Victorian dragons

15 03 2013
1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

Leeds’s Kirkgate market hall is one the best surviving Victorian retail buildings. Opened in 1904, it still retains much of its original decoration, including the numerous cast-iron wyverns (two-legged dragons) on the ground floor (1) that are in fact brackets that support the gallery level above. These outsized monsters are a curious legacy of the Victorian fascination with the grotesque and a reminder of a vanished way of thinking about the value of the decorative in civic buildings. But what do these particular wyverns mean? Surely not mere whimsy, ornament for ornament’s sake? After all, this was a public building, built with hard-earned public money. Why did Leeds’s civic authorities deem it necessary to include wyverns in the people’s market hall?

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

In fact, these wyvern motifs were specified by the architects of the market hall (John and Joseph Leeming) in their original competition drawings for the project and developed from similar ones they used in an earlier market hall in Halifax (2; 1896). In the late nineteenth century, dragons and their wyvern cousins were both common heraldic motifs in Britain and were also associated with industry; in 1845 the Midland Railway adopted a wyvern as the crest in their unofficial coat of arms, believing it to be the symbol of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, or the Midlands as it effectively was in the Victorian era; the company incorporated cast–iron wyverns into luggage rack supports, bracket signals, and the spandrels at Hellifield railway station (31880).

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

Despite their appropriation by the Midland Railway, wyverns and dragons were generally perceived in the Victorian period as a menacing symbol associated with the devil; it was John Ruskin, in Fors Clavigera – a series of letters, published in the 1870s, addressed to British workmen – who drew on the sinister associations of dragons when he directly equated them with what he regarded as the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation. Significantly, Ruskin was prompted to make such an association after he discovered the motif of a cast–iron dragon/serpent on a metal bench (4) whilst walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire; he reacted in horror to what he perceived as a satanic emblem fouling one of the loveliest beauty spots in the English countryside.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane's catalogue, 1882.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane’s catalogue, 1882.

Despite Ruskin’s chagrin, cast–iron dragons and wyverns were a common motif in both Victorian street furniture and seaside architecture, as seen in many designs included in Walter Macfarlane’s catalogues in the 1880s (5), which were probably inspired by their earlier adoption by the Midland Railway. In contrast to Ruskin’s emphasis on their sinister implications, cast–iron dragons were often associated with the “exotic” cultures of the Far East, particularly in seaside architecture (6); the wyverns adopted by the Midland Railway and the architects of Leeds’s market hall, however, were more likely viewed as symbols of protection, industrial power, or as denoting ancient indigenous mythic pasts.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

Moreover, the significance of the wyverns in Leeds’s market hall (1) is heightened by their repetitive use – an inherent characteristic of cast–iron reproduction. Here, repetition lends both added emphasis to the sense of civic power articulated in this building and also a direct visual sign of the material abundance that the new market hall promised to the city’s citizens. Thus, the lavish ornamentation of market halls like Leeds’s not only symbolised the promise of abundance, but also enacted it in its spaces by creating a more abundant supply, lower prices, and higher quality in meat and poultry.





Imperial exotic: early iron buildings for export

18 01 2013

In Victorian Britain, iron buildings were being exported all over the world, from South America to Australia, demonstrating (and actualising on the ground) the country’s expanding imperial ambitions. The very first buildings for export were made from timber, an early example being a portable hospital sent to a penal colony in Australia in 1790. As the constructive potential of cast and wrought iron began to be developed in structures such as bridges, mills and warehouses, so timber was gradually substituted for iron in many buildings for export. By mid-century, the manufacture of prefabricated iron buildings for the colonies had become a commercial enterprise, with houses, churches, hospitals, warehouses and factories exported in large numbers by specialised iron founders like Samuel Hemming, Edward T. Bellhouse, Richard Walker, John Porter and Charles D. Young.

1. 'Iron palace of King Eyambo', Illustrated London News, 1843

1. ‘Iron palace of King Eyambo’, Illustrated London News, 1843

The majority of these early prefabricated iron buildings were utilitarian in design, such as William Laycock’s iron palace for King Eyambo in British West Africa (1), which was erected in 1843 and opened for public exhibition in Liverpool before being exported. Widely reported in both local and national newspapers, this building exemplified a utilitarian ‘rational style’ in iron, although its metal plates and panels of were here mounted over a wooden skeleton. The Illustrated London News celebrated the iron palace as a rare example of the principles of construction dictating style, the reverse being the ‘prevailing view‘ in most early Victorian buildings.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

