our recent pieces on Balfron Tower, we present another feature on a controversial, maligned and generally unloved piece of 1960s architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a mere stone’s throw away from its Goldfinger-designed neighbour, was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s golden couple, theorists-cum-architects, ‘the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK’ (it says here). Unfortunately, the location could not be less promising: Robin Hood Gardens teeters like a cliff above the northbound carriageway of the A12 exiting the Blackwall Tunnel, although motorists on the southbound lanes get a clearer view of its looming bulk. As a motorist who has used the Blackwall Tunnel for over a quarter of a century, this view of RHG has always reminded me of a discarded set from Alien or Space 1999 that has been inexplicably dumped in Poplar. Regardless of all other considerations, its fabulously disadvantaged position alone mitigates against 21st century rehabilitation. Not for Robin Hood Gardens the executive-friendly make-over of Balfron Tower; discussions of RHG’s qualities invariably involve a stand-off between those calling for demolition (past and present residents, Tower Hamlets council) arrayed against those who want it listed and thus preserved (Brutalist apologists, mid-century modern aficionados).
A great deal has been written on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens. Those who defend the building speak of the spaciousness of the flats themselves, of the noble attempt to create a space of ‘central greenery’ in the site’s layout, and the Smithsons’ genuine feeling for the humanity that would eventually inhabit their design: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Robin Hood Gardens has heavyweight admirers; thus sprach Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside: ‘It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace’.
Its fans have something of a hard sell. Even the most ardent Smithson admirer has to admit that the site is hideous. A friend of mine, an architect from the Caribbean, spoke of her numbed disappointment on seeing RHG for the first time; in her eyes what had seemed eloquent and rational as a plan failed hopelessly as an actual environment. (In researching this piece, I stumbled across a fascinating item comparing RHG’s central green space to WW1’s battlefield of Ypres.) In 2009 RHG was denied the protection of ‘listed’ status (with English Heritage voting firmly against listing) and in 2012 Tower Hamlets Council announced demolition of the estate as part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme for the area. There isn’t room here to excavate the arguments and sheer heat of the ensuing debate, which is taking place even as RHG is being dismantled; but whilst nostalgia for the legacy of Brutalism might be compared to a fondness for discredited utopian certainties, the current complexion of London’s skyline makes one shudder at what is likely to be erected in RHG’s place.
These photographs by Craig Atkinson (from a fine new edition published by the ever-admirable Cafe Royal Books) give an indication of RHG’s imposing mass as well as its shortcomings as an urban environment. But it is the last picture in this sequence that is so telling; the view across to the 21st Century Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. There’s the new money, and what all of London will, most likely, soon resemble. There goes the neighbourhood. DS
Further reading: the invaluable site Municipal Dreams published two articles on Robin Hood Gardens in April this year, and they are mandatory reading on this topic.
A London street artist writes:
I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.
I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.
This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.
Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.
Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.
The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.
… for The London Column.
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.