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.





Architecture and history: London Bridge station

17 06 2011

1. The Shard under construction in June 2011

In its slow progress upwards, London’s Shard (1) is already Britain’s most high-profile skyscraper and, when finished, will be – at 1,017 feet – the tallest building in Europe. According to its architect, Renzo Piano, part of the inspiration for the design came from the railway tracks adjacent to the site of the new building, which centre on London Bridge station, one of London’s eighteen railway termini, and constructed mainly in the mid-1860s out of an existing jumble of buildings of several competing railway companies (2). At the present time, Network Rail are planning to remodel the entire station – an attempt to transform a notoriously cramped, messy site characterised by spatial confusion into a building that reflects the character of its new spectacular neighbour.

2. London Bridge Station from the south

The contrast between the two buildings – Shard and London Bridge Station – is startling. The Shard is the epitome of spectacular high-tech modernity in architecture, a spire entirely clad in glass panels that will create a dazzling landmark visible for miles around; while London Bridge station is Victorian bric-a-brac architecture, its bits and pieces including a brick train-shed wall fronting St Thomas Street pierced with monumental arches, and an enormous viaduct stretching for nearly a mile southwards, slicing the land in half and supported on a repeating series of  triple polychrome arches (3), pierced by tunnels that link Tooley and St Thomas’s Street (4). Today, most of the arches are in an advanced state of decay, their polychrome facades chipped and faded, the cornices awry and sunken from decades of neglect (5).

3. London Bridge viaduct from St Thomas Street in 2004

Network Rail’s plan to sweep away much of this Victorian heritage in its new design for the station has encountered opposition, mainly from local residents, channelled through the Bermondsey Village Action Group (BVAG). As Southwark Council plan to line St Thomas Street with new high-rise office buildings, the BVAG are formulating an alternative ‘heritage-based’ approach that seeks to conserve and repair the existing Victorian buildings. The central question raised by these plans is one of urban image: on the one hand, the Shard proclaims a new image for the city, centred on the idea of architecture as talismanic presence, inspiring a new spirit of urban optimism that looks forward and not to history; on the other, London Bridge station asks us to appreciate urban space shaped by the chaotic and conflicting demands of both city life and of its history, its decay prompts thoughts on what exactly should be valued in the built environment. For some, the sense of decay and mess around London Bridge station is a positive attribute in itself – a liberating alternative to the clean surfaces and ordered spaces of an increasingly dominant high-tech urbanism.

4. Tunnel under the viaduct between Tooley and St Thomas St

5. Decaying arch near Crucifix Lane

What would continue to make this site really interesting is a willingness to engage with multiple ways of imagining urban space, its future as well as its past. Despite the fears of many, the presence of the Shard may not necessarily overwhelm the long and complex history of the site; at the moment at least it serves to highlight the contradictions and juxtapositions that make big cities such fascinating places to be. Whether or not that continues to be the case depends on how much we allow our urban spaces to be shaped only by one seemingly overpowering image and not by the many that have given them their history.





Victorian bazaars

11 05 2011

The introduction of shopping arcades in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century coincided with another new retail space, the bazaar. More exclusively a building type confined to early-Victorian England, the bazaar, in common with the arcade, collected a variety of traders under one roof and were controlled by a single proprietor. Unlike arcades, bazaars were defined by their spatial openness and by their multifunctional spaces: many also included winter gardens, picture galleries, tea rooms, and other spaces for other popular entertainments, such as dioramas and panoramas. In his Curiosities of London (1867), John Timbs listed nine bazaars in London, the first being the Soho bazaar (1816), but they were adopted in many other towns and cities in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. As their name suggests, bazaars were adapted from the Islamic model of a covered shopping space characterised not by luxury goods but by their variety of trades. Yet, architecturally, they had little in common with their Islamic precedents and were based on a series of courtyards and rooms with skylights, light wells, and multilevel galleries.

The Pantheon Bazaar in 1845

With their emphasis on spatial openness, entertainment and multifunctional spaces, it is not surprising that bazaars, rather than arcades, became the focus of architectural experimentation in early Victorian retail spaces. London’s Pantheon bazaar was built in 1834 by Sydney Smirke inside the existing Pantheon theatre, built in 1812. With its wide, sky-lit, basilica-style hall, rich papier maché ornamentation, and an iron-and-glass aviary ‘ornamented in Saracenic style’, the building evoked wonder to its first visitors. Such ornamental extravagance also characterised bazaars in provincial towns. The Norfolk and Norwich Royal bazaar, built on St Andrew’s Street in Norwich in 1831, included a gallery level that functioned as both a retail and exhibition space and which was supported by ornamental cast-iron columns in the form of palm trees, a decorative embellishment originally employed in the Brighton Pavilion (1815-16). Whilst bazaars did not follow Islamic precedents in terms of their design, the flamboyance of their decoration and inclusion of exotic spaces such as aviaries and winter gardens had direct, if generalised, oriental associations. Palm leaves were equated with distant, exotic lands; aviaries derived from an Indian building type; while ‘Saracenic’ ornament referred more specifically to Islamic motifs such as the horseshoe arch, geometric surface decoration and arabesques.