2. The Brompton Boilers as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1857.

However, this appreciation of unadorned utilitarianism in iron construction was short-lived, particularly after the construction of the so-called ‘Brompton Boilers’ in 1856 (2), which were actually temporary buildings for the South Kensington Museum, designed and manufactured in Scotland by Charles D. Young. Consisting of a long rectangular iron covered by three elliptical roofs clad in corrugated iron, the building was vilified in the building press. In a reversal of the earlier celebratory imperial rhetoric connected with iron buildings like this, The Builder argued that ‘no New Zealander savage would erect such a structure so utterly and indefensibly ugly’. The central problem for The Builder and others was the context of this building: despite being intended as a temporary structure, it was nevertheless expected, as a public building, to symbolise, through ornament, the architectural values of high culture (particularly as it would house a national collection of ornamental art). Thus, its blank walls were ‘offensive’ to The Builder because they symbolised nothing, its arched roofs breaking the rules of architectural decorum by resembling ‘three huge boilers placed side by side’ rather than any recognisable civic building. As if responding to the harsh criticism of his handiwork, the manufacturer Charles D. Young explained in the introduction to his 1856 catalogue that founders like himself were now seeking input from architects in the design of prefabricated buildings to provide ‘greater scope for the display of architectural effect’.

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

3. Iron bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt, The Builder, 1860

One of the first publicly exhibited prefabricated buildings to demonstrate this shift was a bathing kiosk for the Viceroy of Egypt (3), designed by the engineer Robert Stephenson and manufactured by the London founder Henry D. Grissell, and erected on the Isle of Dogs in the summer 1858 (but still there in early 1860, its eventual fate unknown). Consisting of a series of ‘comforts and luxuries peculiar to Imperial Oriental life, including baths and divans’, the structure was based on a Greek cross plan with a lofty central dome surrounded by four smaller domes, the whole structure standing on a vast circular platform 120-feet in diameter that was supported over the water by a grid of 60 cast-iron columns. Its ornamentation was described as both ‘Oriental’ and ‘Saracenic’, the exterior elements made up of cast-iron filigree panels picked out with colour, the interior comprising painted glass in the domes, encaustic tiles in the walls and a ‘richly-ornamented chain’ from which the baths were suspended. As The Building News recognised, the kiosk was an effective advertisement for both designer and founder, its cast-iron ornament being ‘amongst the best samples we have seen’. In addition, its Saracenic style articulated what was perceived to be an enlightened imperial relationship between Britain and Egypt. If the kiosk demonstrated ‘the enlightened liberality and cultivated taste’ of the Viceroy of Egypt, it was also, for a time at least, an exotic vision of the orient in the heart of London. As described by The Illustrated London News, ‘if we conceive the brilliancy of an Eastern sun, and the clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, we may imagine the effect of this kiosk glittering with its reflection in the waters of the most classical river in the world’.

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

4. Iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

5. Interior of the iron kiosk for export to Bombay, The Builder, 1866.

In the autumn of 1866 another ornamental cast-iron kiosk was erected and displayed in London, this time on the site of the former International Exhibition in South Kensington, in preparation for export to Bombay (4 & 5). Just like its Egyptian predecessor, this kiosk failed to reach its destination, remaining in London until at least until the summer of 1869, apparently a victim of the 1866 international financial crisis. A result of the collaboration between the architect Owen Jones, the engineers Roland Mason Ordish and William Henry Le Feuvre, and the ironfounder Andrew Handyside, the kiosk consisted of an open cast-iron structure with a 10-foot grid of columns joined by ogee-shaped arches and surmounted by a diagonal lattice roof comprised of dozens of arabesque panels. The ornamentation was created by an all-encompassing structural approach only possible with cast iron, with the more utilitarian elements (the bolts in the roof structure and wrought-iron structural girders) ingeniously hidden so as not to compromise the ‘light appearance of the structure’. This subjugation of structure to ornament demonstrates just how much the design of prefabricated iron buildings had changed since the 1840s, this particular example not only being ‘one of the most elaborate examples of ornamental iron work ever seen’ but also serving as an effective advertisement for Handyside’s work and the company’s aesthetic ambitions. Yet, as the illustration in The Builder showed (5), this kind of elaborate orientalist ornamentation was also tailored to its intended geographic and climactic context – an imagined exotic, tropical site in India – and used by an equally exotic Indian aristocracy indulging in luxurious leisure. In this way, this kiosk was not only exporting an exemplar piece of English structural and ornamental ironwork, but a vision of how England imagined the exotic otherworld that it laid claim to.





Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers - the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries’; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.





