Paul Nash at Tate Britain

Paul Nash at Tate Britain October 2016 to 5 March 2017 – a review by Herbert Wright

We see him standing in a big coat in a short 1940 film, intense eyes flicking from sketchbook to a field of Luftwaffe wreckage gathered in Oxfordshire. This is Paul Nash, Britain’s only official war artist in both world wars, and England’s home-grown surrealist. From the start, those eyes seemed to see things that others didn’t – an otherness in objects, landscapes, the sea and the sky. Tate’s retrospective (far deeper than the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s in 2010) is like a walk through his psyche, and it’s a fascinating walk. 

Falling Stars

Paul Nash – The Falling Stars ©Tate


Nash sensed the metaphysical in the world. For him, inanimate objects could be ‘personages’, and ancient mystical forces permeated the English countryside. From the start, he was besotted with the English countryside. Trees were often the stars of his pictures, characters in their own right. Some were as transparent as jellyfish, others solid and brooding. A tree canopy in The Falling Stars (1912) actually becomes a sinister bird’s head.


Nash did not find himself in World War One’s trenches until early 1917, and initially still saw nature – in Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, he shows new growths emerging. He avoided Passchendaele because a non-combat accident had him sent home. When he returned, the reality of war soon obliterated earlier tender visions, as it obliterated men and nature. He described what he called an ‘unspeakable, godless, hopeless’ world. His work became a message against warmongers and ‘their lousy souls’. In this war, only vorticist CRW Nevinson brings as new a way of seeing it. In Nash’s The Ypres Salient at Night (1918), flares illuminate a landscape of trenches- barren, man-made, stark. The Menin Road, perhaps his most powerful canvas and three metres wide, is a vista of water-filled shell craters, churned earth, a sky of doom and drama, a few soldiers moving between trees stripped to stumps. (In scale and composition it forward-echoes Max Ernst’s 1942 anti-war masterpiece, Europe After the Rain).


Paul Nash – The Menin Road (1919) Credit: Tate, Imperial War Museum

Back in England, the darkness lingered – his Winter Sea (started in Dymchurch, Kent, 1925) is as cold and steely as a theatre of war, but more constant. But Nash was also diversifying into different media – woodwork, photography, writing – and his interests were evolving. He worked with found objects and photographed things he saw strangeness in, such as a dead tree he called Monster. Neolithic stones in Wiltshire became obsessive subjects.

By the mid-1930s, Nash was riding the crest of a wave breaking in new artistic territories. He was central in the modernist-surrealist collective Unit One, which included the likes of Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Isokon’s architect Wells Coates. In 1936, he helped organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, where crowds surged to see work by Ernst, Dali, Miro and others.

Nash’s own surrealism was influenced by de Chirico more than any, but Giacometti inspired a sculptural work called Aviary, a frame structure with abstracted birds. After being lost for 70 years, the Tate found it and show it – sadly without the original handheld blue viewing glass.


Moon Aviary courtesy Ernest, Brown & Phillips © Tate Photographty


His most famous surrealist work, Landscape from a Dream, returns us to the English countryside. A falcon stares into a mirror by a cliff-edge, and sees into an inner space where its soul seems to be on wing in a sunset. This extraordinary vision stands amongst the best of European surrealism.


Paul Nash – Landscape from a Dream (1938) © Tate

When another war broke, the enemy came from the air, as it in one of Nash’s earliest works, The Combat (1910) in which a devil swoops down. In 1941, he painted a great composition of plane trails, The Battle of Britain, sadly missing in this show, but we do see the masterpiece of Luftwaffe wreckage he had surveyed, Totes Meer, (German for ‘Dead Sea’) from the same year, and a very different work that took him in a new direction, the semi-abstract Battle of Germany (1944).

From this time also came his most beautiful paintings, peaceful and metaphysical. The Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, hills crowned by trees, was a subject ever since 1911. In the 1940s, the sun and moon connect them to the cosmos in canvases like his Vernal Equinox landscapes. 


Paul Nash – Flight of the Magnolia (1944) ©Tate

And in Cumulus Head and Flight of the Magnolia, he has already left the earth to be in forms emerging in clouds. There is something heavenly about them, the ultimate strange wonder revealed to Nash. He died in 1946.


