Nairn’s London, 2018, Part I.

On my recent trip to London I mapped out a walk across the inner north of the city, from Shoredich in the inner East, to Kensal Green in the inner west. Nairn’s London (1966) and the London A-Z (street directory) were my primary navigation aids.

One expects occasional disappointments when travelling with a guidebook written in 1966. There have been big changes across that part of the city over the last half century. Key among these is a massive influx of money and commercial enterprise, particularly in the inner east.

Nairn’s entry for the old Spitalfields market describes it as doomed, unloved and sombre, a far cry from the peculiarly contemporary combination of wholesome, Scandinavian-inspired design (plywood, plants, pastels and bold stripes) and gastronomic cornucopia that now attracts crowds of tourists and corporate lunchers. He would have no doubt had a wry word to say about the cafe adored with fake pot plants in little colourful buckets that now occupies the churchyard at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s much admired Christchurch just across the road. And no doubt the sign on the outside of the Turkish Baths in Bishopsgate Churchyard, which reads ‘A Little Palace of Luxury: Exclusive Event Hire for Up to 150 Standing or 90 seated’, and is now accessible by appointment only,  would have provoked negative expressions of a more vehement variety. In 1966 Nairn was already bemoaning the increasingly common habit of locking up churches, which prevented him having a poke around.

On that score, Christchurch was still open, with a chatty lady at the desk selling brochures about the church and keen to engage my travelling partner and I in a conversation about the relationship between the building and the creed that inspired its construction. I didn’t tell her that my pilgrimage was of a literary and architectural nature.

In addition to attracting the effusive praise of Nairn, Hawksmoor’s churches were the key inspiration for Ian Sinclair’s seminal Lud Heat, the first work in Sinclair’s oeuvre which begins a tradition of tracing out routes in the city based on hidden histories, urban wastelands and chance. The book inspired Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and its influence can be registered in the television documentaries of Jonathan Meades, particularly Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness. Meades positions Hawksmoor’s buildings alongside his one time colleague John Vanbrugh as the central proponents of the English Baroque, a style which he regards analogous to the brutalism in its peculiarly austere and yet impactful sense of drama.






The works of storytellers like Sinclair, Meades, Ackroyd and others including Patrick Keiller, Patrick Wright and Will Self were on my mind as I walked this part of the city. I thought about how the new challenge writers for this stripe since the late nineties—and to be sure the melancholic no doubt warms to this kind of thing—must have been to shift into a mode where they write despairingly about the cornucopia of pleasures that now exist in their old haunts, rather than about the neglect and desolation that provided the romance and source of insight in the past. While the force of urban renewal arguably highlights abandonment in the intense contrasts it produces between those with and without money, walking my route through London, there was an unmistakable and perhaps naive sense that life was here in abundance.

I also thought about the vast differences between what I felt walking–sometimes running–the city, the mood evoked by these melancholic writers of London, and the different traditions in which I might have been participating due to my cultural inheritance. In particular, I thought of Barry McKenzie, a character made famous by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, and whose influence can still be detected, albeit in a significantly watered-down version, in the current iteration of the cringeworthy Qantas air safety videos. It would have been very uncharacteristic for McKenzie to be trekking through the East End, admiring the architecture and a certain literary tradition for whom it is a preoccupation. Nonetheless, the force of the Aussie yokel still glowed within me when conducting my relations with any pompous Londoners and I thought it might be an interesting contribution both to the legacy of the brash Aussie and the literary archive about this area of city if I expressed my relatively esoteric pursuits in  tone that was in contrast to the whingeing natives on whose turf I trespassed.

Back in the 1960s, when McKenzie was created and Nairn’s book on London was first published, the Barbican Centre was still being built. The prohibitively expensive cost of its residential real estate aside, this building surely one of the better architectural achievements in this part of the city. For the weary foot traveller, who’s been roughed up by the unrelenting commotion of traffic and construction on the streets around Liverpool Street Station, the Barbican is an oasis of calm. While the massive, multi-towered complex, which includes a library, theatre, school, restaurants, gallery and exclusive residential living, might not be a shining example of affordable public amenity, nonetheless, it remains an achievement to calve out a distinctive, relatively accessible, multipurpose space on this scale in the centre of a city like London. And if my Instagram is anything to go by, it seems the aesthetic elements of the architecture are belatedly finding favour with an increasingly large audience.

