I’ve always had a slight relationship with Victoria and Pimlico in London. As central London areas go, it has always represented two things to me: the awful feeling of leaving the city and the sense of dread at having to wander around somewhere largely built of private buildings, houses and hotels (not the ideal place to burn an hour in wait for a coach or a train at least). Recalling the Ealing Comedy, Passport To Pimlico, I don’t think it would have made a great deal of difference if such a barrier existed to enter the quarter; a social one of sorts is arguably already active and has been for some time. Since learning that the house of architectural writer, Ian Nairn, stood in the area and was used in the title sequence for his phenomenal series, Nairn Across Britain (1972), I thought it would be a good time for a reappraisal of the space and what better guide to walk with around the gleaming white roads of Pimlico than the sharp-eyed city poet, using the words of his seminal book, Nairn’s London (1966), to map the area’s interest; if Nairn failed to convince of the place’s beauty then all others were also undoubtedly doomed equally to failure. Nairn lived in Warwick Square, a fact I only came upon recently when analysing Nairn Across Britain‘s intro. Being an area predominantly lived in rather than visited, there was no quick way to it and so I alighted the tube to Victoria and began there.
Victoria itself has been going through a strange epoch in terms of architecture recently. Virtually every visit to the station has been overtly stressful because of the make-shift rat-run forced upon the pavements to deal with the huge swath of high-rise developments growing up around the station. The pavement ebbs and flows at uneven paces like a traffic junction with an ill-timed set of lights. A quiet moment alone at a crossing can all of a sudden become crowded; a human pressure cooker ready to fire out a group crammed human beings into the road, sometimes even when the traffic is still moving. It was a pleasure to get away from the main station with a swift pace of foot. I took a right onto Vauxhall Bridge Road, meandering down as the volume of people began to quickly disperse. A minute’s walk away and the residential nature of the area leads to it being virtually empty by central London standards. Making my way down Warwick Way and turning left onto Belgrave Road, I finally made it to the first Nairn stop of Warwick Square.
Finding No.14, it dawned that the very house I wanted to see happened to be the only one in the beautiful road to be undergoing maintenance work, covered with an ugly scaffold exoskeleton. I couldn’t hide my disappointment as I tried in vain to capture the house as Barry Bevins had done brilliantly for the BBC 40 years earlier. Even the presence of a Morris Minor wouldn’t have helped, the aggressive simplicity of the scaffolding hiding the most typical flourishes of the Georgian properties. I eventually opted to create the shot with a differing house which proved slightly more successful, though not before spotting the odd sign on the private gardens implying there was a “police patrol” guarding it “day and night”. I thought as well of Nairn’s short documentary No Two The Same from 1970 where he begins an evaluation of the area by walking into this pleasant garden space. I’d be willing to bet the aggressive privacy of such a space today would rile his tendency for public openness. My next stop was some way away and further out than all of the other stops so I walked on knowing that, this being a Saturday, the peace was likely to be gradually diminishing as the hours and minutes fell by.
I found my way back to Vauxhall Bridge Road again and made my way to Tate Britain; almost uniquely being the only reason I’ve ever made the effort to visit the area beforehand. I’ve always had rather a soft spot for both Tate Britain as a building and a gallery, it being almost always on the receiving end of unfairly negative press, such is the masochistic tendency for the British to hate their own arts and artists until they’re long dead and buried. Nairn is equally dismissive of the building and the project though shows more tact and an almost genuine sympathy for the building, writing the following:
Poor Tate! It seems to get the rough end of every stick: first of all the pompous, confused building, then in the unlikely combination of subject (British art of any date plus all modern art), and finally in the fact that the masterpieces of both classes are apt to disappear to the National Gallery… an artistic London airport. (1966, p.58-59).