War made Nash a towering modernist artist, but he remained a romantic. The deeper worlds he sensed in what he saw is a good lesson for now, when the overload of imagery and media make even the real world hard to see. 

This review was originally published in Blueprint magazine 350, January 2017

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Letter from Tokyo

The most advanced city on Earth isn’t just shaped by earthquakes and economics – animes and architects play out dreams there too. Herbert Wright seeks the big picture from above, and the future beyond the futuristic

Two things not to do with a Tokyo taxi driver: tip, because that’s an insult, and close the door, because that could bugger the self-closing mechanism. Japan leads in automation across many sectors, and now it’s getting a handle in cabs — a door handle. Just remember, don’t touch.

Tokyo has long been a city of the future. I imagine it already felt like the 21st century in 1990, while London hadn’t pulled out of the 80s and it was still 1970 in Manchester and 1955 in Moscow. It’s not just the gizmos and sushi, it’s the scale and dazzle. Chinese megacities may look like the Neo Tokyo of manga comics, towering and superluminous, but their recent turbo-charged urbanisation is just version two of Tokyo’s v1.0. It took 20 years to 1965 for Tokyo’s population to triple to 10 million, by when the neon of Ginza, the city’s most upmarket shopping district, glowed like Vegas. Now Ginza’s shop buildings themselves glow — light shines out from Renzo Piano’s glass bricks at Hermés, or Jun Aoki’s perforated aluminium at Louis Vuitton.

Tokyo is Maximum City, a vast hyperconnected, hyperproductive urban field, now with 13 million people. You can only appreciate its sheer scale 451m up the cool, metallic 634m-high Skytree, designed by mega-practice Nikken Sekkei and curiously not painted red and white like masts always are here. At Tokyo Station, whose 1914 European-style design by Tatsuno Kingo still stands among the blocky high-rises of the Marunouchi district, long high-speed Shinkansen trains snake sinuously away to the Japan beyond, with their 15m-long noses modelled by Eiji Nakatsu on kingfishers’ beaks to prevent sonic booms.

On the ground the best place to feel the hyper-urbanity is another station, Shinjuku. Crossing the street to it, you’re in a crowd as though you were heading to the big match. Some 3.6 million people use it every day, and if you thought King’s Cross or Châtelet-Les-Halles were big and confusing, try finding your Metro line here — I was twice trapped in a long gallery of shops selling exquisite but mysterious cakes.

Nearby is Kenzo Tange’s city hall (1991), aka the Tocho. This 243m-high, twin-headed beast is like a Notre-Dame solid enough to resist Godzilla. From the observation floors at 202m, looking out at bland, boxy skyscrapers, you realise what a classy job Tange did. His surfaces (even the lift door) repeat rectangular patterns, reflecting Japanese order and complexity, and his towers have thrust, like the Japanese economy had. Across town on Odaiba island’s Fuji TV HQ (1996), with Cartesian mastery, Tange suspended a shining 32m-diameter sphere in a vast 3D frame between 25-storey towers. That sphere is another place to see the skyline, plus meet the Assassination Classroom anime characters. Their disturbing smiley-head teacher Korosensei may trash the moon any moment, and here, he has a neo-Shinto shrine. Weird.

Buildings even have their own cartoon creature. The sleek, mixed-use, 52-storey Toranomon Hills designed by Nihon Sekkei (no relation to Nikkei) has Toranomon, a cat-robot mascot designed by manga artists Fujiko Pro. He’s from the future, and the tower seems to be too.

Who says the Japanese are unoriginal? Sure, they take Western ideas and make them better — witness Asahi beer, Wagyu beef, or all those jeans from Kojima — but their animes and designers keep imagining. Nobody was more utopian and radical than the Metabolists. They were dreaming big with their models of crazy structures that surely inspired Gerry Anderson’s budget TV sci-fi sets like Thunderbirds, and Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay plan made le Corbusier’s urban plans look dull (which they proved to be anyway).

