#34 ‘Commons View (Self-Managing 1 to 27)’ by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Commons View

Removal of Top Floors of Faraday Building, 1972. © BT Digital Archives.

 

1. Here’s an everyday photograph of a scene so familiar to Londoners, that it can’t be seen, as such. A postcard never bought or sent. A witless selfie-opportunity…

2. In fact, this is one overfamiliar sight you cannot have seen before. The image is a retouched photograph, akin to an architectural visualisation. It dates from May 1972 when it accompanied proposals for the removal of three storeys of the Post Office’s Faraday House (aka Faraday Building S Block) in response to decades of criticism that its height obscured views of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Post Office concluded that it would cost £850,000 to meet the City of London planner’s aspiration and that was that.

3. Of course, no one is interested in suggestions of visual deception here. However, I was surprised and confused when I first located it and the un-retouched original. More so when relating this image to the patinated copper roof of the defiant Faraday building that actually stands on the site set back from the Thames between the Blackfriars and Millennium Bridges to this day.

4. What interests me is what is generated by this image. Or rather, by this view – in the signifying economy of built form. What is called View Management, or specifically the London View Management Framework with its corridors and prescribed vistas. Since the 1930s a set of views has locked-off around this one and St Paul’s itself: the western towers, peristyle, upper drum and magnificent dome, topped with the Golden Gallery which owns one of London’s best views.

5. Beyond that, I’m interested in articulating a radical alternative to this proprietorial articulation of our city.

6. The neutered Faraday House on the left was one of four related ‘blocks’ clustered to the north of the two ‘blocks’ in this image. They were built on the site of the Doctors’ Commons: Inns of Court for advocates of civil and ecclesiastical law. The ruins of the Doctors Commons briefly housed a grotto patronised by fish merchants before demolition made way for Queen Victoria Street and the first Post Office structure, behind the one above.

7. In 1902 the old PO Savings Bank acquired a central telephone exchange with 200 establishment subscribers, which soon expanded into a long distance exchange in the same building. Then, with improvements in methods of transmitting speech over long distances and a need to expand, the adjoining site was acquired and Faraday House completed by May 1933.

8. “The modern world is removing the barriers of distance. It demands more and more speed in its communications. Speech begins to bridge the world as the most urgent, the most personal and the most effective means of conveying thought.” This is from an in-house publication on Faraday House and its newly opened International Telephone Exchange from the 1930s (†1).

9. Naturally, the ‘thought’ conveyed by this first global network was Imperial. Colonial possessions were now connected, so that South Africa could speak to India, for example, but only through this building. If it had come earlier, it might have allowed Herbert Baker in South Africa to speak with Edward Lutyens in India about their parliamentary complex in New Delhi, which they were falling out over as visions, legacies and egos clashed.

10. When he became the Surveyor of the Fabric of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1931, Walter Godfrey Allen settled in a modest terraced house in Faversham, Kent. On his commute he enjoyed “the most famous views” (†2) of his place of work available: more or less the one above. He’d spent the previous years strengthening the structurally dangerous building and now watched agitatedly as the river view was obscured by Faraday House. Immediately he began composing letters of objection to anyone he thought might listen or respond.

11. In 1930 the London Building Act authorised new buildings up to 100 feet but the London County Council retained powers to grant exceptions to this rule. Shell-Mex and Unilever Houses led the way…

12. A.R. Myers, the Ministry of Works designer of Mount Pleasant and PO landmarks across the country, built Faraday House to the capacity required by his governmental client and without restraint. His building was at the centre of a communication ‘universe’ and had a physical determination on the city all around it.

13. Allen regarded Faraday House, standing at about 150 feet or 46 metres, as an “outstanding result of the exercise of this exemption”(†3). It not only blocked views of the cathedral but also “compromised the architectural amenities of this important locality near St Paul’s”(†4). After the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932, Allen conducted detailed surveys of the topography and urban form to argue for height restrictions in the locality and preservation of “famous … vistas” (†5) to the west and north, in a 1934 report.

14. Allen’s official allies tipped him off about new applications, like Lutyens’ plans for his Reuters building on Fleet Street. A tautly well-humoured correspondence began in which Allen asked Lutyens to rethink the top floors of the planned building rather than compromise a historic monument. Lutyens wriggled but conceded. His own rather monumental structure was completed in 1938 and Pevsner later praised the architect’s restraint, instancing the way that the top floors drop back ten feet with a parasol detail. The real story is contained in letters that I read in the eves of Wren’s cathedral.

15. The 1937/8 Town Planning Act embedded Allen’s restricted heights and views around the cathedral, principally from the south side angling east and west. The establishment of this unique hinterland led eventually to the present Framework of 27 ‘managed’ views. The legislation defines them as London Panoramas, Linear Views, River Prospects, and Townscape Views. The purpose is to preserve the visual identification of this post-Great Fire landmark and with it a notional identity of the city as a whole.