Just up the road from the Barbican is The Golden Lane Estate (began 1953). The design shares some similarities with the Barbican: an elevated, multi-winged housing complex, which, as Nairn notes, can be traversed in many different directions: “along corridors, under buildings, down steps and up ramps”. It also makes great use of shared green space, in the form of large, sunken gardens and fenceless little yards, the better maintained of which blend into each other to form one, continuous band of plant-life.

True to form, Nairn commends the Golden Lane development due to itself inclusion of a pub (the Shakespeare, “modern, but without the decorative affectations that plague pub designers”). To my delight, it remains in place, exactly how Nairn described it: a subdued, but not drab environment, that feels as though it could just as easily be in country town. A few customers chat with the bar staff in the main bar (probably about the World Cup) and a young man gives the piano a tickle in one of the other rooms. Entering it is a great chance to experience one of the many atmospheric transformations that London seems to do better than any other city.

One of the things that makes Nairn’s London so great is the attention he pays to the drama, not just of isolated buildings, but the subtle distortions in the flow of the city to which both buildings and topography contribute. A classic example is the passage by St George in Bloomsbury.

After being hugely disappointed by Sun Street passage earlier in the day, the “exhilarating” quality of which is entirely absent, my travelling partner and I weathered the car and bus clogged roads and walked to St George, our second Hawksmoor church for the day.

In Nairn’s London the Sun Street passage was a transition point from the “frilly” importance of Liverpool Street Station and the “sad emptiness of south Shoreditch”. With Shoreditch now far from sad and empty, and one entire wall of the passage obscured by the temporary fence of the construction works, the intensity of the contrast Nairn describes has weakened to such a degree that it is imperceptible.


Thankfully, the experience he describes at St George passage is preserved in full and is further augmented as one marvels at Nairn for having focused on such an inconspicuous urban feature, rather than the “prodigious”church, which, while mentioned, is shunned due its “disparate elements” not seeming to cohere.

It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the church would discover the passage. There are limited visual cues from the street or even from within the churchyard. The surprise that it’s there is certainly part of its value. Nairn describes his route as follows:

Start in Bloomsbury way and follow signs around the left hand side of the portico to St George’s Hall. The gap between the church and the neighbouring buildings narrows to a few feet, so that you are thrust against the prodigious keystones, actually touch the wonderful time-worn scales on the Portland stone. Then the way dives down: a Hawksmoorean turn even though it is provided by accident. It turns a corner by going down and then up again. Seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up. It sounds simple but in fact has the drama of a full symphonic movement. (112-113).

In reading this one imagines Nairn moving through his city as though it were a labyrinthine system of theatre sets, each waiting to be made explicit, firstly, by the movement of a body which is attuned to its performative potentials, then, secondly, in the writing, that once again performs the experience, and continues to do so, across time and space, every time it is read. As is typical of his observations, an eye for the mechanical aspects of a design “seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up” is combined with an appreciation for what it offers as a whole, the “full symphonic movement”.

The entry finishes with Nairn popping out on the other side of the church, on Little Russel Street, taking in a building that is renewed by this different vantage, the quieter ambience of the street. He suggests that the explorer might go “Back again, if you wish, and whole whole thing unwinds in a completely different sequence”.

This isn’t the kind of place that immediately makes sense as something one would travel halfway across North London on foot to visit. And without Nairn as a guide, the minor details of the surroundings and the different aspects that are woven together aren’t likely to be as affecting. But resting on the steps amid the pot plants along the side of the church, and refilling my water bottle from the tap there, I felt very thankful for this man who had such a generous apprehension of his city and who had bothered to take the time to put down in words so we could share in his experience.

To be continued…



And terrazzo did flow: a select tour around Ultimo, Haymarket and Central

And terrazzo did flow: a select tour around Ultimo, Haymarket and Central

Terrazzo is a distinctive, composite building material that comes in various colours, often used in flooring. Terrazzo in pink hue seems to have been particularly popular in postmodern architecture of the 1980s and 90s. It dominates the upper reaches of Harris Street in Ultimo, comprising most of the street front on the eastern side of the block between Ultimo Road and George Street.