But is there anything metabolist to actually see? I went to pay homage to Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972). It looks in a sorry state. The angular service towers are rusting, the washing machine-like pods are stained and under netting… but it’s still alive. Pods are available on Airbnb, and a rank of Tokyo’s ubiquitous, colourful vending machines stands outside. Demolition, for now, is at bay. The 13-storey tower was small for metabolism, but the charm of Tokyo is in even smaller, human-scaled spaces.

I chanced on a place just like a London square, called Nano Park (well, it wasn’t that small). Countless Tokyo backstreets reveal intimate eateries (a queue before opening time means it’s good) or wiring strung organically between poles. Occasional wooden houses have survived earthquake, fire and war, from a time before planning. Out in the dense but picturesque village-suburb of Jiyugaoka, I found someone to discuss houses. Locally based Dutch architect Martin van der Linden talked about the ‘anti-metabolist’ modernist Kazuo Shinohara, who taught the likes of Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima. He crafted a sort of Japanese brutalism, different in each of his numerous house projects. He was more interested in the ‘machi’ (neighbourhood) than the city, and the ‘beauty in chaos’ of areas like Shibuya. That was the Sixties, and only now is small-scale urbanism in vogue. Perhaps the house typology, rooted in when carpenters built before there were any ‘architects’, is where Japanese architecture still finds its strongest inner voice.

Sadly, Japan’s inheritance tax has been killing Tokyo’s small plot size by forcing families to sell, letting developers agglomerate sites for the big stuff. But eventually the biggest hit Tokyo will take is demographic. Japan is getting old — there are country villages with the average age of 80-plus. Tokyo’s population is stable, but Japan’s is falling. One day humanity’s most intense city may empty. The last to go will not shut its door — that will be automatic.

March 2016 ©Herbert Wright

1602 Toko Lisa Anna Wilson Tokyo shots

Originally published in Blueprint magazine no.346, May 2016.

Montaged photos by Lisa Ann Wilson 2016 : 1 – Pods on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower — Like washing machines that need washing. 2 – A glimpse of one of the Tocho’s towers by Kenzo Tange. 3 – Toranomon is a ‘cat-like business robot’ that looks after Toranomon Hills

See also my article A Brief History of Big Plans for Tokyo Bay in the Global Urbanist

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Short Talk about Migrating Studios, the Future of Creative Spaces

A short introductory talk given 26th September 2015 for a panel discussion in the Design Museum‘s Super Talks, on the theme:

Migrating Studios? The Future of Creative Spaces

I’ll just throw out a few obvious thoughts and questions, and some visions you may not have seen before.

Why do studios migrate? An obvious factor is that they are pushed out by gentrification. We all know the pattern – artists colonise neglected buildings in low-rent areas, the area gets cool, the rents get hot, the developers move in, and the studios migrate. Artists and galleries started colonising this area (in London) Shoreditch/ Hoxton in the 1990s. We all know how it is now. The creative energy moved up the Kingsland Road to Dalston, the money followed, now the cool place to be is Stoke Newington. 

Where will the studios be pushed to next? Stamford Hill? Seven Sisters? Tottenham? Can we imagine hipsters in Tottenham? Are hipsters necessarily creatives anyway? Or are they the forward troops of social cleansing?

Has regeneration become synonymous with social cleansing, erasure of history and local identity, feeding developer profits, and making everywhere super-clean and anodyne?

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

If you lived or worked in one of those places, who could blame you for feeling angry? There’s something of that in the work of artist Laura Oldfield Ford, which is usually a drift through dispossessed urban landscapes, often social housing. But I chose this picture because (a) it looks like there may be some studios lurking there and (b) she literally spells out her anger as the developer approaches. I think that anger is back.

(Post-script: the evening following the talk, a Class-War demonstration converged on a Shoreditch cafe)

We see the same patterns and the same issues all around the world. In the 2000s, Manhattan creatives colonised Williamsburg, now the place is prime real estate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stadmitte became this gritty artistic Nirvarna with a crazy 24-hour underground scene, now it’s almost Mayfair.