Arcadian dreams in Paris

4 09 2012

1. Galerie Vivienne

Entering any one of the seventeen surviving arcades in Paris is like stepping into an alternative world, one cut off from the noise and bustle of the metropolitan street – a space of stilled calm, filled with diffuse light filtered through the faded glass roofs above. Here, it’s possible to idle, contemplate and browse, removed as you are from the unending circulation of vehicles and onrushing people outside.

2. Dome in the Galerie Colbert

3. Shopfront in the Galerie Véro-Dodat

Arcades originated in Paris in the late-eighteenth century, emanating outwards (eventually to the whole world) from the Palais Royal, where, in 1786, a long wooden gallery lined with shops became the first covered passage of the modern era. Of course, any visitor outside Europe will know that the Islamic bazaar is much older – medieval in origin; yet, the first Paris arcades were different from bazaars in that they created a new physical environment for a fast-developing consumer culture. Rather than the brick and stone of Islamic bazaars, the arcades in Paris were some of the first buildings to use the new technologies of iron and glass in the construction of their roofs, as seen first in the Galerie Colbert (2; 1826) and Galerie Vivienne (1; 1827). During the nineteenth century, arcades would develop from narrow covered streets to monumental civic monuments, such as the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan (1865-77) or the GUM in Moscow (1888).

4. Ornamental clock and ceiling in the Galerie Vivienne

5. Sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine

Paris’s arcades became famous largely through the writings of one man: Walter Benjamin, a Jewish-German émigre who, in the 1930s, found in these spaces a ‘world in miniature’ – that is, a microcosm of urban capitalism. By the time Benjamin began reflecting on the arcades, they had largely sunk into dereliction, being superseded in popularity by the vast department stores likes Printemps (1881) and the Galeries Lafayette (1912). During time off from poring over books in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Benjamin would wander in the nearby arcades, finding in their poetic dereliction sites ripe for the kind of ‘profane illumination’ that he believed could shatter the shiny surface of commodity culture.

6. Reflections in the Passage des Panoramas

7. Toy shops in the Passage des Princes

If he were alive today, Benjamin would no doubt be perplexed to discover that he was in large part responsible for the preservation of many of Paris’s arcades. From the 1980s onwards, and coinciding with a great flowering in the reputation and influence of Benjamin, a large number of the city’s arcades have been renovated or restored. One of the most ornate – the Galerie Véro-Dodat (3; 1826) – still has its original richly-ornamented wooden shopfronts, cast-iron lamps, lyres, and genies sitting on cornucopias, chequerboard tiles, and painted ceilings; while the nearby restored Galerie Vivienne (4; 1827) has three different entrances and a sumptuous interior of mosaic flooring and other ornaments symbolising material success (laurel wreaths, sheaves of wheat and palm trees), wealth (horns of plenty), and trade (Caduceus of Mercury). Here, some of the original shops still survive, such as the Siroux bookshop, opened in 1828, from which I bought a small guide to the Paris arcades.

8. Passage du Prado

9. Entrance to the Passage du Grand-Cerf

It might seem like Paris’s arcades have now become sites of nostalgia – museum pieces that have been cut off from the kind of historical reflection Benjamin practised in their spaces. It’s as if Benjamin himself has become just one commodity amongst others, as proclaimed by a barbershop sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine (5; 1847) which takes its name from the venerated writer. Yet, in exploring all seventeen surviving arcades today, one cannot help being stunned by their atmospheric richness and distinct yet indefinable sense of localised identity. So, on the one hand, the Galerie Vivienne exudes a sense of nostalgia for the personalised luxury commodity of yesteryear; on the other, the labyrinthine Passage du Panoramas (6; 1799 & 1834) stands almost empty, its enormous mirrors making this emptiness seem all the more melancholy. Meanwhile, the Passage des Princes (7; 1860) is immaculate, pristine and entirely filled with new toy shops, while the nearby Passage du Prado (8; 1925) is a smoke-filled haven for immigrant North-Africans, its rather severe Art Deco ironwork now framing a space more like an Islamic bazaar than a Parisian arcade. And opposite the airy, light-filled and bustling interior of the Passage du Grand-Cerf (9; 1828) is the dingy, empty Passage Bourg-l’Abbé (10; 1828), avoided by most and home to nothing but boarded-up shops, where an isolated image of a Mediterranean seascape daubed with a stroke of white paint raises many questions but answers none; a key, perhaps, to the elusive meaning of these spaces – one that must be teased out from their discarded objects.

