Nairn’s London #6, #4, #3

Nairn’s London #6
All Saints, Margaret St

THEN: To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone; yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling, overwhelming passion. Why boggle, when there are a hundred ways of reaching God? Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put down in a mundane Marylebone street to rivet you, pluck you into the courtyard with its harsh welcoming wings and quivering steeple. Outer and inner doorways show you in, within a few inches of each other; both flowing over with ornament – nothing was too much trouble for the beloved. Inside, Butterfield had to rely for decoration on other men’s intensity of feeling, so it is pointless to look closely at the walls; but the proportions and transfigured gilded violence of this unexpected Heathcliff burn through any artificiality. The violent selfless love carries you up with it, just as the serenity of Bevis Marks lifts another part of you to the same end. Butterfield never repeated this – how could he? – and his passion set iron-hard, unapproachable, altering his pupil’s drawings in ink so that they had to do them all again. Perhaps he met too many portly bishops; perhaps there is no way but death to discharge an experience as violent as this.

NOW: As stunning today as it must have been then. Dark and foreboding brick on three walls create a quaint courtyard for pot plants and flaneurs. Set back from Oxford Street, the church offers a quiet and covert refuge for those needing an escape. Inside, it lives up to that description; when I visited there were around ten homeless people stretched out and asleep across the benches. Nairn described it as an orgasm. I’d be inclined to do the same, were it not for all the snoring.

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Nairn’s London #4
The Economist Building

THEN: The buildings on this site may interest only the 1960s, for this is where the angriest of Britain’s young architects were finally given their chance: it was ten years in coming, and the time-lag shows. But the space between the buildings is a permanent gain. At last, an architect has suggested and a client allowed that a highly valuable space of W.1. be treated imaginatively as part of London (those who flat-pave part of the site and put up a thumping slab on the rest are doing no better than the bad old cover-it-all boys.) The L-shaped area contains three hexagonal towers, one medium and two small. In the angle of the L is a showy eighteenth-century club Boodles; the rest of the space is open to the public – and it is not just ‘open space’: the levels enable you to squint out at a sloping St James Street, lord it over the side streets from under a colonnade, or just sit down on a stone bench. This is only the starting point for what could happen, like Whittle’s first jet, and nothing much will come of this particular example unless some activity can be attracted or allowed into the central space; but the idea has an enormous potential. Here is a kind of Saint-Denis, no more accommodating and no less pregnant than that other prototype.

NOW: A building that you would most definitely walk past today; the steps up are uninviting unless you’re in the know. The open space is calm, and the stone bench clearly a familiar spot for local lunchers. But as Nairn suggested, with no activity in the central space, the area is a bit of a dead zone, looking down sombrely onto the streets either side.

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Nairn’s London #3
Red Lion, Duke of York St

THEN: If I could keep only one pub out of the whole London galaxy, this would be my choice. It is not especially comfortable or especially atmospheric, but it strikes deeper than any other. All around the walls are magnificent cut-glass mirrors, the best in London, recently renovated so that they gleam as sharply as they ever did. And as the bar space is roughly square, wall after wall after wall is reflected in the real walls, a process which oddly enough reinforces the solidity. Nothing is fuzzy, but everything has incredible depth and compassion combined with brilliance. It is the spirit exactly of Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere. It sees and feels everything, yet you are thrown back on your own resources, enriched. This is the opposite thing to the gentle, sentimental pub where you can wash your troubles into oblivion. If you had a problem, the Red Lion could not ease it, however much you drank; instead it would strengthen you. It is a place to walk out of ramrod-straight, reinforced by those proud, sparkling, arabesques.

NOW: Now a Fullers, it has inevitably lost some of the Bar at the Folies Bergere spirit. Nonetheless, the mirrors remain – and are certainly worth remarking on. The lunchtime light streams in, and they glisten contentedly. The bar sits proud at the centre of the pub, splitting the room in two. Ales on tap and the standard house spirits. The spiral staircase – up and down – is an interesting pub feature. But a struggle if you meet someone going the other way.

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