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

It’s been said that Belgrade has what Berlin had: urban cool on the cheap, hip bars and all-night partying, the lingering traces of socialist days a backdrop to booming creative activity. This (above) is a street in Savamala famous for its street art. (The scale and building typologies are similar to Laura Oldfield Ford’s picture)

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

This picture shows what United Arab Emirates developers propose for Belgrade. It’s called Belgrade Waterfront, and Savamala is at the right hand edge of the development. Savamala’s reputation as a creative hub was used in the literature promoting the scheme.

There are two sides to the story. Belgrade wants investment and employment. And who are we to say they can’t have a 21st century city?

Cities know that creatives are a fertiliser they can use to grow development. Dubai knows that. Whatever you think, Dubai (as a whole) may be the most successful contemporary urban phenomenon in the world.

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

This is the Dubai Design District (d3), as visualised by Norman Foster’s studio (who are masterplanning it). There is so much talent and vision in Foster and his practice, I’m not knocking them. But what about their visions for creative space? The PR says abut this that it will be an…

“… incubator for emerging local designers and artists, as well as bespoke environment for art galleries and studios wanting to showcase their pieces. The Creative Community is designed to evolve organically, as its unique ability to adapt to any purpose will … cater for regular changes in its occupancy”.

I wouldn’t mind being there. It looks pleasant, perhaps rather a shopping centre without the branding. Designers work and sell their output here, so it has the retail aspect. Occupancy may change- studios may migrate. (And the public-access spaces are programmed with performances and public art).

But is this a future for creative space?

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Skyscrapers: Herbert Wright interviewed by Daniel García Casillas for Metro World News July 2015

(This interview was part of an article by Daniel García Casillas for syndication within Metro’s newspapers, and it has appeared in editions from Santiago to Montreal)

What the benefits of high buildings for a city?
The denser our cities, the less their per capita carbon footprint. A spread-out city like Houston has way higher energy costs than say Hong Kong or London, starting with transport.
And dense cities create more social interaction, which is good for innovation, creation, and breaking down rural prejudices.
Plus, we don’t burn up the limited resource of countryside by building on it. High-rise is a way to increase density- but it’s not the only way. Hong Kong is super-dense, but Paris is high-density too, and skyscrapers have been banned there until recently.

What are the negative ramifications of erecting tall buildings?
We lose history and we lose community. If skyscrapers are not limited, developers maximise profits per square metre far more than with medium-rise. This increases the pressures on heritage buildings and traditional neighbourhoods. For example, many fine buildings were lost building up Manhattan, and nowadays millions are getting displaced from (for example) Chinese hutongs.
Residential high-rise is also associated with social apartheid. In the mid twentieth century, they were like concentration camps for the poor (think Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, for example), nowadays they are exclusionist enclaves for the super-rich (think of the new 57th Street towers in New York)

What do the skyscraper represent to society? Why are they so popular?
To corporations, cities and states, they represent power and status. There is a penis-envy dynamic in the way some places (Gulf states, China) and developers (Trump, say) compete for height.
For super-rich penthouse occupants and for corporate execs in high-level boardrooms, there is the God-like feeling of looking down on everything.
But there can also be incredible beauty that makes cities exciting and for everyone to share- New York’s classic skyscrapers did that, and buildings like London’s Shard do that now.

Is it advisable to work or live in such high places?
Yes, it’s great. But skyscrapers’ fortunes can change. Some exclusive high-rise may become future slums. Some offices become obsolete.
As long as society is stable, and there is electricity to run elevators, skyscrapers will be desirable. That may not be forever, though.
Torre David in Caracas was to be a bank HQ, but until recently, it became a poor but vibrant community without electricity. Even so, I’ll bet it was exciting to be there!

What is your opinion about The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah that will rise at least 1,000 metres into the Saudi Arabian sky? Is it too high?
It’s un-necessary, the height is pure vanity. It’s a fantastic and brilliant design by Adrian Smith, but it is a sign of Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia in simultaneously trying to be super-modern and maintaining a violent, anti-human religious regime. And it copies Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is a lot more fun and is in a far cooler place. In less it may well be an abandoned ruin.

How much higher can our cities’ skyscrapers will go in the future?
The best skyscraper architect in the world, Adrian Smith, reckons a mile or more (1600m+).