16. The Serpentine Bridge Townscape View details the method: “Development in the background of the view should not undermine the relationship between the predominantly parkland landscape composition in the foreground and the landmark buildings at the focus of the view in the middle ground … New buildings in the background of the view must be subordinate”. In practice, this means that housing developments at the Elephant and Castle, for example, were determined by this view from a Royal Park.

17. This Framework exists within an episteme of built form as real, even Royal estate. The Serpentine Bridge view is joined by Greenwich and Richmond Parks, the latter of which “was first enclosed by Charles I and is the largest of London’s Royal Parks.” This Linear View from King Henry VIII’s Mound begins with an avenue of trees planted in the early 17th century “just after the new cathedral was completed.”

18. The result is that a vast glass palace, with entrances in Royal Parks and vantage over densely populated parts of the city, squats over London and Londoners – albeit virtually. Architecturally rendered, the Framework’s system of corridors would form the largest structure in Europe, seemingly invisible to those whose lives it determines.

19. Mention of Charles I conjures the most significant name associated with the Doctors’ Commons. Isaac Dorislaus was a brilliant young academic, who gave two lectures at Cambridge referencing Tacitus to propose legal methods to depose tyrants – before being banned. Thereafter he joined the prosecuting council at the trial of Charles I in January 1649, before being murdered by Royalists at The Hague in May of that year. Parliament endowed Dorislaus’ children and ensured they could keep his rooms at the Doctors’ Commons. Their father was buried in Westminster Abbey only to be disinterred at the Restoration, his body thrown in an unmarked pit outside it.

20. I like to think of Faraday House as a fitting memorial to Isaac Dorislaus.

21. One of the longest glazed corridors in London’s palace stretches for ten miles from Richmond Park. Distance and topography mean that at Richmond there is only a vista: a notional image of the city. On the Mound a telescope offers an alluring vision beyond gold-lettered gates reading THE WAY through the trimmed avenue of trees and on to a postcard cathedral. I walked up and out here, along that glassy ‘Way’ and against the grain of what it represents.

22. All of this is underscored by what lies below Faraday House. The Citadel was the last part of the Faraday complex built, forming its north east ‘block’ (†6). Six shafts descend below this defensive bunker, to join a network of tunnels 60 metres below. It links arms around St Paul’s cathedral before reaching out to establishment locations around the city for at least 12 miles. Once a state secret, this BT-owned network remains out of public reach in 2015.

23. High above, a virtual palace is formed by glass corridors which cut through London’s sky from Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill, ironically, and Alexander Palace as well as Point Hill, a small public park above Deptford. From here the cathedral is almost lost in the sea of new London below, but visible as view as well as vista. The former is a pleasing expression of attention to the city and generates no animus in me. It is the latter generator of a vast crystal palace of established exclusivity that does.

24. So, look again at the photograph and focus on the watery commons it displays in the foreground. The Romans built their colony beside the river, which also became the conveyor belt of Britain’s industrialised Empire. If I am to offer an alternative vision of the city, it can still be organised – I prefer self-managed – around this location. Let that be my Dorislaus Memorial and let’s follow the logic through, using our city’s riverine commons.

25. In place of views constructed by regal corridors think of them by river catchments – the catchments of living tributaries to the Thames. Rivers that link the Thames to the City Commons and that of Epping Forest, for example, at London’s conventionally mapped extremities. The Roding, the Ravensbourne, the Wandle and Brent, perhaps. Now stand with me on Keston Common in the south-east, or Ashstead in the south-west, on Pole Hill in Epping Forest or on the roof of Brent Cross and conjure vistas of a radically different city.

26. From these places, self-managing views are supplemented by another form of urban commons: London’s forest canopy. Canopy connects all along our muddy passages and helps sustain our existing commonworld. That is, this composition of water and urban forest is also a necessary corrective in our time, as climate change builds. These are vistas of and for common life, ones that we can and must invest ourselves in. Ones to enhance and reimagine our city around, in fact.

27. Retouched or not, doubling formally and substantively, this is an image of that coming city for Londoners based on a radically new urban commons. One that has long enabled life here and which is now our best or only muddy portal, rather than palatial corridor, to a future we can share.

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†1. Faraday House, General Post Office publication, undated ca 1930s, BT Archive

†2. W. Godfrey Allen, F.R.I.B.A., St Paul’s Cathedral, A Survey of Views, London, November 1934, p3

†3. ibid, p4

†4. ibid

†5. ibid

†6. Both north blocks have been demolished and replaced by the Grange St. Paul’s Hotel.

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Guy Mannes-Abbott is the London-based author of a singular series of texts which often perform in visual art contexts. The longest is In Ramallah, Running (London 2012), while the latest are contributions to End Note(s) (Rotterdam/Hong Kong 2015), and e-flux journal’s Supercommunity (Venice Biennale 2015). @guymannesabbott