In fairness, he’s partly right. There is plenty of room for development of the space to reflect the more avant-garde nature of the work on show. But, as with most the criticism I read of Tate Britain, I largely disagree and the space deserves more praise for its increasingly stunning collection of work and curation. I hung around the green space just by the gallery steps for a short time, taking in the sun which reflected off the light stone material used to construct the building. I would later return to pay a proper visit to its exhibitions but the walk demanded continuation. Back up along Vauxhall Bridge Road, I eventually found the turning onto Belgrave Road and then Morton Street which lead to the first of a number of church’s on the walk, St. James the Less. The tower of the church played well against the similarly dark brick of the post-war build next to it, adding a flavour of European Gothic to what was a predominantly modern space. Nairn is particularly enthusiastic about the building, even highlighting it as one of the area’s facets which combats the place’s apparent dullness:
Pimlico can be dull but this building would liven up any walk. Closely packed on to the small site, slate and dusty red brick fuming at the shabby surroundings. The Corner is taken up by the parish hall, tied in to the church with fantastic iron railings. (1966, p.60).
The majority of the building appears to now be used as a nursery but the church is still open at weekends. The square that the tower sits upon is nicely overgrown; post-war Brutalist spaces look far better with a few weeds here and there. There was even an aliveness to the square in spite of the blanket quiet which hung over the adjacent roads: a dog walker cheerily wishing a “Mornin’!”, a girl using the concrete bollards to stretch before jogging off around the corner. Seeing a space filled with a normal, gentle sense of living was rather warming in a part of the capital that so often is either an extreme of bustle or absence. Following on from this, the next stop was an entirely different proposition. Following Morton Street until it crossed and turned into Chapter Street, Hide Tower stood ominously. It is as typical a Ballardian high-rise as is conceivable. Even its foyer looks like a time-warp to 1975 from a distance; Robert Maitland could walk out on his way to deliver a physiology lecture and seem entirely in keeping with the surroundings. But, in spite of this, the building was exciting, again creating a sparked contrast between the much older buildings around it and its own concrete designs. Nairn was initially mixed about this building though more optimistic about its solid ideals than pessimistic overall:
Hide Tower is a sober, unspectacular tower block of twenty-three storeys in the scrappy hinterland of the Tate Gallery. It has no faults and at first sight it seems to have no special virtues… With so much meretricious and fancy concrete work about, this is worth a special visit. (1966, p.59).
The way its windows are uniformed to a centre column gives the impression of low numbered domino game endlessly playing upon the London skyline. The greenery around the building also adds to its surprising pleasantness; green and grey coming together to create a Cronenberg-like sense of symbiosis, like an inner city centre of Erotic Inquiry only, at this point in the walk, without any attendees. My next stop was Westminster Catholic Cathedral, some way behind a number of roads and a Cricket green. I snaked my way along high-built streets, passed the green (which felt earnestly like a failed attempt to force a village mentality upon the area) and eventually found myself in the vivid red-brick vertigo of Emery Hill Street. Because all of the buildings were so high, the sight of Cathedral came as a shock as if sprouting from nowhere. The houses around were of more interest, their large windows being a gateway onto a surreal, affluent world miles away from my own. I felt rather guilty for not paying much attention to the Cathedral’s obvious sense of epic but I was pleased to find that I wasn’t alone in feeling this. Nairn writes of the same sense of catatonia with being confronted by a building that is simply trying too hard: “For me, this building shows the difference between actually being and trying very-hard-to-be, better than any in London. For many thousands of others, the Cathedral is a holy place and a house of God. If I offend them, I am sorry.” (1966, p.60). He later surmises the surrounding buildings perfectly as “…like a splendid electric appliance with the current turned on.” (1966, p.61). In other words, alive.
