A visual delight at Golden Lane
Clerkenwell was cool before Hoxton was hip. It is stuffed full of architects, designers and creative types and has a minimalist self confidence rather different from self-regarding Shoreditch which it adjoins. A more logical structure would have put the two together but the old Finsbury borough was merged into Islington. To the west is the (concealed) Fleet valley with Grays Inn and Bloomsbury beyond. North Finsbury is also late Georgian, part of the great arc of west and north London estate development although here more fragmented. Clerkenwell, like Southwark, was medieval edge city full of activities deemed unsuitable in the City itself – slaughterhouses, breweries, fairgrounds, dissenting chapels and multifarious illegal activities, all of which make the area so fascinating today. The boundary with the City is fairly arbitrary, running alongside the Barbican and Smithfield. Clerkenwell developed over centuries in an ad hoc village-like way but its loose organic form was overlaid in the C19th by a series of grand infrastructure projects. The Fleet was culverted although cyclists of an Ackroyd disposition allege you can still hear it beneath the streets. Farringdon Street was created together with the world’s first underground railway to its initial terminus at Farringdon. The irregular shaped open Smithfield market was expunged by the leviathan meat market sheds in the same sort of extraordinarily confident insouciant way that characterised so much post WW2 reconstruction. Many factories and warehouses were built in the late Victorian and Edwardian period, some grand and florid but mostly unassuming and almost proto modern in their clarity, simplicity and flexibility. It is the layered complexity of the area, the scale and adaptability of the turn of the century factories, the proximity to central London and the lack of entrenched professional cultures in the area which is the key to its success and popularity with creative businesses today.
Townscape, industry and non-conformity
Peabody flats - the origins of impressive social housing
London is a city of global villages, its influence ubiquitous, its tentacles ever extending. This is nowhere more evident than in Clerkenwell. Although in places it has its grand city scale, mostly associated with the new Victorian streets, the pattern of the older city with its irregular streets and smaller scale buildings is easily discerned. There is a real sense that these are mixed local communities with terraces, squares, well planned Council estates all jumbled up with schools, myriad local facilities, workspaces, hospitals, universities, shops, street markets, restaurants. It is almost like an idealised planning or architectural vision of what urban life should be like. Could it be that so many architects' masterplans for ‘vibrant mixed use communities’ drawn up by professionals, many of whom are based in the area, are projecting the Clerkenwell model onto much less fertile ground?
English municipality begins with water
There is no doubt that Clerkenwell with its laid back self confidence is a success story but big changes are coming which threaten its individuality. Farringdon today is one huge building site for a new Thameslink and Crossrail interchange station. Up the road are the re-imagined King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. All this massive infrastructure investment now makes Clerkenwell one of the best connected places in London which is bound to have a profound effect on its attractiveness in London’s global real estate market. Much of Clerkenwell is in conservation areas and Islington does not share the same gung-ho enthusiasm for development as the business-dominated City which controls the fate of Smithfield, so in the short term at least planning policy is set to try and protect the integrity of this community.
Where architects have their lunch break - Spa Fields Park
For all your coffee table book & bagel needs - Exmouth Market
The lively character of Clerkenwell is particularly apparent in places like Exmouth Market where we commenced our tour. It is full of cafes and restaurants, and until recently even had an eel and pie shop, but there also signs of the appropriation of ‘urban authenticity’ which Sharon Zukin critiques in Naked City like the original butcher’s shop façade concealing a trendy restaurant, that sort of thing. The continental atmosphere is enhanced by the amazing late C19th Holy Redeemer church with its powerful Italian Renaissance design which dominates the small scale street. The former Finsbury Borough offices terminates the street, a riot of fin de siècle Baroque.