The buildings responsible for this onslaught are Ancher Mortlock and Woolley’s ABC building (1989) and Philips Cox’s Peter Johnson Building (PJB). Both these structures have a monolithic, yet playful, jumping castle-like appearance, similar to Terry Farrell’s much maligned SIS building on the Thames (1989-92).


The ABC building in particular features massing that might be compared to the UTS tower building nearby, only instead of grey, roughcast cement, the smooth, pink terrazzo evokes the floor of an art deco hotel in Miami. The combination of deep window recesses on the upper levels and the lack of textural detail in the surface of the terrazzo make it seem as though the building is swollen, like the evenly stung skin of a giant pink hippo.


Both ABC and PJB have thick barrier-like facades that thrust out into the street, creating a shadowy arcade frequented by university students and journalists hurrying to stimulant and restoration centres nearby also know as cafes.

The abundance of thick building materials is largely due to the heavy traffic on Harris Street, which is known as one of Sydney’s most polluted areas. The combination of the assertive facades, lack of sunlight and constant traffic make the area a particularly hostile for foot travellers.


Anyone wandering the area hungry for more terrazzo will be revived by the sight of The Prince Centre in Haymarket, which emerges after a short walk along Ultimo Road, eastwards towards the CBD. The glazed internal stairwells, made from marble (a nice touch), and wraparound balconies on one side are perhaps the most notable features of the building, in addition to the Chinese Noodle House that has attracted a cult following over the last couple of decades.

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The Prince Centre is more glossy and translucent than the comparably matte terrazzo, bulky walls and dark glazing of the ABC building and the vaguely vernacular PJB, with its shed-like, corrugated awnings. It looks very slippery and is not a building I’d like to try and abseil down when raining. If, however, I was hot with a fever or hungover on a summer day, I would like to press my face against its cool, slick surface and wait for relief. Reference points that make sense of its aesthetic are airports, bathrooms and chemists, rather than the grander, monumental buildings suggested by ABC and PJB.


While these buildings are worthy spectacles for lovers of terrazzo, the crowning glory of the area can be found on the other side of Central Station. The Centennial Plaza office complex at 260 Elizabeth Street is a configuration of three office towers and a series of peculiar stairways and gardens that are little bit like a half-arsed architectural realisation of an M. C. Escher or Giovanni Piranesi. This elevated pedestrian zone is likely to disappoint anyone expecting something like network of raised walkways around the Barbican Centre in London. However, if all you’re after is a handy shortcut between Albion Street and Elizabeth, the complex will meet your needs.




The overwhelming impression is of gigantic, mirrored eyewear and a Los Angeles sunset, or an obscure, gigantic bathroom device, not unlike the new towers at Barangaroo. Thankfully there’s no trace of the Tooths Standard Brewery that occupied the site from 1875 to 1980, unlike the twee efforts made at nearby Central Park to retain some of the Carlton and United Brewery. The complete absence of the previous structure allows an uninhibited view of the places where businesses can go to “uncover their potential.”

An unfortunate concession to history: the old brewery depicted on a banner

The Terrazzo Project (2011) is an initiative set up by Lausanne based industrial designers Stéphane Halmaï-Voisard and Philippe-Albert Lefebvre, which hints at the possibilities the material offers beyond the generic salmon pinks. The high level of flair evident in projects such as this might be the seeds of a future where this often maligned material is more widely revered. If cement and besser blocks are currently migrating from the fringe to the mainstream as markers of cool, then perhaps terrazzo and glass bricks are where it’s at in the years to come?



Botany Walk

Botany Walk

The Botany walk comprised five guests, four human and one dog. We began in Sir Joseph Banks Park, the sight of what was perhaps Australia’s first zoo and for a while the only place in the country to feature an elephant. What were previously flesh and blood animals are now cement or metal sculptures. The old cinder athletics track, marked out by a white internal fence, used to be home to the popular handicap race, the Botany Gift, and was once graced by the great indigenous runner Charlie Samuels, who would run in bare feet. Like the story of many indigenous folk from that time, Samuel’s is a sad one, involving booze and incarceration (for melancholy). We had a look at the impressive old Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, which is now a residential block, though it is well maintained and features an abundance of cast iron filigrees and an expansive tile balcony.

