Fortess Road Post Office, London

This one really speaks for itself, I believe: ‘Fortess Road Post Office’, a mosaic inscription on this late nineteenth-century building in Kentish Town proclaims. The words are placed in a blind window right in the centre of the gable. A symmetrical floral motif in the lunette completes the composition. This motif is repeated in the lunettes of the other, actual windows on the façade (although in one of them the mosaic decoration is now missing).

One might argue that the rather narrow blind window might not be the ideal choice for fitting such an inscription, but the designer of the mosaic turned necessity into virtue by giving the words a distinct diagonal slant. This gives the lettering a dynamic appearance, which is enhanced by the curvy shapes of the initials and by the floral scrolls filling the angles of the frame.

And it’s even further enhanced by the background: What may seem like a flat white surface at first glance, upon a closer look, turns out to be a pattern made of small tesserae following the curls and twirls of the letters they surround. What’s more, the white tesserae are interspersed with yellowish ones, adding a certain shine and sparkle to the mosaic ground. Combined with the colourful contrast between the dark, almost brownish red of the letters and the turquoise of the initials, all this produces an aesthetically pleasing, almost lavish effect.

It seems almost superfluous to add that the post office no longer exists, at least not at this address. Instead, the building now houses a shop on the street level and, I assume, flats on the first and second floor. But the post office sign remains, an ornate reminder of the building’s original use – and of a time when the area was growing at a fast pace from rural suburb to urban borough.

Summer House, Richmond, London

Standing directly on the popular Thames promenade in Richmond, this small tower-like building is probably a familiar sight to many Londoners. Its crenellated parapet gives the structure an almost medieval look, but the large round-arched windows betray its eighteenth-century origin: It was built around 1760 as an architectural garden feature for Trumpeter’s House, which, at that time, was in the possession of one Lewis Way, a barrister of the Inner Temple, Director of the South Sea Company and President of Guy’s Hospital.

Trumpeter’s House itself had been erected shortly after 1700 between Richmond Green and the Thames, on the site formerly occupied by Richmond Palace. Lewis Way added two wings and an impressive portico to the building, as well as the summer house at the rear end of the extensive gardens, which stretch all the way to the river. In many respects, it is this position on the waterfront that determined the design of this ‘miniature tower’. After all, its primary purpose was to provide its owners a view over the river. Thus, while the garden side has a solid, closed appearance, there are two large windows looking outwards, and the building’s main level is raised above ground by an elevated basement. One might perhaps even describe the summer house as a kind of free-standing theatre box – with the boats and passers-by outside providing the entertainment.

 

Cholmeley Lodge, London

Another walk uphill in north London, this time up Highgate Hill. As you make your way up from Archway tube station, the Art Deco block of Cholmeley Lodge stands out like an eye-catcher at a slight bend in the road, among rows of mostly Victorian terraced houses. It was built in 1934–35 after designs by Guy Morgan, who is perhaps best known for Florin Court, another London apartment building in the Art Deco style.

In the case of Cholmeley Lodge, the vertical rise is counterbalanced by the horizontal lines of the balconies on each floor. Projecting from the façade, these balconies also add a certain amount of structure and plasticity to the block. Add to this the contrast between brick and white-plastered walls, enlivened by generously spaced windows, and the result is a building that appears rich and elegant without using so much as a single ornament.

That, however, is not all there is to it…

As you continue uphill and get closer to the building, you realise that it is not a simple block, but swings out in a curve, then turns a corner and swings out again. And again. In fact, Cholmeley Lodge is comprised of three (almost) identical crescents, overlooking the city from the slopes of Highgate Hill.

With its curves and balconies, the complex seems perfectly matched to its hillside spot, so it may come as a surprise to learn that it was originally designed for an entirely different location: the seafront at Bournemouth. But, even though Bournemouth, like many seaside resorts, has its fair share of Art Deco architecture, Guy Morgan’s design was considered too modern by the local planners and therefore rejected.

Well, what can I say, Bournemouth’s loss is Highgate’s gain, and so far, Cholmeley Lodge is probably my favourite building in my new(ish) north London neighbourhood.

Belvoir Estate, London

Earlier this year, at the beginning of May, I was walking with my partner from Archway to Crouch End, in north London. Knowing the neighbourhood already better than I did, she was pointing out the area’s architectural highlights to me, mostly buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian era. But as we made our way up Hornsey Rise, she drew my attention to a much more recent council estate extending along the east side of the road, saying that she kind of liked it despite its overt postmodernist 1980s look. Now, having both grown up during that particular decade, we share a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards it aesthetics, but I had to agree: those buildings on Hornsey Rise did have a certain quality, so I made a mental note to try and find out more about them… Only a few days later, of course, all major British news outlets announced a list of 17 postmodern buildings that had just received listed status by Historic England; the estate on Hornsey Rise was one of them.

Belvoir Estate, as it’s called, was designed by Gerry Jury of Islington Architect’s Department, under Chris Purslow, and built 1983–1987. Extending over a roughly triangular site delimited by Hornsey Rise, Hillside Road, and Hornsey Rise Gardens, it comprises a range of buildings in different styles and sizes, from bungalows to almost tower-like three-storey structures.

