Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2011 Streak Day 245 (Monday Sept 5th): Looking at buildings

2011 Streak Day 245 (Monday Sept 5th): Walk - 4 miles, Time - 2hrs, Weather - blue sky and sun (could be confused with summer)
A day in London.
The photo was taken in Whitcomb Street.  China Town looked very festive with yellow and red lanterns strung across the streets. The paper globes absorbed the light and glowed whilst the tinsel shimmered, reflecting the sun. Below people strolled, stood talking in groups, or walked purposefully. It was (however briefly) summer in the city.
The effect of weather on behaviour is fascinating. Yesterday, when it was raining, people were defensive, hunched into themselves but today, in the sun, they open out and the atmosphere is more relaxed.
I like warm (but not too hot) days in London. Not taking public transport allows you to look more closely at the surroundings: the people, the buildings. The great trick when looking at buildings is to look up. At eye level a streetscape is dominated by shop fronts and their signs and as the majority of these are chain stores they will look the same wherever. However above first floor level the buildings show their history and are particular to their location
But looking gives only a general impression. it never gives the full story behind why buildings were built the way they were at that particular time. The exterior never tells everything and I sometimes think we spend too much time judging various stylistic ticks and less on how buildings actually function.
A good example is the National Gallery Extension. The story behind it is fascinating in that it had been the site of a department store, which had been destroyed in the Blitz. For over 30 years the site had been vacant and there had been a desire to expand the Gallery but money was the problem (it is amazing how mean spirited our attitude to public building has been during most of the post war period). The 80s were not a propitious time as they were the time of Thatcher, the introduction of museum charges and a suspicion of public provision. Thus the initial plan was for a mixed development with office and gallery space, the former paying for the latter.  There was a  public competition won by Ahrends  but their modern design that incurred the wrath of the Prince of Wales. His speech where he compared it to a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of  a much loved and elegant friend" sparked a huge cotroversy and the design was withdrawn
Although this was unfair to Ahrends, who had done a good job with a compromised brief, there was a a happy consequence: members of the Sainsbury family donated enough money to allow the site to be developed for the National Gallery alone (as should have been the plan all along).
The new building was designed by Robert Venturi, an extremely influential theoretician and architect, often associated with Post-Modernism. The exterior is an understated pastiche, designed to miimc the main National Gallery building. Inside there is a simplified, stylised classicism to the rooms but the colouring is grey - everywhere there is grey.
At the time I can remember most people being snooty about the the building. The modernists didn't like it because they thought it backward looking and a compromise, whilst the nostalgic romantics were not that impressed either.
My own view at the time, and still is, that it was very clever. The exterior gives minimum offence and is designed to blend-in and avoid more controversy, whilst the interior offers an excellent environment for viewing the pictures (which is after all a gallery's job). The use of grey is an example of this. If it was used in this way in a normal multi-use building it would be oppressive but here it allows the colours of the Renascence painting to come alive and seem vivid (which again is the purpose of the space).
Looking at the building now and knowing the background story means that the initial visual impression is supplemented by a wider understanding.  However most of the time when I walk around London I am more aware of what I don't know than what I do. Most of the time  I fall back on fleeting visual impressions.

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