A marvellous modern mosque

KINGS COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE has a superb perpendicular gothic chapel, whose construction commenced in about 1446 and took almost 100 years to complete. Its fabulously intricate fan-vaulting makes it one of the finest buildings in Cambridge, if not in all of England. Until recently, it was the one and only building in Cambridge that visitors to the city needed to see, even if they did not have time to see anything else. Although this continues to be the case, there is another building, which visitors should make time to see in addition to the chapel. Unlike the college edifice, this is not in the historic academic part of the city but in Mill Road, not far from the main railway station. Near the eastern end of this thoroughfare, which is rapidly becoming a ‘trendy’ part of Cambridge, you will come across a wonderful modern building set back from the road and separated from it by a pleasant, small garden. This structure is The Cambridge Central Mosque.

The mosque was completed in 2019 and designed by Marks Barfield Architects (London) in conjunction with Professor Keith Critchlow (1933-2020), who was Professor of Islamic Art at London’s Royal College of Art, and the garden designer Emma Clark. The designers of the mosque aimed (in the words of Abdal Hakim Murad, chairman of the Cambridge Mosque Trust) to create:

“…a brand new sacred space … to bring together something that’s very ancient and timeless with the very latest technologies.” (https://cambridgecentralmosque.org/design/)

This has been achieved very successfully. The visually spectacular deep portico, reached after walking through a pleasant garden, is supported by clusters of curved timbers, which immediately bring to mind thoughts of the masonry fan-vaulting in Kings College Chapel. These clusters continue through the entire building, creating a sense of continuity of the exterior and interior spaces. The vaulting that reminds us of the mosque’s gothic relative at Kings College also evokes purely Islamic architecture such as one finds at the Alhambra in Spain. The outside of the building is covered with brickwork in two colours, the bricks being arranged to produce patterns which are contemporary versions of a traditional Islamic design. The centre of the mosque is topped by a single dome made in matt-gold coloured metal.

The glass walls that separate the portico from the interior of the mosque reflect the mundane houses opposite the mosque (across Mill Road). I do not know whether the designers intended it, but I felt that these reflections were a way of giving the impression that the garden and the world beyond the mosque is merging with the building itself, that the religious structure was merging with its secular surroundings. Whether or not this was the designers’ intention, this mosque deserves a place in the highest echelon of great British architecture alongside Kings College Chapel. The beauty of the chapel and the mosque, separated by many hundreds of years in age, both have the effect of taking one’s breath away in amazement.

Bulky rather than beautiful

DURING THE LAST YEAR or longer, we have visited plenty of ‘stately homes’ in England. Many of them are very fine works of architecture.Today, we visited Blenheim Palace for the second time in 12 months., It was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and is still home to some of his descendants.

Of the many grand homes that we have seen during our travels, Blenheim impressed me far, far less than many of the others. It is impressive in its bulkiness but, for me, it lacks the finesse that characterises so many of the other aristocratic homes we have visited.

PS: To be fair, Blenheim was not completed as originally planned because at some stage the funds for its construction became dramatically reduced.

A hospital without patients

BROTHER PETER IS one of six retired ex-servicemen who reside at The Lord Leycester Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in the town of Warwick apart from its famous, much-visited castle. He explained to us that the word ‘hospital’ in the name refers not to what we know as a medical establishment but to a place providing hospitality. The men, who reside in the Hospital are known as the ‘Brethren’.

The Hospital is contained in an attractive complex of half-timbered buildings that were erected next to Warwick’s still standing Westgate in the late 14th century. They are almost the only structures to have survived the Great Fire of Warwick that destroyed most of the town in September 1694. The buildings and the adjoining chapel that perches on top of the mediaeval Westgate were initially used by the guilds of Warwick, which played a major role in administering the town and its commercial activity. The ensemble of edifices includes the mediaeval Guildhall in which members of the guilds carried out their business. Between 1548 and 1554, it was used as a grammar school.

In 1571, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), who lived in nearby Kenilworth Castle, was asked by the queen to clear the streets of Warwick of ailing, infirm, and disabled soldiers, by establishing a refuge (i.e., ‘hospital’) to shelter them. It is said that Dudley persuaded the town’s officials to give him their Guildhall to be used for this purpose. This ended the guilds’ use of the complex of mediaeval buildings, now known as Lord Leycester’s Hospital.