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Milan’s Three-Billion-Euro Menu, Eat In or Take Away

Some say it’s a waste of time and money, but there may just be a message to save the planet at Milan’s Expo 2015

‘Touch the Window’, said a notice at an optician’s in Milan’s Via Carducci. On May Day, anarchists did just that. The violent fracture marks they left on the glass looked like bullet holes without the holes. A day latter, in a just-built great avenue far from the city centre, a giant deranged-looking orange stops a moment, then moves on, keeping up with the man on stilts in a green top hat.

Anarchists have struck in Via Carducci, a fruit has stopped on the Expo's Decumano

Anarchists have struck in Via Carducci, a fruit has stopped on the Expo’s Decumano

These events are linked.

Milan Expo has opened, and for both the anarchist and the orange, it’s a platform to grab attention and say something. Anarchists (quoted from their graffiti) were saying ‘FUCK EXPO’, while the fruits and unfeasibly tall show-offs parading through the Expo were saying ‘FESTIVAL’ and ‘FUN!’ The Expo itself has a message, summed up in its theme: ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. And 145 nations are each conveying their own messages as well, as are a few organisations. So, which message is the take-away from Milan Expo?

An Expo icon: The Tree of Life by by Orgoglio Brescia stands 37m tall

An Expo icon: The Tree of Life by by Orgoglio Brescia stands 37m tall

Expos started with London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, and have included Paris (1889), Montreal (1967) and Shanghai (2010). They’ve always had an international outlook (so has the anarchist’s trans-nationalist creed). Individual nations compete, like in an Olympics or World Cup, but there are no losers. The competition boils down to who’s making the most impact with the architecture of their pavilion, and hopefully the message conveyed within it.

Expo also hosts McDonalds and Coca Cola, and China’s largest real-estate company Vanke. That will incite anti-capitalists- but what about the likes of Slow Food and Save the Children, also there? Or the 638-year old Veneranda Fabbrica, artisans who look after the structure of the Duomo, the local cathedral?

Jacques Herzog has dismissed Expos as ‘a vanity fair’ of nations and ‘huge shows designed merely to attract millions of tourists’. This man is worth listening to- as half of the Swiss starchitect practise Herzog & de Meuron, he’s designed venues that redefine cities, from London’s Tate Modern and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium to the soon-to-come M+, Hong Kong and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. He also masterplanned this Expo. Clearly, his criticism is spot on… except for just one word. ‘Merely’. We’ll come back to that.

The pavilions mostly parade along the axis of the fish-shaped Expo site, the Decumano. It’s 1.5km long, so there’s a lot of walking (a bike-hire scheme here would have cleaned up). Architecturally, wood is in, especially beautifully and brilliantly-engineered in the French and Chilean pavilions. Wood has much less embodied energy (and environmental impact) than concrete or steel. Expo structures only need to last six months, but out in the wider world of permanent buildings, wood is also on the rebound as a structural (i.e. load-bearing) material. Expo 2015 gives that sustainable trend a boost.

DSC_3031 Russia

Mayday at Milan Expo: Rain and the Russia Pavilion designed by Speech architects

There are some extraordinary ‘iconic’ forms amongst the pavilions, like China‘s big wavy roof and Russia‘s heroic, upwardly curving mirrored entrance canopy. But not everyone is so dramatic or contemporary. Oman’s and Kuwait’s desert fortresses, for example, look externally like distinctly old-school attractions borrowed from a theme park. Like many pavilions, they spell the country out visually. A personal favourite was Turkmenistan’s post-modernist pavilion, where at the entrance, Turkmen carpet is set in stone in the ground, and in light beside the door.

The Turkmenistan Pavilion's magic carpet

The Turkmenistan Pavilion’s magic carpet

What nations do inside their pavilions ranges from big-screen national advertisements to information-heavy educational displays, to ‘experiences’ (of which more later). Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Expo theme is food, but many pavilions have restaurants and cafés offering national cuisine.