Site of Fabian pilgrimage
Council housing (this good) will save us all
In the mid C20th Finsbury was famous for its radical approach to tackling poverty, poor housing and health and it is this legacy also which contributes so much to its urban quality. Bridget Cherry in Pevsner says ‘Finsbury expresses a C20th urbanity more reminiscent of a continental city than any other part of London’. Tucked away on a back street off Farringdon Road is one of the great icons of the C20th – the Finsbury Health Centre designed by Lubetkin and Tecton and opened in 1938. This is important not only as an example of Modern Movement design but also of its social purpose. The Health Centre provided by Finsbury Borough effectively served as a model for the future NHS. Its provision was part of a remarkably progressive and far sighted Finsbury plan to redevelop what were then crowded slums of Spa Fields but the new flats had to wait until after the war. Immediately opposite Sadler’s Wells are Spa Green flats, 3 blocks designed by Lubetkin in 1946 that were the most technologically innovative public housing in England at the time. They form a really attractive composition with some beautifully conceived flourishes like the curved canopies and ramps. The Finsbury Estate around Skinner Street completed the redevelopment in 1968. The 25 storey tower has an impressive profile of scalloped balconies to St John's Street and lower blocks with gardens look out towards Spa Fields Park – a very well considered ensemble. What is quite striking about this area in the heart of London is how little traffic there is, how quiet and calm the area is.
Europe endless Europe - Finsbury Estate
The redevelopments paid little regard to the old street pattern but often the relationship works really well with attractive older streets interleafed with newer developments. Sekforde Street is one of these, where Ian Nairn singled out what at first glance is the unexceptional Finsbury Savings Bank (1840) for his extraordinary insight. Everywhere too those appealingly modest Edwardian warehouses and factories appear, usually converted to some quietly stylish modish new uses. The Clerkenwell Workshops conversion which began the trend dates from as early as 1975.
Historic detail and...
... understated Marxism at Clerkenwell Greeen
Clerkenwell Green is a most extraordinary place, bypassed by the Victorian improvements of Farringdon Road and Clerkenwell Road it retains an C18th feel presided over by the Middlesex Sessions House with the attractive landmark of St James just up the hill. Its provincial informality is remarkable and the space is not at all tarted up, the ‘Green’ dominated by parking which seems right for once. Facing the Green you will find the self effacing Marx Memorial Library in what was the Welsh Charity School of 1738, only identified by the red flags in one window. Upstairs a mural by Viscount Hastings in the style of Diego Rivera entitled ‘The Worker of the Future clearing away the chaos of Capitalism’. Nearby St John’s Square with the gatehouse of the C12th priory manages to retain an intimate character despite Clerkenwell Road having been blasted through it. Lots of interest in the eclectic older buildings which can just about absorb the new stuff. Britton Street which contains the best surviving C18th buildings in the area leads to Cowcross Street, a really lively street of Georgian, big warehouse conversions and some just about ok infill. Here Polpo is sandwiched between Subway and an old fashioned Italian. Itsu invites us to ‘eat beautiful’.
Ancient Turnmill Street twists into...
... Cowcross Street. Marvellous.
Cowcross Street will soon be overwhelmed by the new Farringdon interchange at the end of the street. Currently a massive construction site, the new station entrance will be subsumed within an overwhelming new office block at the corner of Farringdon Road, a sacrifice to appease Crossrail funding. Farringdon Road is of course another world, a canyon of tall buildings, many Victorian and fairly gradgrind but always managing to have some interest in their elevational treatment and ground floor activities, unlike the gross shiny mirror glass offices mostly from the loadsamoney 80s boom, completely gormless at street level. However there is a rare treat – the 1961 GPO building enlivened what would otherwise have been its blank ground floor with beautiful murals by Dorothy Annan, intended as a narrative of the futuristic development of telecommunications and the scientific and cultural development of the city. The C20th Society were instrumental in the murals being listed and will be repositioned at the Barbican rather than being lost in the forthcoming GPO redevelopment.
The white heat of technology - Farringdon Rd murals by Dorothy Annan
Fabric was always disappointing after viewing this
Islington’s planning strategy seems to be to try and contain the impact of Farringdon’s new uber-accessibility to development in the narrow Fleet valley corridor. Some good urban design studies have been produced to give backing to quite restrictive development policies and include interesting ideas for making more of the dramatic cutting of the Metropolitan line, with hanging gardens and green bridges evoking the spirit of the culverted Fleet valley. Would be nice. But it is likely that the massive public investment in Crossrail and Thameslink will sex up the Farringdon property market rather more than the thoughtful local planners want.
