Accelerated ruins: the aesthetics of demolition

4 10 2013
Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

When the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (1976) was demolished on Oxford Street in Manchester in October 2012, thousands of passers-by witnessed the violent death of a large building. Over the course of a few weeks, the building was transformed from ruin to rubble, and thence into just one more unimaginative (yet ubiquitous) Manchester car park. Demolition is perhaps the most commonplace form of what Marshall Berman has termed ‘urbicide’, that is, the deliberate destruction of the built environment of cities. And yet it’s certainly the most ignored: buildings come and go, their unmourned deaths usually heralded by long periods of decline, marked by the failure to find new uses for obviously defunct structures.

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Demolition of New Broadcasting House, Manchester, October 2012

Deliberately contemplating buildings undergoing demolition is a transgressive form of looking. Seeing a building being killed is a discomforting, even shocking experience. Buildings – even long-empty ones – are essentially anthropomorphic structures, designed to be lived in and to be shared spaces of existence. Gaze at a building being demolished long enough and you begin to feel the pain of that death: its broken walls, gaping windows, and twisted metalwork eliciting a kind of bodily sympathy in the viewer. The violence of demolition also contrasts with the serenity of the ruin. Where, with the ruin, nature is allowed to re-establish her former claims to the building, producing (at least for a time) a peaceful sense of equilibrium, the building undergoing demolition is violently annihilated by the very tools that raised it up in the first place. No wonder that most demolitions are shielded from public view behind makeshift screens.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Demolition of Oldham Twist Mill (1883), September 2013.

Representations of demolition are thus transgressive in that they both expose and forestall the violence of architectural annihilation. On the one hand, photographs articulate the half-demolished building as somehow still existent, even at the moment of its death – the architectural equivalent of a coroner’s report perhaps; on the other, the exposure of the building’s insides during demolition produce revelatory views of architecture – that is, glimpses of the otherwise invisible ‘soft’ interiors (perhaps most powerfully represented in Rachel Whiteread’s spectral sculpture House (1993)).

Rachel Whiteread, 'House' (1993)

Rachel Whiteread, ‘House’ (1993)

'Demolition of Hungerford Market', Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

‘Demolition of Hungerford Market’, Illustrated London News, 27 December 1862, p. 705.

Demolition also suggests new kinds of urban aesthetics, given widespread expression in nineteenth-century London when modernisation produced unprecedented scenes of urban ruination. So, when the Hungerford Market near the Strand was demolished in 1862 to make way for the Charing Cross Railway Station (1864), the Illustrated London News found in the resulting scene of destruction a powerful new aesthetic of modernity: a vast, dark absence flanked by houses on the brink of destruction, and the shadow lines of staircases, ceilings and floors imprinted, like Whiteread’s House, on their remaining walls. For the Illustrated London News such destruction produced a great deal of visual interest, in effect a new form of urban picturesque; yet in representing such a scene at all, the newspaper also exposed the urbicide that is common to all forms of modernisation. Yet, as Lynda Nead has argued, the illustration is also a permanent representation of the archaeology of modernity, revealing that the latter is always haunted by the spectral presence of the past, no matter how quickly it tries to obliterate it with the promise of the new.





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.





Curiosities of the Victorian census

25 04 2012

'Filling up the census paper', Punch, April 1851, p. 152.

From the introduction of the modern census in 1841, the census anecdote or ‘curiosity’ became a regular feature of newspaper columns. With the 1851 census came a plethora of ‘amusing’ returns: an Anglesey householder including all his animals on his census paper; a rural householder near Belfast writing under the column ‘Deaf and Dumb’, ‘Husband, not deaf, wish he was’; while a householder in Great Bowden in Derbyshire wrote ‘married, and sorry for it!’ in the column on marital status.

'Case of census-conscience', Punch, 15 April 1871, p. 147.

The 1871 census brought stories of the death of a young woman in Liverpool while filling out her census paper, and the case of a householder in rural Devon who was fined £1 for refusing to fill out his schedule because ‘he knew neither his own name nor his place of birth.’ Coverage of the 1891 census included more stories of householders refusing to complete their returns and widespread coverage of the sad story of Lord James Douglas forced to appear before the West London Police court after his children filled out the census paper while he was ill in bed, describing his wife as a ‘cross sweep’ and a ‘lunatic,’ and his son as a ‘shoeblack.’ The public ridicule he suffered seems to have contributed to his tragic death by suicide on 5 May 1891.

'Humours of the census', 11 April 1891, p. 479

If newspapers found amusement or pathos in the census returns, others found opportunities for social satire, especially on the question of women stating – or rather misstating – their ages. This problem had been of serious concern to the General Register Office, the organisers of the census after 1841. In 1851, they suggested that women over 20 depressed their ages because they ‘choose, foolishly, to represent themselves as younger than they really are,’ a point reiterated by them even as late as 1901.

'The census', Punch, 20 April 1861, p. 162

From 1841 onwards, satirical publications seized on this subject to make polite social comedy. If The Satirist set the scene in 1841, arguing that the ‘vague’ question on age in the census schedule was in response to women not wanting to state their exact age, then Punch, founded in that year, took up the subject in almost every subsequent census. Its 1861 cartoon ‘The Census’, shown above, is typical of its coverage, showing a middle-class family of two with their census-night visitor grouped around a table, on which the elderly head of the household is filling in the census paper. Asking his equally elderly spinster visitor, Miss Primrose, what he should write for her age, she states ‘The same as dear Flora. Twenty last birthday!’ Such gentle satire could descend into outright farce: in the same year, the Adelphi theatre in London staged its own take on the census, titled The Census: a Farce in One Act, in which the census schedule took centre stage, around which a variety of social embarrassments were played out in quick succession.