Between them, the estate’s altogether 48 housing units display a rich mix of materials and architectural motifs that has been compared to the aesthetics of the Arts and Craft Movement. As you’d expect in north London, the main building material is brick, and the combination of the yellowish London stock brick with sections of red brickwork makes for a nice contrast.

Even more contrast is provided by the addition of metal canopies and frameworks, painted in bright colours; faux-timber-framed oriels reminiscent of Tudor buildings; pointed windows that bring to mind Gothic or Gothic revival architecture; then again clear lines and curves recalling interwar Modernism.

All of these different features are thrown together in an almost playful manner, but the overall effect is anything but hodgepodge. Instead, what characterises Belvoir Estate is an interesting and pleasing interplay between variety and unity. Individual elements and motifs appear on one end of the building complex, then seem to vanish for a while, only to reappear, with subtle variations, at the other end. Thus the architect manages to give the estate a sense of unity, while successfully avoiding monotonous uniformity.

Midland Railway Stables, London

St Pancras Way in the Borough of Camden certainly isn’t the most picturesque street in London; lined mostly by nondescript industrial and student accommodation buildings, it has little to offer to the architectural and/or historical enthusiast. That is, until you reach no. 7: a two-storey brick structure, which immediately evokes the Victorian era. The ground floor is dominated by a regular row of round arched windows, while the openings on the first floor are slightly narrower and surmounted by straight stone lintels. The building’s original purpose is helpfully spelled out on a sign painted at the northern end of the street façade, reading “South Stables”. What the sign doesn’t tell you, however, is that this relatively small, isolated structure was built in the 1860s as part of the extensive Midland Railway facilities which then covered large parts of the area.

Midland Railway was founded in 1844 from the merger of several local railway companies serving the area around Gloucester, Birmingham and Derby. In the late 1850s, Midland Railway began to expand towards London, and in 1862 decided to build its own terminus there: St Pancras. The station opened in 1868, but one could argue that it was only really completed with the addition of the Midland Grand Hotel, George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic Revival masterpiece, built 1865–1876. If the hotel was, and still is, St Pancras’ ‘public face’, a range of much more modest, utilitarian buildings was tucked away behind the station. Extending over hundreds of metres, there were offices, warehouses, facilities for coal traffic – and large stable complexes. Most of this has been destroyed in the course of the last one and a half century, but the South Stables building remains as a small, if poignant reminder of the Midland Railway’s golden age. And, in a slightly ironic twist, it also reminds us that, even though the Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam-powered railway, actual horse power was still indispensable in any kind of transportation business at the time.

Hargrave Mansions, London

I recently moved to Archway, in the London Borough of Islington. Perhaps the first piece of architecture to catch my attention in my new neighbourhood was this row of uniform terraced houses, called Hargrave Mansions, on the south side of Hargrave Road.* When I first glimpsed them from the corner of Holloway Road, I was immediately intrigued by the contrast between red brick walls and the white of window frames and parapets. While this combination is rather typical for late Victorian and Edwardian houses, it seemed strangely highlighted here by the clear, simple lines of the facades, culminating in an uninterrupted line of parapets hiding the flat roofs.

There is a stark simplicity to this row of buildings which I find immensely pleasing – and reminiscent both of Modernist and Regency architecture. But, as it turns out, Hargrave Mansions were in fact built in the Edwardian period, i.e. in the first decade of the 20th century. As in other parts of north London, major housing developments in Archway were only undertaken in the second half of the 19th century, and the south side of Hargrave Road was one of the last stretches of land in the area to be developed. I’m not sure in which year exactly the construction of the terraced houses was begun, but it must have been completed by 1910, when they were advertised for rent in The Solicitors’ Journal and Weekly Reporter as “Ten blocks of well-planned Residential Flats, each block containing six self-contained suites.”

The front of each block has three bays, the central bay being slightly recessed, as are the narrow strips of wall joining the blocks together. This gives an interesting three-dimensional quality to the otherwise mostly flat facade – only the door frames, window sills and roof cornices protrude from the unadorned brick walls. Both the window mullions and the pilasters framing the doorways are rendered in a plain neoclassical style which is indeed reminiscent of the Regency era. It would probably not be amiss, therefore, to define Hargrave Mansions as an example of Neo-Georgian architecture – a style enjoying considerable popularity during the first decades of the 20th century, aiming to reproduce the classicist simplicity of the Regency period. But, truth be told, I find it difficult to put a label on this row of houses – or perhaps I’m just unwilling to do so. The thing is, as an art historian, putting a defining label on a piece of art or architecture often gives me a feeling of having solved a puzzle, and this can sometimes tempt me to consider the case closed and move on. But moving on is the last thing I want to do: On the contrary, I have an inkling I’ll at least cast a glance at these buildings from the corner of Holloway Road every single time I walk up to Archway Station…


* Named after the Hargrave family who used to own the land in this area from the 17th century onwards.