Tuesday 27 October 2015

Dinosaur revival

A few days ago, we heard the news that Crystal Palace's Victorian dinosaurs are to be repaired. Their Friends have produced an entertaining video to explain why the repairs are needed.

It's good news, because the dinosaurs are truly special. Here's my report from a few years ago on why:

When the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to its new site, the surrounding park was also intended as a place of entertainment and education. Nowhere were those two aims better combined than in the dinosaur park (the first in the world). Entertaining as it might be to wander around scenic lakes with prehistoric animals at every turn, the visitor was also expected to learn.

The creator of this section was none other than Professor Richard Owen, the man who invented the word 'dinosaur'. Sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, the creatures were placed to create a timeline illustrating the new and shocking idea that such animals had existed millions of years ago. (This was all happening in 1854, five years before Darwin's Origin of the Species was published).

The park's prehistoric inhabitants haven't always had a happy time. The display was never completed because money ran out - otherwise we might have had a mammoth and a dodo there as well - and by the late twentieth century had fallen badly into disrepair. However, recent restoration has returned the models to their full Victorian glory, complete with original colours, and resisted the temptation to correct them in light of later discoveries. Thus the ichthyosaurus is shown coming onto land (it couldn't), missing its dorsal fin, and with an incorrectly-shaped tail.

The megatherium (which should be dark brown) looks as if it's playing hide and seek. Its tree is the Victorian original; in fact, it went on to grow so much that it broke the animal's arm off. No risk of that happening again: the tree is now dead.

Another attempt to mingle model and reality was the megaloceros, which originally incorporated genuine fossilised antlers. However, since fossils are stone and the models are concrete on hollow iron frames, the antlers proved too heavy and were replaced with replicas.

The final educational feature for the Victorian visitor was the illustration of geological strata. A cliff complete with coal measures, ironstone and fault lines combined lessons in geology and in the raw materials of industry. An afternoon in the park had become an improving experience!

Sunday 25 October 2015

Postman's Park (29): PC Robert Wright


Unfortunately, his bravery was in vain: although he thought he heard a woman scream and rushed to rescue her, there is nothing in the inquest report to suggest that anyone was in the house. In fact, the family who lived there above their oil and colour shop had gone on holiday to Gravesend.

There was another problem at the scene of the fire: some of the firemen were drunk. The evidence suggested that they had already become inebriated before attending the fire; the inquest was assured that their conduct would 'receive the serious attention of the authorities.' This suggests that the Croydon fire brigade was not quite as disciplined a body as its London counterpart.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Poplar's Festival estate

The Lansbury Estate in Poplar was designed both as a place to live and as an exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain. After the bombing damage of the Second World War, housing was of enormous importance. Thus the Lansbury was to offer a model of contemporary architecture at a moment when neighbourhoods rather than 'icons' were an architectural priority. 

It was serving a very real need: Poplar had been badly bombed, and reconstruction was urgently required. The 1943 County of London Plan emphasised the importance of preserving community identities, including through the creation of community spaces.

Architect Frederick Gibberd was heavily involved in the planning of new towns and neighbourhoods (he would both design and live in Harlow New Town), and had a reputation for delivering good-quality social housing. He argued that the Living Architecture Exhibition should 'take a bombed or cleared site of four to six acres as near as possible to the site of the main Exhibition; to develop it as a cross section of a Neighbourhood, with such other additional permanent structures as may be necessary to complete the visual picture, providing such buildings are of ultimate use to the neighbourhood'. The site would be handed over to the local authority once the Festival ended. 

Of various sites suggested, this one was chosen because it was a bomb site; the surrounding buildings were felt to be more attractive than those of other suggested sites; plans were not too advanced; and visitors could travel to it by riverbus. It was to include not only housing but also a market and pedestrianised shopping centre, schools, churches and pubs. Such an ambitious project inevitably suffered difficulties of time and budget: land had to be acquired, residents moved, skilled workers recruited, and permissions obtained. Amazingly, however, the exhibit was completed more-or-less on time and the first tenants moved in on 14 February 1951. 

Many of the exhibits were temporary: a 200-foot tall construction crane, the Rosie Lee Cafe, and themed pavilions. Once these had been toured, visitors were sent to walk an approved route around the Lansbury - although unfortunately, it proved easy for them to get lost! Indeed, the Living Architecture Exhibition had something of a Cinderella status within the Festival. There were no opening or closing ceremonies, and the 86,000 visitors were a tiny proportion of the 8.5 million who visited the South Bank. Many critics found the designs uninspiring (reduced budgets hadn't helped), although those who lived there would go on to assess it more positively. 

Nonetheless, surviving traces add rather jaunty notes to the estate. Drainpipe hoppers have the festival logo, and there is a Festival Inn. 

Perhaps the most distinctive manifestation of Gibberd's vision is the landmark Chrisp Street Market clocktower. It was designed as a folly, an enjoyable centrepiece rather than a terribly functional piece of architecture. There are two staircases (intended for ascending and descending), and sides left deliberately open.

The Festival site was just the first phase of the Lansbury Estate, named for Poplar's Socialist councillor and MP George Lansbury who had died in 1940. In fact, it was not completed until 1982. Long before that, the low-rise housing of the first stage gave way to high-rise flats, while economic and social decline also blighted the estate in the latter decades of last century. 

Just across the road from Chrisp Street Market is the most famous of these, albeit part of Brownfield Estate rather than Lansbury: the Balfron Tower. Designed by Erno Goldfinger, it is Grade II listed and currently being refurbished. Its story reflects many current issues with social housing, with residents being moved out and the flats due to be sold as private luxury homes.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Postman's Park (28): William Drake

Hyde Park was long a fashionable place for horse and carriage rides. At the same time, it is surrounded by busy roads, including Park Lane. This was the scene for an accident in 1869.

Mademoiselle Titiens and a friend were entering Hyde Park in a brougham, through Stanhope Gate off Park Lane. However, a wagonette crossed in front of the carriage; in his attempt to perform an emergency stop, Mlle Titiens' carriage driver broke the carriage-pole and lost control of the horses. Luckily, help was at hand: passer-by William Drake and a policeman ran over to stop the horses, preventing a serious accident to the carriage occupants. During the incident, Drake was kicked on the knee by one of the animals.

The Mlle Titiens referred to seems to have been the opera singer Terese Titiens (Tietjens). Born in Hamburg, she had moved to London in 1858 and was considered one of the great sopranos of the nineteenth century. She would continue performing until shortly before her own death in 1877.

What may have appeared a relatively minor injury to Drake turned to pyaemia (a form of blood poisoning with fever and abcesses). As a result, Drake died. However, there was some consolation for his family: a representative of Mlle Titiens assured the inquest that she would amply care for his dependents. He was also recognised in Postman's Park:


Tuesday 6 October 2015

Scream. Ice scream.

Frozen dairy desserts seem to attract the strangest models, and this one on the Breton coast is no exception. While the dessert is more of a dome than the usual collection of scooped spheres - and none of the garnishes are to scale! - what really grabs the attention is that smile. The smile of nightmares...

(Luckily I only saw it after ordering my dessert, which was delicious!)