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.





Cathedral of sewage: the Abbey Mills pumping station

18 12 2010

The Abbey Mills pumping station from the Greenway

The Abbey Mills Pumping Station (1865-68) was the last to be constructed in the first phase of London’s main drainage project in the 1860s, masterminded by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was also architecturally the most extravagant and has come to be known as the ‘cathedral of sewage’. The style of the building has been variously described as Byzantine, Italian Medieval, Russian, Ruskinian Gothic and Moorish. The Builder commented in 1868 that the building ‘seemed to be an elegant structure in a swamp [which] might be taken for a mosque or Chinese temple’. The original twin ventilation chimneys (2), richly ornamented and standing 212 feet high, gave this building a prominence that has consistently attracted public attention, and today it still provides a focus for introducing the public to Bazalgette’s system.

2 Abbey Mills in 1868

The stylistic and decorative elements of Abbey Mills ‘dress up’ the engineering function and present it in symbolic terms: the underground spaces of the building are claustrophobic, dark and disorientating (3) while the second-storey gallery level is light, airy and filled with naturalistic decoration (4); the cruciform plan, cathedral-like doors and internal octagon suggest religious associations normally restricted to churches. Such design elements were employed in many contemporaneous Victorian industrial buildings, most notably markets, which were often built to a cruciform plan and with similar decorative central octagonal pavilions. The symbolic associations of these design features indicate that the architectural embellishment seen at both Crossness and Abbey Mills has a very different function from mere technological expediency.

3 Underground spaces at Abbey Mills

4 Interior ironwork from the upper gallery

The architect of Abbey Mills was Charles Driver, a specialist in the use of iron, and it is in the ornamental iron at Abbey Mills that we sense his desire to elevate the value of iron above its strictly utilitarian character. This was an attitude that went against the grain of architectural practise and theory in the 1860s, which, under the influence of the influential architectural critic John Ruskin, strove for truth to nature in architecture, rejecting the use of cast iron because it was a synthetic, artificial material. Iron was seen by Ruskin as not fit to express the noblest architectural ideas. Indeed, Ruskin viewed the use of cast iron as excluding a building from being true architecture; likewise, cast-iron ornament is condemned as ‘cold, clumsy, and vulgar’. But in the interior of Abbey Mills we see no such reservations; rather a reversal of Ruskin’s views: the profuse decorative cast-iron motifs, including roses, lilies and acanthus leaves (5) imitate nature so convincingly that iron here effectively appropriates the function of a natural and ‘noble’ material such as stone.

5 Cast-iron lilies in the upper gallery

Such ‘dressing up’ of iron, seen by most architectural historians as a kind of structural deceit, at Abbey Mills provides a symbolic embellishment of the building’s engineering function. For the Victorians, morality and architecture were inseparable and the morality of architecture was expressed through style and decoration. To Victorian architectural critics like Ruskin, the engineering function of this building would have possessed no moral meaning in itself precisely because it was divested of all such symbolism. Therefore, the moral value of Abbey Mills is communicated through its decorative and symbolic elements: the cruciform plan and cathedral-like doors use religious symbolism to elevate its meaning above mere utility; the exterior façades include features alluding to Gothic Venice – the apotheosis of nobility in architecture, according to Ruskin – while the interior use of decorative ironwork represents an attempt to both elevate iron as a noble constructive material and to give further symbolic meaning to the functional aspects of the building.

The spaces of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, as the visible part and symbolic representation of a largely invisible system, are ones where old and new conceptions of sewer space collide: Bazalgette’s new rational understanding of sewers conflates with the architectural embellishments which use an older symbolic language to suggest the nobility of both sewers and the constructive material associated with them, namely iron. It remains a point of contention whether these new ideas really did successfully displace and transform the old conceptions of the wider public.

6 Visitors at Abbey Mills in 1868

On 30 July 1868, many of London’s dignitaries did see Abbey Mills when a sumptuous banquet was held at the site to mark the official opening of the entire sewer system north of the Thames (6). Visitors, who were each supplied with a copy of Bazalgette’s description of the building, marvelled at the lack of smell, the lightness of construction and the rich floral ornamentation, all of which suggested a true ennoblement of the sewer and its function.But such a sense of nobility depended on the effective concealment of the underground parts of the building where the sewage was pumped. In the almost identical ceremony that took place at Crossness on 4 April 1865, visitors also admired the beauty of the ornament and the ‘poetical’ qualities of the religious symbolism, but many also descended into the crypt-like space of part of the vast subterranean sewage reservoir (7). Despite the temporary exclusion of the sewage and the dazzling lighting, some visitors felt distinct unease at the thought of being in such close proximity to ‘the filthiest mess in Europe’ ready to ‘leap out like a black panther’ after the guests had left. It was in these underground spaces, close to the ‘ignoble’ sewage, that older associations were stimulated. The complete invisibility of these spaces at Abbey Mills perhaps closed down opportunities for such associations to emerge. However, such concealment by no means marks the demise of these older conceptions: rather, it has been contended that: ‘in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost … everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’.

7 Visiting Crossness's underground sewage reservoir in 1865








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