It’s strange seeing McDonald’s and Slow Food share the same Expo stage. Slow Food dates back to 1986 when an Italian, Carlo Petrini, responded to a McDonald’s opening in Rome by offering home-made pasta outside it. Their philosophy is all about the small producer growing healthy food naturally, and preserving local tradition. McDonald’s may serve 70 million a day, but Slow Food is big too. It has 100,000 members in 150 countries, and its initiatives include 1,000 gardens in Africa. At Milan Expo, Slow Food has a village at the end of Decumano- it’s wooden and designed by Herzog & de Meuron.


Beware the Corn Man in the Slow Food Pavilion

So, what about ‘feeding the planet’? There’s a chasm between fast and slow food, between corporate and small-scale culture, between industrialised and organic farming. The latter choices may seem like trendy indulgences for the affluent, but actually our very survival may just depend on them. Mono-culture farming is not just destroying biodiversity, it’s making us rely on a tiny number of plant strains (to feed us and the animals we feed on) that are wide open to wipe-out by disease and climate change. The former is what happened with the Irish Potato Famine, the latter is happening in the Sahel now. And industrialised farming is also killing off the insects that pollinate plants at the base of our food chain.

No pavilion highlights the issue more clearly than the UK‘s, and it does it by offering experience instead of screens for film or reams of text. (Disclaimer: I have worked with the UK team, but check anything I say for yourself!) Artist Wolfgang Buttress‘ concept is about the chief pollinator, the bee, whose numbers are plummeting. An orchard precedes a lush stretch of British meadow, leading to an unforgettable solid yet ephemeral structure, the Hive, where sound and light is driven by signals from a real beehive.

The UK Pavilion's lush meadow should attract the most vital of pollinators- the bee

Wolfgang Buttress’ concept for the UK Pavilion includes a lush meadow that should attract the most vital of pollinators- the bee


Behold the splendours of France in the rafters of the XTU-designed wood pavilion

The UK Pavilion does more than ‘merely’ attract tourists. It gently demands a personal re-think about food and the planet. That spirit is shared in several other pavilions, such as France with its gorgeous ceiling-suspended cornucopia of produce and video truck messages about food and the city.

Some say Expos are a waste of money, but Milan Expo actually cost Italy just €3 billion (ex-transport links)- one 700th of its GDP. It seems to be already visibly pulling Milan out of recession.

Ultimately, Expos should be a celebration of civilisation and the future. Milan Expo offers a choice about the latter. Herzog as well as the anarchists overlook its big message about rethinking food. But the message doesn’t stay there… it should be a take-away.

(all photos © Herbert Wright 2015)

A few more of my photos (obviously not taken with a proper camera!) can be seen here.

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The Amazing Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the company that wants to destroy it

Earls Court Exhibition Hall

Earls Court Exhibition Hall

Exit Earls Court station at the Warwick Road, and an unfeasibly large frontage opposite gently curves across your field of vision. Of course, this is the main entrance of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It has welcomed somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million people annually for decades. No other venue anywhere, ever, has accumulated anything like the diverse history it has for musical performance, popular domestic exhibitions, military display, and political showcasing. It has hosted some of the twentieth century’s greatest individuals. And what’s more, it’s unique architecture is the work of one of America’s most accomplished inter-war architects.

A developer called Capco (full name Capital & Counties, operating through EC Properties, a vehicle valued at £934 million in 2013) wants it totally obliterated for luxury housing. London does need homes badly, but schemes like this are about attracting foreign slush money. It’s insane.

Earls Court Exhibition Centre is worth saving. Here’s why:

The Biggest Big Time of All

Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Gagarin

On 11th July 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earls Court exhibition hall with a bouquet of flowers, and seduced the British public. All the papers were there, and the crowds were massive- it was almost like a foretaste of how Beatlemania gripped Britain two years later! Just three months before, Gagarin had sat in the tin can of Vostok 1 and became the first human in space. He had a lot more room at the main hall of Earls Court Exhibition Centre- it was the largest enclosed space in London.

