Introduction by Fran Allfrey, volunteer officer
You can now find over 100 photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. Layers of London is a fantastic resource and website run by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. In brief, Layers of London allows you to pin photographs into a digital map of London, and add a short description.
Since lockdown in March 2020, 28 Courtauld volunteers have been extremely busy sharing photographs from the Conway Library on Layers of London. In a series of blog posts, we’ll be sharing just a few of the records they have made to try and encourage our blog readers to go explore the map and photographs!
In this post, we have reproduced three of four records (and counting) made by our volunteer Emily Redfield. Thank you, Emily, for writing such evocative descriptions of these photographs of modernist and post-war gems in London, and bringing together photography, art history, and experience.
“Despite being locked down halfway around the world from London at the moment, writing and researching for Layers of London has virtually transported me to corners of the city I never would have otherwise discovered.
I’m far from an expert on London’s architecture—as an MA student at The Courtauld I took Dr. Jo Applin’s New York-centric course, ‘The Sixties’—so examining the Conway Library photographs has been a total learning experience. But it’s probably no surprise that among my favorite discoveries is St. Paul’s Bow Common, a post-war building that’s been completely shocking to parishioners since it opened in 1960.
Looking beyond these sometimes strange, sometimes nondescript building exteriors, I’m excited to feel like I’m beginning to better understand so much of the architectural thought and theory that created the London we see today.”
Records researched by Emily Redfield
“Defined by expanses of brick and little decoration outside and in, architect Robert Maguire’s building has drawn mixed opinions since it was consecrated in 1960.
In this image, the church’s central altar emerges from the startlingly barren brick-and-concrete space of the building’s interior. Defying convention, the open floor plan shocked parishioners, but it created possibility as well—an opening, literal and symbolic, of the space the church would provide its East London community. Lighting and defining that space is the main identifying feature of St. Paul’s: the light-filled lantern above. Where stark walls and concrete floors stretch unbroken, its effect is sublime, casting a geometry of light in angular forms.
In another Conway photograph uploaded to Layers of London, part of artist Ralph Beyer’s inscription above the church’s exterior entrance can be read. The full quote from Genesis works in no small part to identify the otherwise ambiguous building to passersby: ‘Truly this is none other, But the House of God, This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not unlike the unyielding modernity of St. Paul’s, the lettering declares itself resolutely, less a whisper, more a shout.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
“Elements of play and whimsy are clear on the exterior of the buildings of Benthal Primary School, photographed here in 1998… The buildings shown here were designed by architect Paul Maas.
These black and white views of the building exteriors evoke a futuristic, space-age geometry of sinuous lines and questionable functionality. Each of the eight Maas buildings houses a single classroom, with the Moorish pavilion-inspired roofs providing light as well as a distinctive tent-like appearance…
‘Nobody seemed to be designing schools for small children’, Maas said, reflecting upon his design, ‘I wanted Benthal to feel like a children’s world in which adults were invited’.
Thus, taking his own children as inspiration, he lowered windows to children’s eye levels and transformed classrooms into doming, cave-like spaces. The curves and portals serve an essential purpose. They create an environment scaled and suited to a child, like a secret hideaway, designed to invite curiosity in.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
“Commonly known as the Alexandra Road Estate, the Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in the London Borough of Camden exemplifies 1960s brutalist architecture in concrete.
In these photographs, the clean lines and stark monochrome of concrete may appear harsh and imposing. If so, they bely the true nature of the Alexandra Road Estate. Brown was one of a generation of architects committed to elevating London’s council housing beyond the generic tower block. Rejecting a cheap, one-size-fits-all solution, Brown designed Alexandra Road for the brief at hand. The result is humanistic high density housing centred around shared community spaces… Pictured here as largely empty, the balconies are now lush with verdant growth, carefully tended gardens indicative of the life overflowing from within.” Read more and see more photos on Layers of London.
See all the records created by Emily here https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/users/2626
And all the Conway Library photographs on Layers of London can be seen here https://www.layersoflondon.org/map/collections/446