The Mound in Your Pocket

David Lee

Sept/Oct 2021

I took a wrong turn on my bike recently near Russell Square and came upon Wallis Gilbert’s 1931 Daimler car hire garage in Herbrand Street. Set back almost hidden, and only yards from where I attended university, I had never suspected its existence. It now pleases me so much I regularly detour past it. Now used as offices it is attractively maintained in pristine white. Those arriving to work here must feel lifted and lucky as they approach. I would. Mr Wallis’s masterpiece is the Hoover building on the A40, now more or less just a facade. Passing this on school trips into London in the early ’60s was for me always an anticipated treat, a major capital landmark. Art Deco architecture is not everyone’s cup of tea but to me it is deluxe English Breakfast. I love its simple shapes and generous reticulated windows, its echoes of classical detailing from Egyptian to Greek, the courage of unusual forms not always symmetrical and the pride taken in its construction – look up Harry Weedon’s Odeon in York, it is a monumental poem in small bricks.

I also discovered recently, while being driven out of London, that one route north passes Charles Holden’s early ’30s stations for the Piccadilly Line; Wood Green, Turnpike Lane, Southgate, Arnos Grove, Cockfosters. These original and ingenious buildings stand out as beacons in often messy urban settings. I’d not been up this way for years but now find the stations falling into blistered, crumbling disrepair, lengths of concrete moulding chipped and eroded away, especially at Cockfosters. Restored and painted they would surely become central to the street experience of open-eyed commuters and local people, and undoubtedly a quiet source of pride that there was indeed a time when modern architecture was capable of visibly improving a locality.

Claiming poverty as a reason for neglecting good buildings is no excuse. Two recent examples of huge sums squandered by the Mayor of London come to mind. At Marble Arch, the old execution site of Tyburn tree, £6 million (the cost doubled in months due to maladministration) has been spent constructing a mound 75 feet high. The lack of judgement involved in this hideous intrusion astounds. Whoever dreamed it up should be barred from public office. The presiding committee must have sat on their fat behinds washing down blueberry muffins with caramel lattes like a circle of nodding dogs. ‘This’ll bring the shoppers back to Oxford Street all right!’ Cue more nodding: ‘Definitely!’. But how? How could a hillock skirted in plants and saplings uncomfortably vertical on steep slopes achieve this? Sadiq Khan, a man with a sixth sense for wasting money on barmy schemes, should have spent £6 million improving the capital’s air quality which is now worse than it’s ever been. The mound promises “unparalleled views”, a barefaced lie. It’s not even as tall as nearby Selfridges and the mature planes across the road at Speakers’ Corner look down on its summit so you probably can’t see much of Hyde Park either. Inevitably, this absurdity is referred to as ‘public art’ even though it has nothing to do with art and one member of the public described it as ‘The worst thing ever done in London’ – an exaggeration when considering Boris Johnson’s cancelled Garden Bridge which spent over £40 million without a spade of earth being dug. When public servants refer to money being tight you can only look at stupid piles like this and cry laughing in disbelief.

The second waste of money, part of a £7 million scheme of ‘public art’ (again) to boost tourism, is a series of bland banners and pedestrian crossings in Piccadilly painted in gaudy abstract patterns; a joint venture between the Royal Academy and Art of London (“a new cultural initiative” set up by the Mayor). In trecento Tuscany it was demanded of artists that they could devise an exciting public pageant. More recently, in the 1930s, Paul Nash might turn his skills to designing seat material for buses. Few artists nowadays are trained to do anything communally useful or entertaining. You look at these dreary RA efforts and wonder why they bothered; it is a waste of time, energy and resources. I spent half an hour walking up and down and no one paid any attention to any of it … because it was just there and is unrecognisable as anything which reaches out. Attract tourism? Talk about self-delusion.

Too much is spent in the visual arts on instantly forgettable temporary stunts serving only to line the pockets of the usual suspects and allow the Mayor’s office to pen self-congratulatory press releases. We waste millions on feeble diversions presented as art but without artistic content. 

They should have painted Holden’s stations instead. David Lee 

P.S. May I humbly refer you to my interpolation in the letters’ pages.