An impressive race track for white vans and taxis
The goods station: one of those "London is big" moments
South of the new interchange is Smithfield Market in the territory of the City of London which has a very different outlook. Here is a new conservation cause-celebre as plans for the redevelopment were recently submitted to the Corporation, which of course also owns it. Smithfield is the only one of the great Victorian wholesale markets to survive supermarket buying blackmail and motorway distribution parks, although it is contracting. Serving the restaurant and local market it opens before dawn and its business is largely done before you have had your second cup of coffee, so quite a dead hand on the area in some ways. The main market halls date from 1866 and are not one of the greatest architectural works of the era - Pevsner is distinctly lukewarm – but the plan was amazing as underneath was a ginormous goods station accessed by a lovely spiral carriageway in West Smithfield Square. The adjacent Poultry market was rebuilt in 1962 and is very handsome with an elliptical concrete dome, the largest in Europe when built, with small circular glazed lunettes. It makes a very impressive space with tremendous possibilities for the future.
The Poultry Market - twinned with Coventry Market
Could easily be restored - The General Market
But the issue is about the General Market to the west dating from 1879, similar but less lucid (Pevsner) than the original buildings, together with the adjacent wedge shaped Fish Market of 1886 and its Red House cold store, the earliest such example and recently listed. Plans for redevelopment were thrown out in 2008, even Hazel Blears accepting that the buildings made a significant contribution to the area. Now plans by McAslan propose largely gutting the buildings to construct lowish office towers within a girdle of retained perimeter buildings with shops and restaurants to the streets and a new internal arcade.
A grand procession
SAVE however sees Smithfield as ‘the grandest procession of market buildings in Europe’ and evoking old battles like the Coal Exchange (and indeed Les Halles) has commissioned a very different plan from Burrell Foley Fisher to save the buildings. This sees refurbishment and restoration of the ‘magnificent’ glazed roofs to provide a ‘fashion hub’ and retail/leisure space which certainly seems much more likely to be interesting than the McAslan version. Better, the SAVE plan proposes opening up the huge underground areas for various public uses. No contest – this is just a much better idea, it really clicks with the character of the area. The McAslan scheme frankly looks silly, hiding itself behind frontages but with its dim towers apologetically poking up above, giving the lie to the whole obfuscation. This isn’t about conservation versus development; rather it is about the whole direction of cities – between creativity, livability and distinctiveness on the one hand and financial commodity and standardisation on the other. The Corporation own the building, so it will be ok then? Probably not.
Flint: a nice reminder that we are in the south-east of England
Austerity Britain - College Hall
Charterhouse Street is big powerful stuff alongside Smithfield but becomes small scale as it kinks to Charterhouse Square, with an amazing Art Nouveau front to the Fox and Anchor. The Charterhouse, which Nairn describes as ‘a nest of medieval and Renaissance buildings …. demonstratively private’ remains so today but you can access the former school campus, now a medical university with a disparate collection of buildings including the carefully proportioned College Hall of 1949, a very satisfying piece of architecture with super wavy balconies to the top floor. Charterhouse Square itself is quite surprising with its most prominent building, 10 storey service flats of 1936, poised as Pevsner says between modernism and Art Deco. The view across the (private) green is dominated by the miraculous towers of the Barbican Estate.
Future historians will point to Arthur Scargill's flat
Ah yes the Barbican, where conventional urbanist nostrums are turned upside down. Concrete tower blocks, elevated walkways, inscrutable, impermeable, highly prized by its residents and increasingly fashionable. Yes, say the critics but it was designed for the middle class and is well managed and maintained. True dat, which rather makes the point. The Barbican is another world, a bastion of civilised life turning its back on the barbarian world of London Wall and Moorgate with their bloated and loathsome office towers of corporate finance. Barbican means an outer fortification to a city, designed as a cover to the inner works, and this is exactly how the development works. From Barbican station the enclosed concrete ramps even have fanciful arrow slits and from most points elevations are resolutely blank and access initially inscrutable, although in places you can see from the street into the gardens. The best way to begin exploring is from the perimeter on the ‘highwalks’ the elevated pedways that were part of a much larger system of vertical segregation envisaged in the late 50s, which was probably no more mad an idea than many current follies like building the Walkie Talkie because it will include a public viewing gallery (the excuse of Peter Rees). From here the overall plan is apparent and you can appreciate the historic context and relationships – the remnants of city walls and few remaining old buildings like St Giles Cripplegate - to which the design is remarkably deferential. It has been argued that given its emphasis on historical references and decoration the Brutalist complex is actually post-modern in spirit.