 Initially, Dudley’s hospital provided accommodation for The Master, a clergyman, and twelve Brethren, poor and/or wounded soldiers, and their wives. According to the excellent guidebook I bought, the original rules of the hospital include the following:

“That no Brother take any woman to serve or tend upon him in his chamber without special licence of the Master, nor any with licence, under the age of three-score years except she be his wife, mother, or daughter.”

 To accommodate them, modifications of the interiors of the buildings had to be made. Brother Peter, with whom we chatted, is one of the current Brethren. He introduced us to another of his fraternity, a young man with a scarred head, who had survived an explosion whilst serving in Afghanistan.

Dudley’s arrangement survived until the early 1960s, when the number of Brethren was reduced to eight. By this time, the Master was no longer recruited from the clergy but from the retired officers of the Armed Forces. What is unchanged since Dudley’s time is his requirement, established in an Act of Parliament (1572), that the Brethren must attend prayers in the chapel every morning. They recite the very same words chosen by Dudley when he established the hospital.

We did not have sufficient time to take a tour of the buildings that comprise the hospital, but we did manage to enter The Great Hall, which now serves as a refreshment area for visitors. This large room has a magnificent 14th century beamed timber ceiling made of Spanish chestnut. It was here that King James I was entertained and dined in 1617, an event lasting three days. We were also able to catch a glimpse of the Mediaeval Courtyard, which is:

“… one of the best preserved examples of medieval courtyard architecture in England.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Leycester_Hospital).

The Lord Leycester Hospital is less well-known than the nearby Warwick Castle, which has become something of a costly ‘theme park’. However, the hospital is a far more interesting place to visit, However, you will need to go there before the 23rd of December 2021, when it will be closed for restoration for quite a lengthy period.

A line of lovely houses in southeast London

ONCE A VILLAGE in Kent, Deptford is now a riverside suburb in southeast London, just west of Greenwich. We visited Deptford to see the exhibition of contemporary art, which our daughter has curated. It is being shown at ArtHub in Creek Road and finishes on Sunday, the 25th of July 2021. So, hurry if you wish to see it.

Deptford is becoming not only a trendy place to be, rather like Dalston has become, but it also attracts artists and art galleries. Maybe, Deptford’s proximity to Goldsmiths College, which educates many kinds of creators, might explain its emergence as a new artistic district of London. Whatever the reason, Deptford now has an exciting and rather edgy feel about it.

Deptford, which I plan to explore further in the future, has a long history. Its Creek was a harbour for shipping as far back as the 11th century, if not before. King Henry VIII developed an important dockyard at Deptford. Eventually, it was involved with shipbuilding. Many ‘men-of-war’ vessels were launched here. The dockyard thrived until it was closed in March 1869.

Doubtless there is much history to relate about Deptford, but I will mention only one thing and that can be seen today. Albury Street runs east from Deptford High Street and lies just north of the lovely baroque St Pauls Church designed by Thomas Archer and built between 1712 and 1730. 

Albury Street, Deptford, London

Originally called ‘Union Street’, Albury Street was laid out between 1705 and 1717. The south side of the street, which is paved with cobbles (or maybe setts), has been rebuilt with modern dwellings. The north side is lined by the original terraced houses built by a local bricklayer, Thomas Lucas. These brick-built dwellings are distinguished by their beautiful porches, each of which has a pair of lovely woodcarvings that support the canopies above each doorway. Many of these have been restored sensitively.

Just who lived in these houses, which would have been remarkably superior in both appearance and construction for what was then a small village outside London, is subject to some uncertainty. Famous characters such as Admiral Benbow and Horatio Nelson have been mentioned, but much doubt surrounds the likelihood that they lived in this street.

In brief, a visit to Deptford is worthwhile not only to see what remains of Albury Street but also to enjoy the vibrant atmosphere and multi-ethnic nature of this corner of London.

A high-tech church in London’s Hampstead

FROM THE STREET, the Victorian gothic façade of Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church is unremarkable. Over the past more than 60 years, I have walked or driven past this place of worship, but it was not until today (20th July 2021) that I entered it for the first time.

The church was designed by the architect and surveyor Charles Gray Searle (1816-81) and completed 1860-61. Searle was himself a Baptist. He had been apprenticed to the renowned master builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who bought stone from his father, John Searle, who owned a quarry near Wapping. Charles set up his own practice in about 1846.