The Soviet Exhibition 1968 (source EC&O Venue Libraries)

The Soviet Exhibition 1968 (source EC&O Venue Libraries)

The Soviets were back with showcase propoganda exhibitions in 1968 and 1979, but without the magic of Gagarin. Nevertheless, many other charismatic celebrities drew fans to Earls Court. Muhammad Ali defended his world heavyweight title against Brian London there in 1966. In 1981, Vivienne Westwood staged her first catwalk there (and the models wore cutting edge consumer tech: Sony Walkmans). Not everyone who commanded crowds at Earls Court was a hero. Oswald Mosley held a rally of British Fascists here in 1939.

An amazing roll-call of music’s mega-names have staged some of the greatest gigs ever at Earls Court: Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Pink Floyd, George Michael, Radiohead, Madonna, deadmau5, the Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire… there’s many more!

And of course, there have been the exhibitions. With a capacity up to 20,000, Earls Court has been the place to have it large since 1937, when it opened with the Chocolate and Confectionary Show. The Motor Show, Boat Show, Great British Beer Festival, and BRIT Awards have all been regular annual Earls Court events. The Royal Tournament returned to Earls Court as the British Military Tournament, and the Ideal Home Show ran right up to this year, 2014.

Astonishing Architecture 

Almost finished! Earls Court Exhibition Hall plus sheds

Almost finished! Earls Court Exhibition Hall plus sheds, 1937

Leveque Tower (1927)  in Columbus, Ohio was designed by C Howard Crane

Leveque Tower, Columbus, Ohio: also C Howard Crane

Earls Court’s architect was C Howard Crane of Detroit, who left a coast-to-coast string of great theatres across the US (and with others, he worked on New York’s Radio City Music Hall). For Columbus, Ohio, he designed the magnificent 169m-tall Leveque Tower (1927), the tallest Art Deco skyscraper between New York and Chicago. He moved to London in 1930 and the masterpieces kept coming. His Gaumont (now Odeon) Holloway Road (1938) is listed. Crane’s style spanned from Beaux-Arts Neo-classical to Modernist. Earls Court Exhibition Hall is his most stripped-back, clean-finished design, and his largest. 

C Howard Crane (source

C Howard Crane (source

The architectural style is sometimes called Art Moderne, related to Art Deco but stripped of jazzy design elements and stressing the horizontal rather than vertical. Even so, Earls Court’s five vertical window strips, which climb the curving sweep of a grooved façade, echo window strips in American skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and Rockerfeller Centre.

The vital heroic activities of Earls Court

The vital heroic activities of Earls Court

Above them, five heroic square reliefs, by sculptor David Evans, depict such vital fields as Clockwork, Music, Jousting, Sports and Horticulture, in red and white. The red neon letters EARLS COURT may be the biggest in the UK, and certainly rank with CENTRE POINT’s white neon in size and iconic status. 

Transport for London map honours Earls Court with a cool isometric schematic

Transport for London map honours Earls Court with a cool isometric schematic

A miracle of concrete and steel engineering, Earls Court Exhibition Centre was built over London Underground’s District Line in just two years. Steel trusses reach 87m clear across the auditorium.  The roof, pitched like a humungous white tent, looks like the work of giants.

A heroic, humungous form

A heroic, humungous form

In many ways it was. This whole structure is simply heroic.


Time to Stop Capco

Staggeringly, the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is completely oblivious to the heritage of Earls Court. Like the developers Capco, they want no trace of Earls Court Exhibition Centre left.

This has been about the history of Earls Court Exhibition Hall, but the issue is also about the local people and businesses. Capco’s plans demonstrate contempt for the local heritage, people, and businesses of Earls Court. Maybe we can stop Capco and save Earls Court’s estimated £1 billion of annual business for London. There’s a small window of opportunity because the adjacent borough, Hammersmith and Fulham, have thrown out Capco’s wider plan which extends westwards. On 27th August 2014 demolition applications are considered. 

Check out the campaign at

And there’s petitions to sign right here:

As Gagarin said on the launch pad: Poyekhali! (Let’s Go!)


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Eternity evades Egyptian Deities in Kensington

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Seth, God of Chaos and the Desert, bought a powerdrill. Neith, Goddess of The Hunt and later Protector of the Dead, sits boyishly on the Fire Exit. Their eight companions, all also Egyptian deities, stand around, in peace now that … Continue reading

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