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Celebrating the restrained grandeur of London's town halls

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman
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Anthony Coleman’s photographs of London’s civic architecture, exhibited at London’s Eleven Spitalfields, champion an era of civic investment

The civic buildings and town halls photographed by Anthony Coleman in Town Hall Series: A London Typology have a universal architectural language. ‘There’s a tremendous formality to them,’ says Coleman.

It’s true they all possess a civic dignity. All are symmetrical, and most have flag poles and mayoral balconies. They are strident, confident and heroic buildings with facades that command the urban grain. And yet they are also unobtrusive – they do not show off. Despite their grandeur, these buildings look as if they were built to serve; as if they were built for the people. 

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Greenwich Town Hall, Culpin and Bowers, 1939

Coleman – an AJ contributing photographer – standardises the buildings, shooting them square on against a grey sky, and clothes them in a uniform. He shoots with a wide shift lens and amalgamates several pictures into one, editing out the unwanted details as if designing a stage set. Like his last project on cathedrals, the photographs are presented very much as two-dimensional representations with a flatness recalling elevation drawings. Their arrangement on the gallery walls is aesthetic, but happens to be largely chronological too, and the buildings span 200 years, from Hackney Old Town Hall (1802) to Brent Civic centre (2013).

Coleman believes the buildings are of current interest because they reflect the spirit of the time in which they were built; a time when local governments were ‘about so much more than managing budgets’. By combining a number and variety of services – such as theatre space, swimming baths, libraries and administrative services – in the most important local building, they had the power to galvanise the community and champion civic investment.

Shoreditch Town Hall, designed by Caesar Augustus Long in 1866, embodies the spirit of civic architecture perhaps more than any other. The facade is inscribed with the former borough’s motto, ‘More Light, More Power’, and a Statue of Liberty-type structure raises her arm to ‘Progress’. The ‘progressive’ vestry at Shoreditch had high ambitions according to a contemporary report by Hackney District Board of Works.

‘We hope and do not unreasonably anticipate that the use of the edifice may tend to develop, strengthen and perpetuate the municipal principle, and to secure the Metropolis, the advantages of Local Self-Government for Centuries to come,’ it reads.

The town hall was considered the heart of civic life, and held inquests into Jack the Ripper’s murders, musical and theatrical entertainment, as well as facilitating evacuations during the Blitz. Following the amalgamation of Shoreditch, Stoke Newington and Hackney boroughs, as well as recent renovations, the town hall morphed a decade ago into a self-described ‘exciting destination contemporary arts and events venue at the heart of the buzzing creative scene,’ complete with Michelin-starred restaurant.

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Shoreditch Town Hall, Caesar Augustus Long, 1866

Many of these town halls are under threat from demolition or have been repurposed. Wembley’s town hall is now a French private girls’ school, while Wimbledon’s is a Tesco, and Hackney’s a Coral betting shop. Is this perhaps the architectural representation of civic involvement today? Local government hardly captures the public’s imagination, and community involvement too is on the wane, especially in the wealthiest boroughs of London where moths and mice squat in luxury apartments. This is not a political exhibition, but it does raise questions on the nature of neighbourhood now, compared to what it was when these town halls were built.

For this reason Brent’s 2013 civic centre, designed by Hopkins, is interesting. With civic, public and administrative services under the same roof, the building provides for 2,000 members of staff as well as the local community. The photograph is relegated to the stairs outside the main exhibition room, buffering its stylistic incongruity. It is certainly the black sheep of the family, though the similarities of formality, efficiency and servile purpose are still apparent in the strong glass facade.

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Brent Civic Centre, Michael Hopkins, 2013

Coleman’s favourite is Hounslow Civic Centre. Built in 1976 for a Labour government, it is surrounded by landscaped gardens and is set in Lampton Park. Constructed in brick and limestone, it does not have any coats of arms or mayoral balconies, and is therefore more egalitarian in design ethos than some of its peers. Coleman’s photograph captures the building from a slight distance, behind some bare trees with a few people milling in and out. The bright green of the landscaped gardens is an uncommon splash of colour that associates Hounslow with Dagenham, Walthamstow and Romford’s town halls. Its days are numbered. While in 1986, it housed 1,235 members of staff, it is now under threat of demolition and land disposal.

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Hounslow Civic Centre, 1976

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Town Hall Series: A London Typology by Anthony Coleman

Barking and Dagenham Town Hall, Jackson and Edmonds, 1930s, renovated by Hawkins\Brown

These buildings were designed and built to be elemental to the community, and their straight and honest documentation in Coleman’s typology emphasises their civic importance. My own town hall - the building where I pick up recycling bags, library books, and where I am writing this, is almost unrecognisable in Coleman’s photograph. Without the shotgun wedding parties, the Big Issue sellers and the tourists bustling by, the gravitas and dignity of the building itself is apparent. It doesn’t look entirely welcoming with its formal and austere features, but it does look like it is waiting. I feel a small sense of civic pride.

The exhibition is on at Eleven Spitalfields until 4 December. Anthony Coleman and writer and academic Ken Worpole will be in conversation at the gallery on the evening of 18 November.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nice article. I am from Calcutta, India. And the article brought my attention to the Calcutta Town Hall. It was built in 1813 by the architect and engineer Maj.-Gen. John Garstin (1756-1820) with a fund of 700,000 Rupees raised from a lottery to provide the British with a place for social gatherings. It still stands today with its "restrained grandeur."

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