According to C.W. Ikin, in his “A Revised Guide to Heath Street Chapel” (quoted in https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/37-5_249.pdf):

“An early print of the proposed chapel shows buttresses but in its method of construction it was more modern, cast iron being used not only for the pillars and probably for the whole interior framework, but also for the gallery fronts and the mouldings of the pew-ends. The strength of the building is based upon this framework formed by the cast-iron pillars in church and hall below and their linking beams. The brick walls cling to the framework and have tiebars linking the hammer beam roof.”

Cast-iron columns

Cast iron, which has high compressive strength, began being used to create buildings at the end of the 18th century. Pillars made of this material can be made slenderer than masonry columns required to support the same load. The slender nature of the columns in the Heath Street Chapel is immediately evident when you enter the building. What is less obvious is that the decorative fronts of the gallery that surrounds the nave are also made from cast-iron. The material has hardly been used for structural elements of buildings since modern steel and concrete became available at the start of the 20th century.

If you do visit this church, do not miss the fine art-nouveau stained glass window at its western end.

Although the Heath Street Chapel was certainly not the first church to be built using cast-iron structural elements, it must have been one of the first buildings of its kind to have been built in Hampstead, which is why I have given this short piece the title “A High-tech Church in Hampstead”.

When we stepped inside the church, two men were setting up things for a lunchtime concert. They told us that these are usually held on Tuesdays at 1 pm. Details about these can be found on the church’s website, http://www.heathstreet.org/activities/lunchtime-concerts/.  

Shifted to Somerset from London

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.

At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.

A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).

The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).

When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.

A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.

Imitating the great: gothic in Winchester

THE CITY OF WINCHESTER has one of the longest gothic cathedrals in the continent of Europe. Built from 1091 onwards under the auspices of Bishop Walkelin, a relative of William the Conqueror, the bulk of the gothic part of the edifice was erected in the 14th century in the Perpendicular style of gothic. What was created, is exceedingly beautiful and gives a great sense of space. It is a masterpiece of gothic stone masonry. The cathedral stands not far from another large building, also built in a style of gothic inspired by what was achieved during mediaeval times.

This near neighbour is far younger than the cathedral. It is the 19th century Winchester Guildhall, which was constructed between 1871 and 1873. It stands on the site of St Marys Abbey, which was taken over by Henry VIII in the late 1530s during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The remains of the abbey, which was known as ‘Nunnaminster’, persisted until the 17th century, after which they were removed. Today, some excavated remnants can be seen behind the Guildhall.

Guildhall, Winchester

The Guildhall was built in the gothic revival style to the designs of the architects Albert William Jeffery (1840-1915) and William Skiller (1838-1901), who also submitted a design for a town hall for Hastings in Sussex. Tragically, Skiller committed suicide in 1901 (http://hastingschronicle.net/archives/architect-hangs-himself/). The Guildhall was later extended by J. B. Colson (1820-1895), who was the surveyor of Winchester Cathedral.  The original building is rich is features borrowed from mediaeval gothic, but it is topped by roofing styles that remind the viewer of French ‘chateaux’. One source summarises the Guildhall’s appearance as:

“ Gothic, symmetrical, with a middle tower and this as well as the angle pavilions provided with French pavilion roofs”; and as having a “deeply vaulted porch” at the entrance — for all this part “[t]he style is Second Pointed,” while Colson’s long extension is “much plainer”” (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/winchester/1.html).

Without doubt, the cathedral is a far finer building than the Guildhall, but both are impressive in their own ways. The cathedral’s integrity depends on its gothic features that have both structural and aesthetic functions, whereas in the case of the Guildhall these features have a greater decorative than structural purposes.