St James' Bazaar, London, c.1830

The Crystal Palace Bazaar, London, 1858

The most architecturally adventurous bazaar of the Victorian period was the Crystal Palace bazaar (1858). Designed by Owen Jones, this bazaar was conceived as a city-centre complement of the Crystal Palace building, re-erected in the south-London suburbs in 1852-54. Squeezed between buildings fronting London’s most crowded shopping streets – Oxford and Regent Street – the Crystal Palace bazaar had multiple entrances and a spacious interior with a wide hall covered with a vault 36-feet high. In common with Jones’s other retail architecture, the bazaar was characterised by a highly original treatment of iron and glass: the vault was formed from wrought-iron ribs infilled with diamond- and star-shaped coloured glass; and the vault itself was supported on two tiers of ornamental cast-iron columns. In addition, Jones paid careful attention to colour: the interior cast-iron columns were painted light blue, white, and red in their upper sections with dark maroon, light blue and white below, with the abacuses of each column and the gallery railing gilded. The effect, according to The Illustrated London News, was a ‘gem-lighted hall’ with ‘golden and silvery light’ that was even more magical at night when lit by gas lamps.





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





Civic space? The Barton arcade, Manchester

1 04 2011

1: Barton arcade from St Anne's Square

Walter Benjamin recognized in the first arcades of Paris – built at the turn of the 19th century – the beginnings of iron construction that would culminate in the Crystal Palace building of 1851. Yet, arcades also looked backwards as well as forwards: for Benjamin, they were also still rooted in the luxury culture of the 18th century, private worlds that effectively sealed out the social mixing on the street in an artificial environment – a ‘world in miniature’. The early arcades were commercial speculations, built by a single or joint property owners, with the shops lining the arcade leased to individual traders. They were usually narrow spaces, the architectural potential of the iron and glass roofs subordinated to the dictates of economy.

2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan in The Builder, 25 April 1868

Yet, by the time the Barton arcade was constructed in Manchester in 1871 (1), everything had changed. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly-growing industrial cities of Britain embraced the arcade as an essential part of civic improvement. The precedent for this ‘public’ appropriation of the arcade was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, opened in Milan in 1865 and influencing a British audience through the pages of The Builder (2). This monumental arcade was the result of international cooperation; it was financed by a British company, designed by an Italian architect and constructed by a French engineer. Consisting of two wide passages joining beneath an octagonal-based dome 106-ft high, this was an arcade on a colossal scale, richly decorated with frescoes and ornamental cast iron vaulting.

As a new civic space modelled on the Milan Galleria, Manchester’s Barton arcade exhibits its ‘public’ status through its decorative features. Wider than its earlier British counterparts and built on three-levels, the sense of light-filled space is dramatic on entering the arcade via a conventional stone-fronted building (3). The elaborate cresting within the barrel-vaulted glass roof, the lion heads cast onto the shop fronts (4), and the naturalistic foliage seen in the columns and panelling in the exterior of the arcade (5) all contribute to the newfound sense of iron being a material fit for symbolic treatment. Such symbolism was an essential element in Victorian civic architecture, especially in industrial cities like Manchester, whose urban identity was being reconstructed, through high-profile architectural projects, out of its former utilitarian image – a monotonous cityscape of chimneys, vast mills, factories and warehouses.

3: Interior of the Barton arcade, Manchester (1871)

4: Ornamental iron shopfront in the Barton arcade

5: Detail of ornamental cast iron in the exterior of the Barton arcade

The Barton example initiated an arcade craze in Manchester: Victoria buildings (1874) included a vast galleried arcade, as did the Exchange buildings (1876) and a new arcade was constructed in Deansgate in 1899. None of these other examples survive but they are nevertheless testament to the power of the arcade as a symbol of civic status in Britain in the late-19th century. Similar arcade complexes were also built in other cities around the country, including Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. Together, they represented the transformation of Benjamin’s exclusive ‘world in miniature’ to a democratised covered space in the city accessible to all. Yet, despite the best intentions of their progenitors, arcades were always subject to the dictates of supply and demand; they all served commercial functions and were never financed by public money. As a result, their presumed ‘public’ status was in reality subsumed to ruthless economic dictates. The arcades in Manchester quickly fell victim to this schizophrenic status: at best, they were viewed as too spacious to function as indoor ‘streets'; at worst, as wasteful follies built solely on the basis of speculation that failed to attract either shopkeepers or customers.





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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