Seasons Greetings

January 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wishing you all the very best for 2012.

Cutteslowe Walls

September 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

In December 1934 a private developer built two nine-foot high brick walls across the roads that linked ‘his’ estate in North Oxford to a council estate next door : they remained in place until 1959 and they tell a bitter tale of class antagonism in mid-twentieth century England.
In the early 1930s Oxford was booming, and changing from being just a university town to a motor-industry town as well. There was an urgent need for new houses, especially as old condemned ‘slums’ were being cleared at the same time. A prime piece of building land was in Cutteslowe, two miles from the city centre up the Banbury Road ; and in 1933 the local Council built an estate there. The next year a 20 acre plot right next door was snapped up by a private developer, the Urban Housing Company. Its owner decided that his houses would be more valuable if they were physically separated from the workers next door, so he constructed two impassable brick walls across the roads that the council estate tenants used to get to the buses and the shops.

Almost everyone in Oxford thought this was obviously illegal and that the walls would soon be demolished. They stayed in place for 25 years. This is a fascinating story of the Council’s failure to bring them down – they tried persuasion, threat, legal action, even a Bill in Parliament ; on one occasion they simply removed the walls, but the company rebuilt them immediately.


It’s a story of the Communist Party’s attempt to appropriate the issue. It’s a story of undergraduates trying to remove the walls at the dead of night, of drunken motorists driving into them, and of tanks on manoeuvre flattening them during the war.

But above all it’s a story of class antagonism and mistrust, and of the failure of public authorities to protect its community  against the interests of private developers.

Dr. Spurstowe House

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Out of ye pious intention of WILLIAM SPURSTOWE D.D. deceased. for.
: merly Vicar of this Parish of Hackney (these six almshouses were 
Erected & built Anno Dmni 1666, for ye Habitations & dwellings of six 
Poore Widdowes of this Parish, of good life & Conversation who dyed 
before hee made a Settlement upon y said Almshouses. & after his 
decease HENRY SPURSTOWE, late of London Esq Brother te? y said Dr. to
Perfect & Establish ye Dr:s good worke Anno Dmni 1667settled for ever
certain Lands in y said Parish on several Trustees for ye said six poor
Widdowes better support & maintenance & for no other persons what
soever. In testimony whereof HENRY SPURSTOWE of London. Gent
Son of ye said HENRY hath erected this Inscription.
Anno domini 1689.

The cartouche of arms and tablet were removed from the original almshouses in Sylvester Path E.8 (round the back of the Hackney Empire) when demolished in 1966.
Dr Spurstowe was Vicar of the parish of Hackney from 1643 until his death in 1666. During the Civil War he supported Parliament and was chaplain to the regiment of John Hampden in the army of the Earl of Essex. Dr Spurstowe was present at the negotiations with King Charles I at Newport. He bitterly lammented the death of the King.

Concrete Fun

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Carbuncle 2012? Prince Charles’s Poundbury fire station is a right royal mess.

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Prince Charles’s new Poundbury fire station.

Prince Charles  has just completed his first building: a fire station in the twee village of Poundbury, Dorset.  A wonderful creation: a dumpy neoclassical Georgian palace with three garage doors attached to it.

Everybody knows that the prince likes to hold forth, mostly disapprovingly, on the architectural state of the nation. A quarter of a century ago he branded the proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square a “monstrous carbuncle”, and the phrase has lingered on infamously as an emblem of British conservatism. Nowadays, he prefers to lead by example, and Poundbury is his vision of the ideal town: a traditional Georgian village that time has forgot

Now, there’s no doubt that Charles has skim read the odd architecture book, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I think the good firemen of Poundbury should be forced to wear Regency breeches and powdered wigs, and rush to their infernos in a red barouche carrying water in wooden pails.


Crushing Fist

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

“You just have to think what it takes to be a dictator,” notes the style commentator Peter York: “You have fought your way there. Even if you did have capital-G “Good” taste, it wouldn’t work with your people, many of whom are not very literate. The point is to impress and intimidate to the max. To say, ‘I’m fantastically important and powerful.” The land of a dictator is, he notes, “a world entirely without irony”.

York has gone so far as to formulate a number of key principles which, he says, invariably inform how a dictator will deck out his humble palace and public space. They include building big – “everything is wildly, fantastically oversized” – installing gold, glass and images of oneself everywhere, and emulating everywhere a particular style of ancien regime French grandeur that is wholly fake. “They like old-style because it looks serious but they don’t like actual antiques because they’re old.”

Key principles include “Ferrero Rocher twinkly” and “testosteronic symbolism” – the eagles, lions, elephants and other aggressive animals dictators like to employ as symbols of the imperial, yet slightly savage, power.

Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the university of Hertfordshire and a specialist in consumerist culture, said Gaddafi’s interior design principle – “bigger, better, with more gold on” – has “nothing to do with taste or style”; its only purpose being to reinforce to others, and himself, his elevated position.

Rebels now celebrate around the once iconic statue of the golden fist crushing a US military bomber, after overrunning the Bab al-Azizya compound in the centre of Tripoli.


September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

This may be the only book you’ll read dedicated to the Southampton city council architects department. Which is a shame, because according to Owen Hatherley, who grew up on a Southampton housing estate, its postwar buildings are “excitingly modern” and evoke the “glittering towers of science fiction”. Bombed-out British cities like Southampton offered modernist architects a chance to realise their utopian dreams of a socialist new society. But their concrete cities in the sky have fallen out of favour, unlike other socialist structures such as the NHS. Hatherley’s book is an intelligent and passionately argued attempt to “excavate utopia” from the ruins of modernism and to oppose the trend in public housing towards a Disneyfied pastiche of pre-industrial architecture, as at Prince Charles’s Poundbury. Hatherley’s exhilarating manifesto for a reborn socialist modernism is inspired by an admirable desire to reawaken our sense of the utopian imaginary. His rallying cry is suitably Brechtian: “Forwards! Not forgetting.”