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From here we returned to the park, following the sandy ground and swamps that were once the dominant characteristic of the area. It’s a peculiar place to walk, because the bush is a dominant visual feature for a lot of the time, however the sonic environment is pervaded by sounds from the nearby highway and the airport. Some of the thicker, palm and fern studded bush looked like the hiding spot for a dead body.

After crossing a precarious stretch part of the road (no pedestrians) that led back towards Botany Rd, we found ourselves thoroughly immersed in residential Botany. It began to rain. A fortuitously placed set of stairs led us over a cement sewer and into the shelter of the overhanging lip of a closed garage. After sheltering for about five minutes we emerged into what would fast become quite a pleasant afternoon. Almost by accident we discovered the infamous Sewage Pumping Station No 60, a piece of infrastructure in the Federation Free style that offers an interesting example of a domestic architectural style in a piece of civic infrastructure. It’s the reverse of todays trend were the industrial staples of cement floors, exposed pipes and subway tiles are now fashionable in houses and trendy cafes.


We followed Bay St back to Botany Rd, which on one side is lined with workers cottages remaining from the old fishing village, and on the other by a long open sewer and row of Canary Island Palms which index the lost history of Ascot Race Track that existed in the area before the airport. We followed Bay St across Botany Road and up to Booralee Park, where I had run on only a matter of days earlier. Unlike the relative desolate park I’d been greeted with on Tuesday, today it was filled with activity in the form of several cricket games and a decent crowd of parent spectators. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to find the old horse trough that was uncovered in the park during an archeological dig, but we did find an old toilet block and a large group of ibis perched at various intervals on the fronds of the palms, agreeing that a large palm tree would be a good spot for a bird to perch and take stock for a while. I took this opportunity to mention that the park was gazetted in the 1920s and points to the long history of pubic recreational facilities being offered alongside industry in the Botany area.


The houses along Bay St offered a continual source of interest as proud displayers of the ‘featurism’ which Robin Boyd identified as a symptom of the Australian ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to aesthetics. My view on the matter is that Boyd’s laudable high standards for the built environment were perhaps a little too closely aligned to the aesthetic pretentions of the sublime and the beautiful, with too little slack given to the more modest expectations that things might be agreeable, charming or interesting without necessarily having to offer transformative, inspirational experiences through harmony or feats of daring and imagination. The flaw with my own view is that it would seem to lend legitimacy to architecture without ambition, architecture that merely repeats inherited styles as reference points, without the force and vivacity of the originals. And here we enter the much threshed over turf of a debate between modernist and post modernist ideals. Does an antipathy to discourse involving the sublime or the beautiful necessarily mean one is condemned to populism, the middlebrow and cheap tricks? I’d like to think not. Either way, the old Alto Corner Store (now preschool) is a well preserved buildings of this type.

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We took a right off Bay and then met up with Banksia, which took us back to Botany Rd, via Botany Fire Station that I’d been so impressed with five days ago. By this stage of the walk everyone was in need of refreshment, including the dog who enjoyed a palm full of water from my water bottle.


The last stretch along Botany Rd was largely completed in a hurried silence, with some questions about the curvature of corrugated iron roofing on some of the verandas and distinctions being made between the cottages of menial workers and artisans.



Much has been written about the architectural history of Glebe. There’s the great website, Glebe walks that allows you to curate your own route through the streets with a good knowledge of the landmarks. And there’s the exceptional book, The Architectural Character of Glebe, by Bernard and Kate Smith, which offers a comprehensive account of the various architectural styles that characterise the suburb, as well as a decent enough insight into its broader history. As a side note, Bernard Smith claims to have coined the term ‘Federation’ as applied to Australian architecture.

Shadowy, dank, enclosed Glebe/Open, bright Glebe

The route I took through Glebe seemed divided into two distinct chapters. The first, beginning on St Johns Rd and following the back streets along the west side of Glebe Pt Rd was characteristically dark, damp and, for those who are sensitive to these kinds of things, claustrophobic. This section of the journey includes Bridge Rd, Woolley St, Hereford St and Mansfeld St. The buildings in this part feature a greater concentration of the Regency and Post Regency Style than the second chapter. The Italianate Style is prominent in both chapters, while Federation is more common in the second. There is a smatterings of Gothic across both areas, but the more impressive examples are perhaps towards the mid section of Glebe Pt Rd around St Johns and Bridge St, including the well known Reussdale at 160 Bridge.

