Orientalism-on-sea: Brighton’s birdcage bandstand

12 08 2011

1. Brighton's birdcage bandstand from the King's Road

Brighton’s ‘birdcage’ bandstand (1), one of the finest surviving Victorian bandstands, was constructed in 1884 as part of a wider scheme of improvement for the town’s western seafront. The original structure (2) included toilets and changing rooms on the ground floor, accessible from the seafront, and a bandstand or shelter above linked to the King’s Road by a bridge. The entire structure was designed by Brighton Council’s surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who was also responsible for many other iron structures on the town’s seafront, including several shelters and the Madeira terrace and lift on the eastern esplanade. All of these structures, including the bandstand, were manufactured by the Phoenix Foundry in nearby Lewes, and their name can be seen on almost all of Brighton’s ironwork, from the Palace Pier to the railings and lamps that line the seafront.

The extravagant design of the bandstand has been compared to ‘oriental’ buildings such as the Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada. Like much seaside architecture of the late-Victorian period, its ‘cake-icing’ decoration (3) reflected its seaside context, where visitors escaped the drudgery of everyday life into a more exotic, exciting and enchanted world. The overtly ‘oriental’ style of the decoration of this bandstand evoked distant lands where pleasure reigned, albeit now presented to the many rather than the few. This direct association with pleasure has given this kind of ironwork a frivolous identity, dismissed by architectural historians as a subject unworthy of serious study.

2. The complete structure showing the toilets below and bandstand above

3. View from inside the bandstand

4. Detail of the bandstand decoration

Yet, Victorian seaside resorts were operating in a cut-throat world of competition for a rapidly exanding but class-divided populations of holidaymakers. Resorts like Brighton developed distinct identities that were fiercely protected by local governments and residents alike. The design of seemingly trivial structures like bandstands came under the sway of powerful notions of place-making, class identity, and visual decorum. Thus, the inclusion of dolphins in the spandrels of the bandstand (4) is no mere decorative whimsy; on the contrary, dolphins were part of Brighton’s civic arms and a long-standing emblem of the town. In this and many other iron structures in Brighton, dolphins reinforce the visual identity of the town that distinguished the town from its many competitors on the south coast. In addition, in relation to the bandstand, nearby wealthy residents in Bedford Square initially voiced objections to the new structure, which they felt would spoil the view of the sea and possibly encourage the congregation of disreputable crowds of lower-class holidaymakers. No doubt the inclusion of toilets in the structure fuelled these anxieties. Lockwood’s design reflects the delicate sensibilities of these socially-superior onlookers – the toilets are invisible from Bedford Square and only accessible from the seafront esplanade below, while the elaborate decoration of the bandstand contributes aesthetic appeal to the sea view rather than detracting from it.

5. Underground lavatories, design no. 61 in the catalogue of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, c.1890

This sensitivity to social context in the design of the Brighton bandstand is reflected more widely in designs for public toilets in the Victorian period. In an extraordinary series of examples illustrated in an 1890 catalogue of the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, the range of designs for public toilets (over 60) are explicitly related to their intended social contexts. In one example illustrated above (5), the functional part of the lavatory is completely concealed underground and is topped by an ornamental fountain and railings which also act as a ventilator for the toilets. The elaborate disguise of the toilet part of this structure is similar in conception to the Brighton bandstand/toilets; as the accompanying text makes clear, like its Brighton counterpart, this particular example is designed ‘for situations where the erection of ordinary Closets or Urinals might be regarded as detrimental to the amenity of the neighbourhood’.





The Victorian arcades of Leeds

29 04 2011

County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

In the 1890s, the municipal government of Leeds was vigorously promoting a new civic identity for the city, especially after the town was granted city status in 1893. From 1878 to 1900, eight arcades were built in the city, five of which are still standing. The first, Thornton’s arcade (1), built in 1878, connected Briggate with Lands Lane and was designed by the architect George Smith for Charles Thornton, who owned the White Swan public house/hotel and a theatre in the hotel yard. In keeping with its theatrical focus, the arcade’s ornamentation is flamboyant and playful, with pointed arches, lancet windows and cast-iron Gothic roof, the arches pierced with geometric decoration and including truncated winged lions at their bases.

1. Thornton's arcade, Leeds, 1878

2. Queen's arcade, Leeds, 1889

Leeds’ second arcade, the Queen’s arcade (2), was opened in July 1889, ran parallel the Thornton’s arcade and, like its predecessor, included a roof supported on ornamental cast-iron arches. Despite the privilege associated by its name and being privately financed by the joint owners of the new property, it was celebrated by The Leeds Mercury in language more commonly used to describe public buildings: a ‘credit to the town’, its ‘elegance and attractiveness’ replacing ‘old, filthy and unsightly buildings’. Part of the reason for this civic language lay in restrictions imposed on the design of the Queen’s arcade by the Leeds Corporation; they stipulated that houses be incorporated into the arcade above its roof. Thus, the arcade was both a commercial and residential space, reflected in the design of its interior, which included a gallery-level promenade disconnected from the shops below and lined with an ornamental cast-iron railing. An important aspect of the social life of late-Victorian industrial urban centres, the promenading of middle-class residents contributed to the reshaping of urban space in industrial towns and cities in Britain. In Leeds, promenading encompassed all the fashionable shopping streets and new arcades and served to reclaim the symbolic status of the streets from the working classes. Thus, the intervention of the municipal government in the design of the Queen’s arcade can be viewed as an attempt by them to expand the narrow commercial function of the building and to impose a symbolic identity that would link with the city as a whole, given added credence by the fact that the arcade was opened in a public, civic ceremony in July 1889.

