Battersea Arts Centre, badly damaged by a fire last Friday, started life as the town hall. In the spirit of late Victorian civic pride and aspiration, the capacious porch is decorated with figures representing Labour, Progress, Art and Literature instructing the infant Battersea, who looks remarkably confident about the likely benefits coming his way. Built in 1892-93 to the designs of E.W. Mountford (the architect of the Old Bailey), the imposing exterior anticipates Edwardian Baroque while the interior is tinged with the dawning of art nouveau, most strikingly in the great coloured glass dome, painted with tendrils of golden foliage, like a giant Tiffany lampshade.
Chris Larner’s comedy The Frida Kahlo of Penge West had its first performance last June at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, where the mere mention of Penge no doubt guaranteed a quick, if cheap laugh. All the braver of him then to take the play into the lion’s mouth by putting it on at the Bridge House Theatre in Penge High Street, that defiantly hipster-free part of southeast London where, as one of his characters puts it, ‘London was sick over Kent.’
There is nothing obviously odd about the generic military-man-on-a-horse partly visible through the nearly leafless trees in Cavendish Square. He is William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65), and the plinth would lead you to believe his statue has been there since 1770. It hasn’t.
On Sunday I went to my first Prom of the season. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's 10th Symphony and 'Magiya', a new piece co-commissioned by the BBC from Sean Shepherd. This last was the programmers' equivalent of cod liver oil, the bit they put in every concert to keep you in touch with new work, which is Good For You and must be taken along with the cake and jam.
Critics have not been kind to Viva Forever!, the musical based on the story of the Spice Girls, but as Alexis Petridis pointed out in the Guardian, that doesn’t really matter. It is ‘critic-proof’, and nobody in the audience three nights ago looked as if they would care what Michael Billington thought, even if they knew who he was. I went with three friends as much inclined as I am to over-think popular culture, in the hope of a night off for our critical faculties, and very successful it was too. Yes the plot is slight and implausible, the characters are indeed over-drawn to the point of caricature and the music is patchy, but you could say the same about a lot of Verdi. As a pop Christmas panto it works very well.
Like many of my contemporaries I saw Emmanuelle in its much-censored British version at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square. I went with my first long-term boyfriend. We were both working in Foyles in our gap year, commuting in from Sevenoaks or thereabouts and I suspect that beneath the somewhat laconic discussion afterwards we were a bit shocked by it. I know for a fact that I was. It must have been almost exactly ten years later that I met Sylvia Kristel when she opened her front door to me in Ghent.
It seems that the usually irresistible force of Foster + Partners, architects, may have hit an immovable object in the form of the London Stone. Minerva, the developers who commissioned the Walbrook Building from Foster’s firm, have applied for permission to move the stone from its present location in Cannon Street in the City of London to a ‘purpose built display’ in their new complex, thereby getting it out of the way of the 35,000 square feet of ‘retail and restaurant accommodation’ they have planned for the ground floor. The case remains undecided but there are a number of significant objectors, including English Heritage and the Victorian Society.
Not much happened in Camberwell during the riots. Morrisons was boarded up and there was some milling about on the Green one evening, but that was as far as it went. All around us, in Peckham, Brixton and at the Elephant and Castle, there was trouble, but this end of the Walworth Road, properly called Camberwell Road, was unscathed, or rather it remained scathed in the same way as before. From the Green northwards Camberwell presents a collage of changing use and disuse, a continuous Mexican wave of opening and closing shops and businesses, squats, pubs, charities and churches.
I can see the Shard from my bathroom window. I can also see it from my bedroom and from outside the front door of my office. Millions of other people can see it too as it rises next to London Bridge station. That is the famous thing about it: it’s big. When completed next May it will be, at 310 metres and 72 storeys, the tallest building in western Europe, a fact on which its website and its architect, Renzo Piano, harp relentlessly. It is impossible to overestimate how much size, in the simplest, crudest, mine’s-bigger-than-yours way, matters in architecture. The Strata Tower at the Elephant and Castle enjoyed the not especially impressive title of ‘tallest building in Southwark’ for a few brief months. Now it is eclipsed before it is finished and sulks within sight of its rival, its rooftop turbines (which apparently make too much noise to switch on) sullenly immobile.
The Elephant and Castle is an architectural graveyard over which a huge new tombstone is going up in the shape of the 43-storey Strata tower. Things began rather well in 1769, when Robert Mylne laid out the route south from his new bridge at Blackfriars and joined it to the old turnpike road with St George’s Circus. This was the first ‘circus’ in London, predating Piccadilly, the capital’s first roundabout. Since then almost every new idea in town planning – high-rise, low-rise, shopping precinct, pedestrian underpass and ever bigger roundabouts – has been imposed on the Elephant, with singular lack of success.