The birth of the post-modern?
Once you have entered into the heart of the complex you are seduced into an almost magical, secluded world, like walking through the wardrobe. The scale and drama of the ultra long blocks, often ten stories, the huge columns, the massive spans is breathtaking. The towers with their upwardly curved balconies are magnificently sculptural. The main material is dark grey concrete with granite facings, bush hammered, and as Simon Bradley in Pevsner says ‘used in tough masculine forms in a mighty way …. It must be allowed that none of this is for the faint hearted’. But it takes your breath away. The grandness of the conception maintained over the 25 years it took to build (1956-81), the confidence and quality of design and detailing is just wonderful. The care that was given to the choice of hammered concrete finish can be seen in the many trial panels kept behind the locked doors of the materials library, which you can see on guided tours (highly recommended). The blocks of flats are formed around piazzas and large mostly private gardens at the lower levels which you look down on from the second floor podium. The central feature is an extensive formal lake which is bridged by buildings and walkways in the most dramatic way and flanked by a south facing promenade in front of the Barbican Arts Centre. Above this is an extensive winter garden.
Getting lost is part of the fun
The whole amazing Barbican project is entirely exceptional, made possible by the blitz, conceived and lavishly funded by the City Corporation for its own oligarchical reasons. There are over 2,000 flats, built for professionals. The population intended to be 6,500 is depleted especially at weekends as nearly all the flats were bought by wealthy tenants and used as pieds-a-terre. The Barbican is not without its difficulties. It completely lacks legibility for the ingénue and it is deliberately designed to be inward looking, so you need to want to explore it, in which case the walkways work really well. It is sad that the highwalk is being deliberately run down, with what would be a very useful group of small shops now vacant and boarded up. The biggest problem is finding the Barbican Centre which has no real street presence. Within the arts complex the levels are notoriously confusing, apparently because of late changes to the brief which greatly expanded the size of the concert hall and theatre. However internally the halls are very fine. The Barbican breaks all the urbanist’s rules, but it does so magnificently. It shows just what well resourced and independent local government can achieve.
Light and space
A more reasonable design idiom than the Barbican
The architects were Chamberlain, Powell and Bon who earlier built the highly influential Golden Lane estate immediately to the north of Barbican. As relatively unknowns they won the 1952 competition to develop 1,400 flats for the City Corporation on a bombed site then in Finsbury Borough. It was one of the most ambitious schemes since the war. The architects had a strong urban concept of blocks on a loose grid around four courts of differing sizes. The tallest block is 16 storeys with bright yellow glass curtain walling, two stacks of balconies and perched on the top a wayward concrete butterfly which hides plant, ‘an early and much remarked expression of discontent with pre-war Modernism’s limited vocabulary of forms’ (Pevsner). Lower blocks also employ strikingly bright coloured curtain walling. Nairn thought the architecture somewhat fussy ‘but this is unimportant compared with the spaces between them. Every trick in the book is brought in, and not for cleverness, but to create a real place. There are half a dozen ways of crossing the site …. all are meant to be used’. Eat your heart out Alice Coleman. Nairn talks about the space fluctuating and flickering, new views always opening and faster than the eye can take them in. The courtyards exploit different levels, some hard, some down to grass. There is a rose garden, well kept private gardens for some flats, tennis courts and a recently restored swimming pool open to view under one block. Entrances are sometimes foiled with delicate screens, almost like the Alhambra; the whole ensemble is an absolute delight, a quite exceptional achievement.
