Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Royal College of Physicians in Regent's Park: Denys Lasdun's Modernist Masterpiece

On Monday I attended a course at the Royal College of Physicians in London, which gave me the opportunity to have another look around one of the most significant modern buildings in Britain. It is in Regent's Park next to John Nash's famous Regency terraces, to which it provides a counterpoint. It harmonises beautifully in with the older buildings, while being uncompromisingly modern.

The college was completed in 1965, the work of modernist architect Denys Lasdun, who later designed the National Theatre, and is regarded as one of his masterpieces. From the outside the dominant impression is of an imposing horizontal cantilevered white slab resting on a dark base.

The main interior space is dominated by the large Marble Hall (renamed the Lasdun Hall in honour of the architect) with a staircase rising up the middle. A generous budget allowed Lasdun to use luxurious materials, and to work with highly skilled engineers, as seen in the Sicilian marble used in the staircase, the specially commissioned porcelain wall tiles from Candiolo in Italy, the double-storey panes of glass that were the largest that could be manufactured at the time, and the hydraulic wall between the Osler and Long rooms, that can be raised out of the way to form a single large hall.

Large windows frame views of the College gardens, and Regent's Park with its Nash Terraces, which become part of the whole composition.

It's a pleasure to walk through and explore, with unexpected viewpoints and beautiful details, such as this stairwell, illuminated by a hidden skylight that produces marvellous effects of light and shade.

Apart from the building itself, there is much to see. Paintings of presidents of the college line the walls, and there are historical exhibits on all floors.

The room leading to the small lecture theatre where our course was held houses a historical collection of medical instruments, like these tongue scrapers.

On the fourth floor there are  the celebrated "anatomical tables" wooden panels on which are mounted human veins, nerves and arteries dissected at the famous anatomy theatre in the University of Padua in the 17th century.

Outside is the lovely Medicinal Garden containing plants that are used for medicinal and other purposes.

Although I found the building a delight, it's not great if you are disabled. My wife organised a conference there some years back and despite the lifts, wheelchair users and other disabled people found it difficult and dispiriting to negotiate because of the multiple levels with short flights of stairs, such as the one seen on the left side of the picture below.

It's a shame, but I suppose the Grade I listed status of the building places limitations on on what can be done to improve this.

For more about the building, here is an excellent video:

I also thoroughly recommend a slim book, Anatomy of a Building by Rowan Moore, who also wrote this review of a recent exhibition at the College about its architecture. The book is available from the reception desk at the College, and can also be purchased online. It is primarily about the building, and also explores the influences and background behind it, and the history of the college.

One of the interesting illustrations in it is this juxtaposition of the RCP with Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields, and Brunelleschi's early renaissance Pazzi Chapel in Florence, illustrating the influence of the earlier buildings on Lasdun's design.

While designing the College, Lasdun is also said to have been obsessed by a painting by Paul Klee, Uncomposed Objects in Space (1929), whose influence can be seen in the Marble Hall

Incidentally, the Royal Institute of British Architects is nearby, at 66 Portland Place. The art deco building is worth a visit in it's own right. It has a nice bookshop, and they often hold interesting exhibitions.

The Royal College of Physicians
11 St Andrews Place, Regent's Park, London NW1 4LE
Information for visitors

Further reading:

William JR Curtis. Seminal Works of Architecture Transcend their Time, Architectural Review September 2014. pdf

Rowan Moore Just What the Doctor Ordered, Observer, September 2014

Barnabas Calder, Guest Curator of the exhibition at the RCP, Commentary Article, September 2014

Rowan Moore. Anatomy of a Building. Royal College of Physicians 2014 (buy online)

Friday, 24 April 2015

On St George's Day, I Explored my Little Corner of England

I had a half day off at work today, and set off for home on foot on a fine, bright, sunny afternoon. On an impulse, instead of cutting across it as I usually do, I turned right and to explore for the first time one of the two woodlands within the hospital grounds. This one is known as the Long Shapely Belt. I followed the path  along the edge of the hospital, with trees on either side, and two pretty ponds on the left.

At the end of the wooded area there path led to a gap in the trees, and continued out of the hospital across a large, right yellow field of rapeseed with the bright yellow flowers in full bloom.

Straight ahead in the distance I could see the tower of the Melbourne Road flats close to my house, so checking my route with google maps on my phone (satellite view) I strode off along the path.

At the end of the path, my way was blocked by a row of trees, so after checking the google satnav again, I decided to turn left. After a bit there was a gap in the trees, with a path going through it and a signpost helpfully confirming that this it was a public footpath, so I carried on.

After a bit I arrived at a lovely farmhouse which was the same one I usually walk by on the road, but from this vantage point I could see that it was a rather fine building, which I had not previously realised.

Looking around for a way through I was fortunate to encounter someone who pointed me in the right direction, over the stile and across more fields.

And so I eventually got home along a route roughly parallel to my usual one, but more or less entirely across open countryside. It took rather longer than usual because I had to check my position and took a few wrong turns, but I think it is probably a feasible alternative route for my regular commute on foot.

