ALEXANDER – GREEK – THOMSON

I have often wondered what makes an architect fashionable?

On our travels last year we viewed the work of two very different architects – the cathedral at Coventry by Basil Spence, and Holmwood House, Glasgow by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.

I tend to be very critical of architects. The works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Renee Macintosh are beautiful and original and I am prepared to acknowledge this in their favour, I would gladly view their work wherever this is possible. Yet I would never have hired either of them as an architect (supposing that this had ever been possible) because their houses are built too strongly in their own image and not that of the buyer.

Although I have already indicated that I did not think Coventry Cathedral was well adapted to its purpose (which is what exactly? To illuminate feelings in the visitor of obedience to the god worshipped?) it was an original and interesting building.

This cannot be said of any of the majority of the buildings of Thomson. I thought his Holmwood House in Cathcart, Glasgow, exhibited some of the worst faults of his trade. The outside appearance of the house is messsy and complicated. Within, the main entertaining rooms are designed to impress, but behind them the family accommodation is poky and dark. When you enter the house you are confronted, straight before you by a glass door giving a clear view of the Victorian throne in a lavatory, and you wonder if Thomson is taking the proverbial?

Plastered on top of this sorry skeleton are ‘Greek’ detals, such as a pointless cupola over the stairwell, fresco type details of doubtful taste and/or authenticity, and adornments such as the key symbol which also graces some of the exteriors of his tenements. None of these details could be said to meld together into an attractive whole.

Surely the first purpose of an architect is to design a building fit for purpose; only after that do you want it to be practical, comfortable, safe and visually rewarding.

Maybe of course the owners of Thomson houses were only interested in impressing others with their wealth and culture, and were indifferent to the needs of their family and household and to any appeals for privacy and comfort – in which case it would appear that Alexander ‘ Greek’ Thomson was definitely the architect for them1 for its purpose? And then after that, you want it to be comfortable and visually pleasing, viewed from both within and without.

Maybe of course, the owners of the houses were only interested in impressing others with their wealth and culture and were not at all troubled by consideration of the interests and well being of their family and housrhold.     In which case Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson is probably the best architect for them!

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COVENTRY CATHEDRAL

On our trip to Scotland last year, we visited Coventry Cathedral, St Michael’s (Architect: Basil Spence) to which we had gone on a previous occasion but had been unable to enter because they were holding a service. I have recorded my lack of enthusiasm for its external appearance, and that I did not think it melded well with its bombed and ruined predecessor. (This view runs contrary to popular opinion.)

This time we were admitted (at a cost of £5 per head, to which I had no objection, but other visitors took exception to being charged.) We asked if they had a disabled toilet and an officer of the church kindly offered to guide us. We were lowered by a temperamental and juddering lift down into the dark bowels of the church, joking that it was like descending into hell.

Rising to the ground floor again we found ourselves in a large space with dark, unfinished, rough walls, some kind of concrete perhaps. There was a peculiar tapestry, over-sized, of a human figure (a representation of Christ by Graham Sutherland apparently). The cathedral did have modern art that was attractive, including a beautiful chapel tiled in gold and black. Also the modern stained glass window is striking and original.

Since I never attend church apart from as a tourist inspecting the architecture, or when invited to attend weddings, christenings or funerals, my comment on the religiosity of a church is rather similar to my difficulty in answering the question, Do you approve of women priests? I see no need for priests at all, and therefore whether they are male or female is of no relevance. But in fact I did not find this brutal building lent itself to any feeling of being in a temple of worship. I thought John put it rather well when he said it was like a warehouse used to store religious art.

I am not averse to modern church buildings. Although the concrete cathedral at Napier, New Zealand is rather stark, the modern Holy Trinity Cathedral at the top of the hill in Auckland, NZ is mellow and charming, and the circular Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool with its altar at the centre of the building and its chapels lining the curved walls is unusual and lovely.

You don’t actually need a church or cathedral of course. In a pine forest; on a beach; in a field of barley; in someone’s garden; on a hill top – you can see God in all those places just as well.

And if you must have priests, of course you can have women. God is not partial.

FRIENDS DEPARTING

FRIENDS DEPARTING

John and I were very sorry to hear of the death of Terry Wogan. It is true that you felt as if you had lost a personal friend. John had spent many hours driving the roads of Britain accompanied on the radio by the congenial and entertaining Wogan.

Terry Wogan was someone in whose hands you felt safe. There was never any danger of him lapsing beyond the boundaries of good taste. Although he was amiable, you also felt that he had an innate toughness and shrewdness and would deal competently and appropriately with whatever was thrown at him. He had that wonderful combination of self confidence – he knew his worth – and a humility or modesty where he valued other people’s talents as highly as his own.

He also had that peculiarly Irish characteristic where, politically and possibly in other ways, you never know who you are talking to, and people’s inner beliefs remain largely undeclared. Although he was a master of light comedy and ridiculous whimsy, you still felt that at heart he was a serious person.

The reactions to loss and grief are unique to each individual mourner and are not always understood. My mother gave me, many years ago, a dark red lipstick n a golden case. I’ve worn it for years and when I put it on in the morning, I remember my mother. One day last week I put it on and realised it was finished – I could feel the hard edge of the rim. I felt completely desolate, and for all that I have a tendency to eliminate promptly from my life anything which I feel has outlived its usefulness, the empty golden case still lurks in the bottom of the wooden box which once held a whisky bottle and where now I keep my make-up.

You begin to feel undeniably old when people you have known all your life and loved, valued or respected begin to start slipping away one by one. I look around at other loved and long-respected persons – there are precious few – and felt suddenly fearful for them: David Attenburgh. Billy Connolly, the Queen, even, and I think, Don’t go; not yet. Stay with us a little longer.