The west side of Glebe Pt Rd is seemingly stuck in a saddle, there are few points that offer views of significant distance. Even though the density is nowhere near that of somewhere like Elizabeth Bay, it feels more claustrophobic. The steepness of the slope down to the harbour in Elizabeth Bay and views across water give the suburb a sense of openness amid the clutter of buildings.  The large apartment buildings (six storeys or more) set against the sandstone cliffs add a further vertical element that is lacking in this the dank, suburban area of Glebe.

Despite these mildly negative affects, the architectural enthusiast could hardly hope for a more interesting region to explore, with numerous well-preserved examples of mid-to-late nineteenth century buildings, ranging from the grand (Glebe Town Hall on Bridge Rd, Ruessdale and Kerribree) to the humble (the Post Regency terraces and cottages on Derwent Street, the Post-Regency cottages on Hereford St, and Tranby on Mansfeld St).

As Mansfeld St transitions into Avenue Rd on the Northern side of Toxteth Rd the mood changes entirely and if I could offer one reason to explore the suburb it would be to undergo this subtle but affecting change. The previously enclosed, dark, damp atmosphere gives way to a sense of openness as the ridge slopes down to Jubilee Oval and the water at Blackwattle Bay. The styles of the houses change alongside this change in landscape, with the Post-Regency and Italianate examples thinning out to Federation Style, which to varying degrees displays its Arts and Crafts and Gothic influences. The area around Jubilee Oval is an uplifting clash of amenity and beauty: the light rail, the picturesque oval and its white clad cricketers and picket fence, and the view across the water to ANZAC Bridge.

I’ll limit myself to the discussion of one house along this remarkable stretch. Though I might have just as easily talked at length about the peeping parapets on Arcadia St, the distinctive, contemporary house on the same street that adopts the unmistaken form of a Japanese Pavilion, with a surrounding wooden verandas and floor to ceiling glass walls, or one of the many Gothic inspired Federation houses on the same street, with their prominent candle snuffers.

Instead I will focus on Wynchwood, 4 Avenue Road, in particular its impressive three-quarter moon entrance porch, which Bernard and Kate Smith suggest is most likely a motif borrowed from Japanese architecture (1973, 115), and its wood-ornamented boxy casement windows. As Bernard and Kate Smith note, it is a “bizarre” and original dwelling (115) and shows that there is a good deal of stylistic variation within the Federation Style.


Confronted with such houses, and many neighbouring houses along Avenue Rd, Arcadia St and Allen St, it seems that, as Erika Esua argues, there is “no clear set of architectural principles” define the Federation Style (2010, 160) and it is adequately understood as a motley of varied influences including elements from Britain, Europe and America. In light of this characteristic diversity of influences, Esua suggests that the Arts & Crafts Style—perhaps it better called an attitude—which was defined in part by an informal combination of Olde English Styles and an emphasis on mixing materials and textures, is perhaps the greatest influence and the most appropriate category to use in describing these kinds of buildings. With reference to the work of Harriet Edquist, Esua argues “instead of using the loosely defined ‘Federation’ term, the houses built in this period in Australia can most specifically be labelled as products of a local adaptation of the Arts & Crafts movement itself” (161).

Twentieth Century Post Modern Blonde Brick Apartment Gothic

Glebe also features at least two striking examples of Twentieth Century Post Modern Blonde Brick Gothic. As the name suggests, this style is unique in its combination of gothic elements and the blonde brick associated with less salubrious apartment or townhouse dwellings. The gothic elements are usually limited to clusters of shapely pointed gables which are sometimes finished in bright, garish colours. The style evokes none of the imposing, ominous or terrifying feelings associated with the best of Victorian Gothic. Its most obvious antecedent is the 19th Century style, rustic or picturesque gothic. In Sydney the most stately examples of the picturesque or rustic gothic are built from sandstone and feature ornate, white bargeboards. Unlike the 19th Century style, the Twentieth Century buildings usually feature corrugated iron rather than slate roofs and do not employ bargeboards.

One example is visible from Glebe Pt Rd, with the cluster of blue and cerise gables peeking out over the trees. Other architecture writers have called the style Jumping Castle Gothic.