The Design Museum’s new show uncovers hidden gems of London architecture, says Rory Olcayto
Lesser Known Architecture, an exhibition at the Design Museum, begins next week, and I thoroughly recommend it. As curator Elias Redstone explains, the exhibition ‘presents an alternative architectural map of the city’. Nominated by architecture critics, the 10 buildings, structures and subways featured contribute to the mix and diversity of the city but are often overlooked or forgotten. Each site has been photographed by Theo Simpson and single-colour prints will be displayed.
I was asked to nominate potential projects and picked three worthy contenders: Dilston Grove in Southwark Park, one of the UK’s first reinforced concrete buildings, and designed by the original Wembley stadium architects, John Simpson & Maxwell Ayrton; Peckham multi-storey car park, which I discussed in last week’s column; and Crystal Palace subway, a beautiful pedestrian underpass and one of the few remaining elements of Paxton’s Victorian marvel. I was pleased when I heard from Redstone that the subway, and its sprouting octagonal columns fashioned from cream and orange brickwork, had made the cut and would feature in the show.
When I began researching the subway, I stumbled across random memories that spoke of its evocative charms. ‘It reminds me of a cellar designed by Gaudí in Barcelona,’ wrote one anonymous messageboarder. ‘It’s an incredible place. An eerie and tragic monument to colossal Victorian hubris,’ said another. ‘I used to go there 30 years ago. I was 13. We got chased by insane glue-sniffing skinheads and punks with mohawks’ was more than typical: the subway has been used for raves and parties since it was closed for good decades ago.
For a long time, however, it functioned as it was meant to. The fan-vaulted structure was built in 1865 by Italian craftsmen under the guidance of Edward Middleton Barry, who also designed the now-demolished high-level station that served the Crystal Palace following its relocation from Hyde Park a decade before.
Variously described as Italianate, Byzantine and, as noted above, like something from the mind of the Catalan Antoni Gaudí, the subway should more fittingly be seen as a sign of London’s transformation: into the pre-eminent world capital it was becoming then, remains so today, and one that could confidentially mix styles to create a unique aesthetic of its own.
To have wandered through its capacious hall, past the rows of ornate columns, to emerge into a courtyard with views towards Paxton’s gleaming palace above, and to have done so as an ordinary man, woman or child must have been a rich experience. You might even have had a sense that the world around you was beginning to feel just a little more fair. Hopefully you’ll be able to visit the subway soon. Currently, it’s a safety hazard, but a community group is working hard to have it reopened.
There are numerous fascinating projects in the show. My favourite, nominated by Ellie Stathaki of Wallpaper*, is Mail Rail, the underground transit system managed by Royal Mail. Some of the projects are not as low-key as you might expect. Tom Dykoff has nominated Lubetkin’s Bevin Court and Owen Hatherley has picked Brownfield Estate, home to Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. These, I’d say, are pretty well known. So is Tom Dyckoff’s other choice, Stockwell Bus Garage, which has become something of an obsession for Will Self, who two years ago made it the focus of a Royal Academy lecture entitled ‘London’s most important building’.
Nevertheless Redstone’s idea is a good one, and you can even buy a print of your favourite project from the museum shop. The exhibition though, is free.