3. County Arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

Leeds’ final, largest and most elaborate arcades – the Cross and County arcades (3) – were built by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham for the Leeds Estate Company Ltd, formed in 1897 to redevelop the area between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Centred on the construction of the Empire Theatre, the new arcades were also a civic complex that included lavish ornamental embellishment: marble columns on the ground-floor, coloured mosaic frescoes representing the arts and sciences in the supporting pendentives of the three, galleried domes (4), a cast-iron balustraded gallery lined by a faience frieze of fruit (5), and ornamental cast-iron arches supporting the glass roof. This luxurious ornamentation was perceived by The Leeds Mercury as a necessary antidote to the ‘severely plain’ buildings of industrial Leeds, but it also reflected the more general transformation the city’s image by the municipal government, with its emphasis on monumental scale, the overt display of elevating ornament, and the creation of a hybrid space signifying both private and public luxury.

4. County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900

5. County arcade, Leeds, 1897-1900





Temples of convenience: cast-iron fountains and urinals

10 03 2011

1: Water fountain, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.

2: Heron, water fountain, Shirehampton, Bristol, 1886

3: Salamander, water fountain, Wallingford, Oxon, 1885

4: Fountain canopy, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

5: Fountain canopy, Whitehall Park, Darwen, 1906

These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.

6: Canopy inside the men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

7: Men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.





Great Victorian ways

25 02 2011

1: Joseph Paxton, perspective view of the Great Victorian Way, 1855

In July 1855, a Select Committee on Metropolitan Communications published its report on how best to improve London’s chronic traffic congestion. One of the proposals came from Joseph Paxton, celebrated designer of the Crystal Palace in 1851. Paxton’s plan comprised a vast iron and glass arcade, which would form an uninterrupted covered space of 10 miles around central London: the ‘Great Victorian Way’ (1). Unsurprisingly, given its projected cost of £11 million, the Committee decided not to adopt this scheme, despite Paxton’s high reputation, and would later choose a far less ambitious underground railway, which was built from 1859-63.

2: Wayfarer's arcade, Southport, 1896

Despite the failure of utopian projects like Paxton’s, the idea of a micro-city under glass and iron persisted in the second half of the 19th century. Although never realised on the kind of scale envisaged by Paxton, there were attempts to create sealed environments offering protection from both the elements and the chaos of the street, most notably in the countless shopping arcades that were built in Victorian towns and cities. One of these – the Wayfarer’s Arcade in Southport – was designed to integrate into an already existing network of covered walkways. Built in 1896 by the Scottish iron manufacturer Walter Macfarlane, this arcade extends the concept of the canopy beyond the street, creating a new enclosed space between two buildings fronting Lord Street (2).

3: Lord Street, Southport

In fact, Lord Street itself is unique in its scale in the Victorian period. For over half a mile, covered canopies project from the shops creating an almost continuous shelter for shoppers in the unpredictable seaside weather of north-west England (3). These canopies were not built by a central municipal authority (as would have been the case if Paxton’s proposal had been built), but by individual property owners responding to demand. One at a time, and presumably in competition with one another, each property owner acquired a canopy for their premises, employing a host of mainly Glasgow-based iron manufacturers to produce ornamental cast-iron columns and railings. So the castings of Walter Macfarlane sit next to those of J & A Law (4); those of McDowell, Steven & Co sit next to George Smith (5). Different-sized columns sit side by side in what amounts to an exhibition of the ironfounders technique. The result is a sense of unity in diversity, with each company vying with its competitors to produce the most elaborate designs to attract customers and heighten the esteem of the property owners. It is almost as if the resulting covered arcade is an accident, achieved piecemeal over the years by the principles of free competition.

4: Lord Street canopies, Southport

5: Lord Street canopies, Southport

If Southport’s Lord Street represents the part-realisation of utopian dreams in relation to iron and glass, other seaside resorts had similar ambitions. As early as 1874, Walter Macfarlane proposed building a mile-long iron colonnade under the cliffs in Brighton. This was never built, but its concept was revived 25 years later in the construction of Madeira Drive (6), a vast covered walkway that formed part of the wholesale re-sculpting of the cliffs to the east of the Palace Pier, which included terraced walkways and an elevator at the eastern end. All of this was the product of cast iron being produced and employed on an industrial scale for decorative purposes. The resulting colonnade was likened to a enormous grotto, hewn from the cliff and emblazoned with mythic subjects: Neptune, acanthus leaves, and water nymphs. This was iron remaking nature into a modern, progressive space but simultaneously adopting the image of an ancient and mythic past.

6: Madeira Drive, Brighton, 1888-95








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