Back around to Victoria Street, the bustle became apparent again. This steady stream of people was accompanied by such a volume of new builds made of glass as to almost give the impression of walking around a giant kitchenware shop. The propensity for overly glass-fronted buildings in central London is an unnerving one; a choice designed to create a light and to give a sense of openness but actually one that simply creates a vague distance and ambiguity as to what these spaces are actually for. They instead seem alien and suspicious. The Cardinal Walk shopping arcade, only partly finished at this point, is typical of this; high-end shops in a space almost entirely conceptual rather than actual (a phrase I increasingly use when describing London new-builds). This sense is broken enjoyably by another post-war development that Nairn spots; Portland House. Rising out of this spineless sea of glass and steel is this concrete monster, looming over its weak neighbours like a late-night mugger squaring up to a shy undergraduate student. Nairn wasn’t quite so keen on this building as I was but saw that same contrast rising up even when the buildings around it were still of a typical post-war character:
Not an endearing start. But to see it among its neighbours… is a good place to see the difference between alive and dead modern buildings. Portland House is no masterpiece, but it has got a spark, it is a real live idea of a building, where the dead fish all around it are just so many square feet of lettable office space to exist in a loveless apathy until the time comes for their demolition. (1966, p.61).
Their demolition came, only for them to be sadly replaced with more “dead fish” of a more glassy variety. This had brought me back to the Victoria central zone, thriving again with people aimlessly but quickly shooting out of the fenced rat-runs. I quickly veered through the commercial walk but soon realised where treading Nairn’s steps was taking me; to Palace Street and Buckingham Gate, a place writhing almost constantly with eager tourists. Cameras were constantly clicking, loud Americans were shouting their awed admiration at every building over twenty years old and many sad-looking tourist staff my own age were forced to sell cut-price coach tours to those gullible enough for a whistle-stop blink around everywhere and nowhere. I had come this way to see the Queen’s Gallery though found the obvious Roylist flavour of the area increasingly cloying. Nairn speaks of the building’s accessibility telling more about the Royals than most other things associated with them:”Electric eyes count the visitors; attendants in royal livery gravely indicate the way round… It gives more understanding of the royal family than a dozen state occasions.” (1966, p.61). He perhaps unconsciously touches upon another element here: that of extreme security and constant vigilance, digitally and physically. I couldn’t detach the building from its politics, however. It simply seemed rather banal.
I had two more official stops to make, both some way away. It seemed an exhausting prospect venturing parallel to Birdcage Walk; its difficulty enhanced further by the multitude of people. I followed Palace Gate back down and eventually through to Petty France to see Queen Anne’s Gate. Nairn was more interested in the actual statue that lies on the road than the road itself, but takes notice of the extravagant porches which still overwhelm and captivate today:
Queen Anne’s Gate itself is overrated: it is a complete eighteenth-century street with some jolly porches, but nothing more, except an oasis in a pretty grinding part of Westminster. Queen Anne herself, however, on a pedestal next to No.13, is a perfect official statue, full of generalized queenly virtues yet still a recognizable and attractive person, stepping out into life with just enough English straightforwardness. (1966, p.62).
I turned back again but not before admiring the amazing Brutalism of the Ministry of Justice building; like a Gerry Anderson sculpt, designed to split in two so a ship of some sort can spiral out of it and away. The last stop on this exhausting walk was just around the corner past St. James’s Park tube station. St. Ermin’s Hotel was a gentle stop for a final destination and was appropriately a building that Nairn loved. He writes of its design that “You are carried away with the scoops and scallops, thrown back with a delicious shock on the prickly froth of ornament around. Urgent and intoxicating; it would be marvellous to get wed here instead of next door.” (1966, p.62). It was hard to disagree.
I was initially unsure as to how I felt about the walk at this point so decided to take stock in a nearby pub (appropriate for Nairn, albeit with rum rather than beer) called The Old Star. With Nairn as a guide, I had walked a fair few miles and seen a multitude of interesting buildings yet the area still felt more distant than it ought to be. I recalled with a sadness the sheer number of security cameras, private signs and a huge police presence, all of course typical around a politically significant area of a capital city. But then I remembered Nairn’s words from his 1970 documentary, its description as having a “village in a city” character. Perhaps if a road or two could be lent to some of the arts students down Pimlico way, some social vibrancy could be injected into the zone to match its wonderful diversity of brick and mortar; a diversity which is still deserving of experiencing and walking all the same.