Monday 31 March 2014

Ian Nairn on the Royal College of Art

91. Royal College of Art
Kensington Gore 

Plate 15
H.T. Cadbury-Brown, 1961-62
and Sir Hugh Casson 

As responsible architecturally as Imperial College is irresponsible, with a personality as strong as the Albert Hall, next door, yet without self-advertisement. The individuality is internal and shows without affectation in the smallest details, such as the space of the main corridor on the ground floor and the space inside the Gulbenkian Hall (this, especially, is worth comparing with the aseptic rooms in the Festival Hall).

A tall block of eight storeys on Kensington Gore, breaking out into a splendid roofline of coupled lights for studios; the lecture hall is sunk into the ground at right angles and appears as a single storey. This is the ‘angry’ style completely justified, yet still angry or rather whatever word is the exact opposite of complacent. The horizontal and vertical members of the concrete frame are separated as demonstrably as though the Anti-Uglies (who were R.C.A. students) were still demonstrating. Not many of London’s modern buildings — even those in this book — will inspire affection in fifty years, but this will. It has the greatness and stature that so many of the physically great new buildings in London to conspicuously lack. Underground to South Kensington; bus 9, 52, 73.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

BOOOOOKS: An unrealised project

Before Christmas I traveled to Liverpool to review an exhibition of the life and work of the British concrete poet Bob Cobbing. The exhibition, curated by William Cobbing, Bob Cobbing’s grandson, and Rosie Cooper, consisted largely of printed matter and objects from the Cobbing family archive; some of this material had never been publicly exhibited before. Guardian of Gaberbocchus Press, Jasia Reichardt, loaned several paintings and assemblages. Ruth and Marvin Sackner, of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, also loaned films and printed matter. And on display for the first time was a newly commissioned film portrait of Cobbing’s spouse Jennifer Pike by the contemporary artist Holly Antrum. 

In the exhibition, head-height grid frames constructed of pine were configured to hold white panels printed with visual scores and poems. The design was a copy of structures used for the 1971 exhibition ‘konkrete po√ęzie’ at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam – to date the single most comprehensive exhibition of concrete poetry. Running along the entire length of one wall was a 1970s-style county council pinboard display showing a chronological timeline of Cobbing’s life. It was on this display that I was fascinated to find an architectural plan by H.T. Cadbury-Brown & Partners. 

The document, dated 18/01/68, shows a plan by the architects to convert an existing property at 80 Longacre, London WC2 into a bookshop, with a gallery, auditorium and filmmaking facilities. The clients? Bob Cobbing, his partner Jennifer Pike, and colleagues John Collins and Bill MacLellan. The group approached Cadbury-Brown and Partners when the now legendary Better Books in Charing Cross Road was closed by Collins the publishers in 1967. Cobbing managed Better Books, an important hub for London cultural life, but when it was closed poetry readings were cancelled, and the theatrical group ‘The People Show’ and the Film Makers’ Co-operative (later the London Film Makers’ Co-operative) were displaced. 

Six months after Better Books’ closure, Cobbing, Collins, MacLellan and Pike found their new venue at 80 Longacre, a converted basement in Covent Garden. Here they would absorb the activities previously hosted by Better Books and develop an international centre for avant-garde activities. Between them, the group raised £2000, securing the property, but made a further ‘a peal’ for £2000 for building ‘alterations and decorations’.

Quickly, unexpectedly, however, the project was cancelled. In recent scrawling handwritten notes, displayed alongside Cadbury-Brown’s plans in the exhibition, Jennifer Pike recalls how the lease had been fore-closed days before it was to be signed. After a poetry reading, Collins invited an audience back to 80 Longacre for a drink. Drinks turned into a noisy party. Residents above called the police. After this the group were denied any further negotiations on the property: ‘END OF BOOOOOKSEVENTURES,’ Pike’s notes conclude.  

It is fascinating to imagine the consequences had this unrealised project gone ahead. Beyond a mainstream cultural figure such as Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh, this document connects Cadbury-Brown & Partners to a key group of British avant-gardist poets and artists, architecture to concrete.