Sunday, September 21st 2014
As usual we started off with breakfast at Pret (the relatively new branch in the N1 Centre) and then dragged the shopping trolley across the road to Sainsbury’s where we did the week’s shopping. Perhaps I am a little odd but I quite enjoy these breakfast-plus-shopping sessions and the chance to relax over breakfast and chat with Tigger about this, that and all sorts of other things.
The shopping done, we trundled it home in the trolley and rested from our labours while doing a little work on our respective collections of photos from yesterday. We were well into the afternoon when Tigger perked up and suggested we visit a few buildings which were open for this year’s Open House London. I was dubious as it was already a little late and I didn’t think we’d manage to see much. As usual I was wrong. Tigger set off at a cracking pace and I followed along… 🙂
Our first port of call was not far away, on a corner where Pentonville Road meets St John Street. It is called appropriately, if dully, the Angel Building. Knowing our predilections in architecture, you might think this is an historic, or at least old, building but it isn’t. It has existed in its present state only since 2011. What is particular about it is that it has been built around the core of an older building. This was stripped down to its concrete skeleton and a new exterior hung from this. Such a method apparently saves money, reduces carbon emissions and is generally good for the environment. Well, that’s what the designers claim.
Entering by the usual glass swing doors, you enter a large atrium that rises the height of the building and is covered with a glass roof. This forms a light well and acts as a public area for people to meet or dawdle – there is a coffee bar and some very deep armchairs!
The atrium is too large to get a photo showing the whole of it. At the centre is this tall, shiny black object. I have no idea what it is. You could sit (and even lie) on the flat part but I don’t think it’s intended as a seat. The “tail” rises up and up almost to the glass ceiling. Perhaps it is a sculpture or just an object to act as a talking point. It certainly does that!
Only part of the building was open to the public, including the atrium and the top floor and open-air terrace. The other floors are given over to offices and it is quite reasonable that visitors have no access to these. I’m not sure how many floors there are – five plus the terrace, at a guess – but each storey is quite tall so when we went up in the lift and I found we could down down into the atrium, I couldn’t resist taking this (for me) stomach-churning view. Oh, for the wings or a dove or even those of a humble pigeon…
The terrace provides views over the rooftops of lesser buildings and you can see all the way to the City and its rash of tall buildings. The terrace is quite broad and I can imagine people who work in the building coming up here in fine weather to eat their lunch or take a coffee break.
We spent a while enjoying the view and taking photos but, once we had done that, there was nothing to detain us and we started down again.
Either side of the atrium are areas where you can sit and relax or associate with others. Near the coffee bar are tables with chairs and on the other side deep settees and armchairs that, once you sink into them, you are most reluctant to get up again!
Leaving the Angel Building, we continued a little way down St John Street and turned right into Rosebery Avenue, named after Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), Liberal statesman and sometime Prime Minister. Here we find another gem of a building but this time, one with full Victorian honours.
The Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury existed from 1900 to 1965, the year in which the London borough were reorganized and Finsbury was combined with the Metropolitan Borough of Islington to form the London Borough of Islington. Before the Borough of Finsbury came into existence, though, this area was administered by the Vestry of Clerkenwell, and it was this body that built the splendid Clerkenwell Town Hall that was opened by Lord Rosebery on June 14th 1895. When the Borough of Finsbury was formed, combining several of the local vestries, the building became its administrative centre and was renamed Finsbury Town Hall. That name can still be read emblazoned in the decorative glass around the canopy over the main door.
Just a few rooms was open to the public today, all of them used for various purposes by the Urdang Dance Academy that currently inhabits the building. Because these rooms now serve as dance studios, they have been stripped of furniture and left echoingly empty. For the visit, the dance studio equipment had been removed or pushed to one side.
While the other rooms were not without interest, it is the Great Hall that is the most splendid, reflecting the civic pride of the old Clerkenwell and Finsbury local administrations. This room would have been used for receptions and entertainments and one can imagine how glittering these occasions would have been.
Glitter is literally present in the lamps that line either side of the large room. They are in the form of (female) angels holding lamps above their heads.
The ceiling is of course as richly decorated as the rest of the room, with panels of intricate plaster work.
Here are some details from other parts of the building:
This is one of the windows in another of the larger rooms which I think may have been used as the council chamber.
It is unfortunate that this elegant door has to be spoiled because over-weaning health and safety regulation require “keep closed” discs to be affixed to it.
This was perhaps the most elaborate of the stained glass windows that we saw. Its purpose is, while being decorative in its own right, to allow light into the otherwise dark corridor from an external window that is on the other side of a staircase. To judge from this, and the original light fittings still in place, which would presumably have been fuelled with gas, our Victorian and Edwardian forebears were satisfied with a lower level of illumination than we consider necessary today, spoiled as we are by electricity.
We next took a bus to Highbury and Islington station and there visited the Union Chapel. This building with its strikingly tall clock tower is a Congregational church but also much more than that. It hosts all manner of events and provides a centre for the homeless and those in crisis.
The church was built in Victorian Gothic style between 1874 and 1877. On entering, I received a somewhat curious impression: it is huge and obviously a church but, on the other hand, quite different from other churches of this size that I have seen, which are either Anglican or Catholic. This one struck me as a cross between a church and a theatre. After all, the point of focus is a stage on which stands a pulpit.
There is a feeling of Protestant austerity to the place and yet it has stained glass windows, not least a striking window rose, the sort of thing you would expect to see in a cathedral or a principal Anglican or Catholic church. Then again, as an unbeliever, I am not an expert on church design and, for all I know, this may be quite a usual arrangement in a Congregational church.
I also noticed the serried ranks of pews or, rather, benches, for the congregation. They are tightly packed as though the original designers expected even a church as large as this to be packed out for services. The wooden benches with straight backs make no concession to the body and look very uncomfortable. I was glad I didn’t have to try them out.
Various activities and exhibitions were in progress for the Open Day, including what was described as a “Sound Installation” by James Mabbett. This did nothing to enhance the pleasure of my visit. It was just a rather unpleasant noise and I was glad to escape it by leaving the chapel.
We took a bus back to the Angel but got off at St Mary’s, the church that is such a landmark in Upper Street (see, for example, I stayed at home).
No one is sure how long there have been churches on this site but it is thought that there was a Norman church here by the 12th century. This was replaced in the 15th century by a church that in its turn had become dangerously dilapidated by the mid-18th century. A new church was built between 1751 and 1754 and continued in use until 1940 when it fell victim to the Blitz. The whole church was destroyed except for the portico and the tower, both of which have been incorporated into today’s church, built between 1954 and 1956.
The interior of the church is light and airy. I don’t know what its Georgian forerunner was like but imagine it could have been something like the modern church. There is a “classical” simplicity to it and unlike traditional churches that have side aisles and side chapels, this one is virtually a plain rectangular space.
Looking towards the back of the church, we can see the organ pipes and a central painting entitled Christ the Judge by Brian Thomas, in a style which I think embraces both old and modern church painting traditions.
I have passed in front of St Mary’s many times and even walked in the grounds (see the previously cited blog post) but this is the first time I have been inside. As churches go, this one is pleasant enough and if you like the uncluttered “modern” look it will probably suit your tastes, but I found it somewhat lacking in character.
This was a rapid gallop around four buildings not normally open to the public, made possible by that notable and by now much loved tradition of Open House Weekends. Here’s looking forward to next year and another chance to see inside some famous and historically interesting buildings.