10. Picture in the Passage Bourg-l’Abbé





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





Death by ornament: the Sailors’ Home gates, Liverpool

9 05 2012

The Sailors’ Home gates, returned to Liverpool in 2011

Until it was demolished in 1974, the Sailors’ Home in Liverpool was a neo-Elizabethan tour-de-force by the Liverpool architect John Cunningham (1799-1873), with invaluable research on its history published by Stephen McKay here. Launched in 1844, the Sailors’ Home project was intended to provide itinerant seamen a place of board and lodging in the city as well as a morally improving environment, with a reading-room, library and savings bank.

The Sailors’ Home with the gates shown spanning the main entrance, c.1900

The ornamental cast-iron gates were installed in 1851, soon after the Home opened, and were designed by Cunningham in collaboration with a local ironfounder Henry Pooley (1803-78), who had already provided ornamental railings and columns for the building’s interior. The gates served the dual purpose of protecting the savings banks attached to the Home and barring entry to seamen who might wish to gain entry to the building after the strict 10pm curfew. The extravagant ornamentation in the upper part of the gates mirrored the motifs in the sandstone carvings above the building’s entrance and included a welter of nautical motifs – sails, entwined fish, scallops and shells, ropes, horns, and wheels – crowned by a Liver bird, the most familiar heraldic motif of the city. Below, the ornament mirrored that of the balcony railings inside the Home with their exotic double-tailed mermaids supporting tridents and anchors and surrounded by a lattice network of rope.

Nautical motifs and the heraldic Liver bird in the upper section of the gates

This extravagant ornament was related to the gates’s function as a bar, protecting the security of the building and keeping out unwanted boarders. As seen in photographs of the gates in situ, the ornament of the upper parts filled the area above the entrance, making access impossible when the gates were closed. In addition, Pooley had originally proposed additional spikes to be installed on top the gates to make them more secure, but this had been abandoned after one of the mangers of the Home had expressed his ‘fears as to the consequences which might result … to drunken belated boarders’.

Exotic twin-tailed mermaid in the lower section of the gates

Indeed the intimating aspect of these ornamental gates would have more serious repercussions than mere symbolic threat. In the year after they were installed, a woman was killed by the gates after one of the lower panels, weighing half a tonne, fell on top of her. The unfortunate victim – Mary Ann Price – was the wife of the Home’s porter and had been standing next to her husband when the gate slid from its grooves because the chain holding it in place had been detached. Although the subsequent death of Mrs Price was found to be accidental, Pooley was heavily criticised for failing to ensure the safety of the gates and for being slow to redress the defect afterwards.

In an extraordinary instance of lighting striking twice, the gates were to kill again: in November 1907, a local policeman was crushed to death by the gates after he sought shelter in the Home’s entrance during a violent hailstorm. Seeing the porter struggling with one of the gates, the policemen went to help but was ‘overpowered by the heavy mass’ which crushed him so severely that ‘he was at once rendered unconscious’ and later died in hospital. Although personally liable for the death, the authorities of the Sailor’s Home wrangled over the compensation to the policeman’s widow, believing that the chains that supported the gates were more than adequate and that human error was responsible for the fatal accident.

The gates outside Avery’s historical museum in Soho, Birmingham.

The tragic history of the gates may have accounted for the decision to remove them from the Sailor’s Home in 1951. After the Birmingham ironfounder W. and T. Avery took over Pooley’s company in 1948, the gates were offered to Avery and installed outside their historical museum in Soho, Birmingham. Here they were altered to swing like conventional doors rather than slide apart, the upper parts of the gates supported by a wrought-iron frame. The gates remained here until 2010 when they were dismantled to be restored before being returned to the Soho site. However, at the same time, a campaign was launched in Liverpool to lobby for the gates to be returned to their original location in the city, despite the fact that the Sailors’ Home itself had been demolished in 1974.

The gates today, restored to their original location in 2011

Unveiled on 18 August 2011 by the leader of Liverpool City Council, the gates now stand in their former location in Paradise Street, painted in green and gold to match their original colouring. Now fitted securely inside a steel frame, they no longer function as gates, but rather as a memorial to a vanished history. For all around the gates, Liverpool has been newly transformed: from a post-industrial landscape of ruin and decay to a glittering array of glass-fronted high-end shops and department stores. Opposite the newly-installed gates, the shiny transparent frontage of John Lewis now fills the space where the Sailors’ Home once stood. If the gates were meant to bring an historical presence back into this radically dehistoricised environment, they also reinforce the absence of that history, the once-deadly ornament now constrained and domesticated within its sanitised framework and hegemonic surroundings.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880








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