St Luke's and the pleasant sounds of five-a-side football
A bigger splash - contemporary municipal design
Back to Old Street to discover the extraordinary fluted obelisk spire of Hawksmoor’s St Luke’s. The church was scandalously left ruined until rescued as a venue for the LSO now celebrating its tenth anniversary. We found these traffic free streets enlivened by the spectacle of five-a-side. Around the corner is the recently restored Ironmonger Baths by Tim Ronalds; sensitive to history without whimsy and offering some hope for a municipal future. To us, this sort of thing is infinitely more important than the Shard. Further west along Old Street quite elegant shops and offices from the early 50s front the Stafford Cripps Estate, named after the Chancellor who invented austerity but managed to maintain high levels of social spending whilst rebuilding the economy. Some lessons there maybe, but sadly this estate is a rather poor relation to Tecton’s achievements in Finsbury.
Reading the landscape: the Fleet valley descends on Wharton St
Sober and understated - Amwell Street
The northern part of Finsbury was developed as a series of late Georgian residential estates in part overwhelmed by later building, like Northampton Square laid out in 1805 which now foils and civilises the extensive campus of City University. However on the hills north west of Rosebery Avenue, which provided the springs and eponymous wells for London's water, there is an extensive zone of streets and squares from the early 1800s - Amwell Street, Myddelton Square, Lloyd Square, Lloyd Baker Street, Percy Circus. The houses are sober and understated, rather like Edinburgh in their austere feel but in stock brick of course. Nairn says of these streets and squares ‘they need to be seen as an unselfconscious chain, not as isolated architectural specimens. In fact their merit as places to live is the lack of architecture’. Not architecture maybe but pretty impressive townscape and highly desirable – and being inside the Congestion Charge zone amazingly quiet.
Looking for Albert Angelo - Percy Circus
Sleeping policemen - Charles Ronan House
The surviving late Georgian sits reasonably happily with later developments. One of the most startling is Charles Ronan House on Merlin Street designed in 1927 as flats for the Metropolitan Police, expressionist in red brick with strong verticals and quite wild chimneys. At Holford Street is Bevin Court by Lubetkin and others, 1952, an 8 storey Y shaped block in the distinctive Tecton style but somewhat pared down; balconies were too expensive. Pevsner says the surprise is a stunning central staircase, ‘one of the most exciting C20th spatial experiences in London’. Unfortunately we did not get past security to appreciate this. Interestingly ‘urban authenticity’ now extends to sold off Tecton flats which are advertised by estate agents for their edgy social credentials. Welcome to Coalition Britain. Nearby, Penton Rise flats is a dramatic example of the sculptural possibilities of concrete, but it needs maintenance, a quieter road and some better landscaping. Perhaps it could take its cue from Priory Green on the other side of Pentonville Road. This Tecton design for the council is now under the management of Peabody and the treatment is altogether more sensitive.
An essay in social housing and Anglo-Soviet relations
Peabody takes over council housing at Priory Green
Clerkenwell or Finsbury is a really enjoyable urban experience, an outcome partly of historical accidents, partly of the tremendous wellspring of creativity which London taps into. But it is also a consequence of humane social policy and good planning over a long period so that in the heart of a world city you actually have very liveable villages not just for the rich and artistic, but for ordinary people too, although under tremendous pressure from the mad housing policies of recent governments. What we really liked is how humane London can be - despite the brash shit nearby in the City and the inevitable unwanted views of the Shard from everywhere. Nice schools, good council housing often next to an attractive little landscaped park or five-a-side pitch, well kept pavements, cycleways, all without the dominance of traffic we usually get in Britain. But then London has powers of control and government funding for transport that the rest of us can only dream about. And we do.
More grown up than the Walkie Talkie - Rosoman Place
The Pevsner Architectural Guide to North London by Bridget Cherry (covering Finsbury) is invaluable as is the City volume by Simon Bradley.
Elain Harwood’s book on Chamberlain, Powell and Bon for the C20th Society and EH is excellent.
Nairn’s London does not say much about the area but savour what he does say,