The Guildhall is an example of so-called ‘gothic revival, which lovers of London’s St Pancras Station and Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) will appreciate’. Years ago, I read “The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste”, written by the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) in 1928. One thing that impressed me was, if I recall correctly, that the author queried whether the gothic style of architecture ever really died out in England, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Clark suggested that the gothic style continued to be used. In other words, what is described as ‘gothic revival’ is simply a continuation of the early use of this style. It is my impression that by the 19th century, when, for example, the Winchester Guildhall was built, architects were often simply borrowing features of earlier gothic buildings, as, for example Winchester Cathedral, and applying them often more mechanically than artistically. Often when the gothic style was being used structurally, as is the case in many churches built during the Victorian era, it tends to be imitative rather than creative, as is the case in the great mediaeval cathedrals and other churches. There are a few exceptions, where the 19th century architect manages to use the gothic style both structurally and artistically, as for example in the Church of St Augustine in London’s Kilburn.   Be that as it might be, The Guildhall does not lack in good aesthetic features and adds positively to the rich tapestry of the architectural scene in the historic centre of the city. I recommend visitors to Winchester not to concentrate all their time at the Cathedral but to spare some to view the Guildhall before seeing the other sights of the city.

Take me to the Tivoli

WIMBORNE IS A CHARMING small town in Dorset, a little north of Poole and Bournemouth. Famed for its Minster church with its mediaeval chained library, the place is rich in old buildings. One of these, looking less old than many of its neighbours, houses the Tivoli Theatre. It attracted my attention because of its (heavily restored) art deco features.

Housed in what was originally the 18th century Borough House, the theatre-cum-cinema was created in 1936 to the designs of Edward de Wilde-Holding, a prolific architect. The cinema was closed in 1980 and was threatened with demolition for a road scheme, which fortunately was abandoned. It was restored by a group called ‘Voluntary Friends of the Tivoli’ and reopened in 1993. In addition to showing films, the theatre is used for live events on its stage.

The Tivoli was not the only art deco cinema we spotted on our recent trip to the area around Winchester. 28 miles northeast of Wimborne, there is another one, The Plaza in Romsey, which was built in 1931 as a cinema but is now used as a theatre. Unlike the Tivoli in Wimborne, which occupies an old building, the Plaza in Romsey was purpose-built as a cinema.

Ideas and appearance

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000 (except 2020), the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has commissioned a temporary pavilion to be constructed next to it. A website (www.inexhibit.com/case-studies/serpentine-galleries-pavilions-history/) explains:

“The pavilions, which last for three months and should be realized with a limited budget, are located in the heart of the Kensington Gardens and are intended to provide a multi-purpose social space where people gather and interact with contemporary art, music, dance and film events.”

The architects chosen to design these temporary structures have not had any of their buildings erected in London prior to their pavilions. Some of the architects involved over the years included Zaha Hadid, Smiljan Radić, Sou Fujimoto, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Frank Gehry, Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen, Álvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, and Oscar Niemeyer.

With a very few exceptions, I have liked the pavilions and admired their often visually intriguing, original designs. My favourites were the 2007 pavilion by Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen; 2009 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa; 2013 by Sou Fujimoto; and 2016 by Bjarke Ingels.

This year, the pavilion was designed by an architectural practice, Counterspace, based in Johannesburg (South Africa) and led by Sumayya Vally, who is the youngest architect to have become involved in the Serpentine pavilion project. According to the Serpentine’s website (www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/serpentine-pavilion-2021-designed-by-counterspace/) the 2021 pavilion is:

“… based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities, including Brixton, Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham and Peckham, among others. Responding to the historical erasure and scarcity of informal community spaces across the city, the Pavilion references and pays homage to existing and erased places that have held communities over time and continue to do so today.”

Well, maybe this was the designers’ aim, but it does not convey that concept to me. This circular, building coloured black and white, immediately conjured up in my mind images of often disused municipal structures such as bandstands and public conveniences that might have been constructed on provincial British or even South African seafronts in the 1930s to 1950s. It might have been conceived with high-minded ideas in the architects’ heads, but I felt that the structure is lacking in visual interest both in detail and in its entirety. Compared with many of the previous pavilions erected on its site, this is one of the dullest I have seen. It is a shame that the pavilion’s creators did not put more effort into its appearance than into the message(s) it is supposed to convey.   To my taste, it is a disappointment but do not let me put you off: go and see it for yourself.

A short note about a round tower

MANY CHURCHES IN NORFOLK have circular towers. Actually, there are 124 of them in the county. Here is one example, St Mary’s in tiny Titchwell, near the north Norfolk coast. The small spire that tops the round tower dates to the 14th century. The foundation of this church was much earlier.

By the way, the name ‘Titchwell’ is derived from an Old English word meaning ‘ kid (young goat)’ and an Anglian word meaning ‘spring or well’.