As I was writing my latest post on London as a site of architectural experimentation, I thought of a place where you can check out cutting-edge structures in the making.
The Serpentine Galleries, with an unbeatable location in the heart of Kensington Gardens, commission every year a temporary summer pavilion by an internationally renowned architect. This project started in 2000 with Zaha Hadid (who also designed the newly opened Sackler Gallery on the opposite side of the Serpentine lake).
This year the Serpentine Pavilion is one of the weirdest ever. Designed by Chilean architect Smiljan Radić and open until the 19th of October, it is a donut-shaped structure resembling a shell – or maybe a prehistoric egg – or maybe a UFO – with a café inside.
The Serpentine Galleries are free and definitely worth a look if you find yourself in the area.
And while in Kensington Gardens, go and look for Peter Pan’s statue – less cutting-edge of course, but with the advantage of longevity: erected more than a century ago, it will outlive many more Serpentine Pavilions.
Nearest Tube: Knightsbridge
With the accumulation of different styles over the centuries, speaking of the variety of London’s architecture is somewhat of an understatement. To be honest, sometimes it feels like the whole city has been designed by a schizophrenic architect. This lack of unity, of course, reinforces its cultural wealth and dynamism.
Walking around London you may encounter architectural oddities just around the corner. In Pimlico for instance, a neighbourhood more renowned for its impressive regency style than for its eccentricity, stands a block of rather funny-looking buildings with striking checkerboard patterns.
Built between Page Street and Vincent Street, they are actually part of a social housing complex of around 600 dwellings called the Grosvenor Estate. It was designed in the 1930s by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had never designed council houses before and was more famous for the grand houses he’d designed for wealthy client and is best remembered for his work in Delhi.
So who said social housing had to be bland and depressing?
Nearest tube station: Pimlico
A lot of famous – and not so famous – key figures have leaved in London before us. The plates adorning the walls of London are a daily reminder of the city’s great past. Until you have a plate with your name engraved on it somewhere in London, keeping one’s eyes open on them may lead you to interesting – or funny – discoveries.
London has indeed been host to men (and women) of many different backgrounds and professions, including a lot of writers, such as Melville
Several politicians also lived here, including Benjamin Franklin (who could also fit in a “scientist” list) one of the founding fathers of the USA:
or Ho Chi Minh, even though the plate, located on Haymarket, does not precise the nature of the work he was doing at the Carlton or even why it was relevant to his being the “founder of modern Vietnam”
The city has also welcomed philosophers, such as the likes of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, the philosophy of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” according to which the morality of an action depends solely on its utility to create happiness for the greatest number of people:
Finally, a watchful eye may also notice some more unlikely plates, such as the one of the fiction character Sherlock Holmes!
In the 19th century, London’s prosperous bourgeoisie settled in the neighbourhood of Holland Park and started to build extravagant houses to show off their wealth. A walk in the area will give you a taste of the architectural trends of the time: the more imposing and spectacular the better, the emphasis being on prosperity rather than good taste.
In Addison Road, at the number 8, stands the Palazzo Debenham, built for the shopkeeper Ernest Debenham. It displays an extravagant Italian front of blue and green bricks. This is the most sumptuous house of the neighbourhood, but many of them are worth a look.
On Melbury Road, a few minutes away, one of these mansions, Leighton House, is open to the public. You can visit it for a few pounds and have a glimpse of what the interior of these villas are like.
Nearest Tube: Holland Park