Two days previously, I had on another impulse gathered dandelion leaves on my way home with thoughts of using them for salad, perhaps a salade de pissenlits au lardons. I knew that it was best to get the small young leaves, before the flowers appeared, but I wasn't sure if these would be suitable, and indeed they were a bit bitter, but I did wonder if they would be good stir fried.

A little online research confirmed that this would probably be fine, so for dinner this evening, for our dinner on St George's Day,  I stir fried our English dandelion leaves in cold pressed extra virgin English rapeseed oil with garlic, as an accompaniment for grilled English lamb cutlets. To drink we had an excellent Saling Gold from our local Round Tower brewery.

We also had on the side some aubergine dips made by Sabra, which, as I discovered by chance, was the name of the princess that St George rescued from the dragon. A most enjoyable meal.

This is the first time I've eaten dandelion leaves. They have a nice texture and are rather bitter, but I quite like that. They are an excellent alternative to kangkong which is quite difficult to find in England, and I'm sure they are good fried with sambal belacan, or cooked in coconut milk. In fact, it appears that they they're eaten in Indonesia, where they are known as randa tapak. I think I'll be doing a bit more foraging.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Parish Church of St Mary with St Leonard, Broomfield

For the past fortnight, since my last post on the subject, I've been walking to work most days, and feeling the benefit. It's somewhat more exercise than I've been doing recently, so it's a little tiring at the end of the day, and I get a bit footsore sometimes. I could use my bike on some of those occasions when I've driven, except that some time ago I noticed that one of the tyres was almost worn through, and I haven't got round to sorting it

The last two days have been unseasonably warm, bright and sunny, and the fine weather encouraged me to linger on the way back. I stopped by the Church of St Mary with St Leonard, and had a stroll around the grounds. This is the parish church of Broomfield, the village my workplace is located. The oldest parts of the church date from the 11th century (older than Chelmsford Cathedral), although there have been many additions over the years.

The round tower is one of the oldest parts of the church and is Norman, from the 12th century. Many of the bricks in the tower and the older parts of the church are re-used Roman bricks.

The additions from different periods, with different building materials, are clearly visible and add to the charm.

There is a lovely churchyard with interesting gravestones like the one shown here.

The church itself was closed, so a visit to the interior will have to wait, but I found this plan, along with a detailed description at British History Online.

St Mary with St Leonard, Church Green, Broomfield, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 7BE

Thursday, 9 April 2015


After coming across an article about the importance of using a shoehorn, I thought it might be a good idea to equip myself with one. Essentially, if you put on your shoes without using a shoehorn, you either stick your finger into the back of the shoe while putting it on, which stretches the leather, or worse, just stick your heel in, crushing the counter (the back of the shoe) as you do so, which I have to confess is what I sometimes tend to do.

I settled on this one, which was on sale at the Doc Martens shop in Spitalfields market for about £6.

It's made of steel, and a little different in profile from other shoe horns I've come across. Viewed sideways, it's angulated so that your hand is away from the back of your leg, as you slide your heel into your shoe. The angle also means that your wrist is straighter when you are holding it to get your foot into the shoe.

A simple, elegant, functional tweak to an old design.

Does it really matter that much that my shoehorn has a bend in it? Of course not, but it's nice to use, and it's heartening to see that someone has put some thought into improving the functionality of a rather humble utilitarian object. This is what good design is all about.

So many other things we use in our daily lives could probably be improved with just a little tweak.

The shoehorn is made in the US by Zapatka Enterprises, and is known as a Profitter, which I take to mean Pro-fitter, as opposed to Profiteer. It's available in a wide range of finishes, which you can see on their website, and can be customised if ordered in sufficient quantities. I have no idea if it is available elsewhere in the UK.

Friday, 3 April 2015

So I'm walking to work again ... if I can get up on time.

The days are getting warmer and longer. The sun has been out, at least some of the time. I've decided to start walking to work again, if not every day, then at least most of the time.

Work is about 3 miles / 5 km from home, and it takes 45 minutes to walk, irrespective of traffic conditions. By car, it can take anything from 15 minutes (rarely) to 30 minutes, depending on traffic, and including hunting for a car parking space and then walking in from the car park. It's a lot more consistent and direct on foot.

I'm fortunate because my route is via smaller roads, and a bit of farmland.

The last picture shows the Chelmer Valley High School,  just behind the hospital where I work. Yes, that white thing is the school observatory. Their head of science is a keen astronomer, and I guess he thought it would be a nice idea. It opened a year ago. I wouldn't have seen this from my car.

I used to cycle to work rather than walk. It's faster of course, which is good if you're not naturally an early riser, but on the other hand, there's more hassle and fiddling around with the helmet, parking the bike, and so on. You don't see as much along the way because you're going faster and have to concentrate more, and it's not so good if you like stopping randomly to look at things, or for popping into a shop on the way home.

I've decided that if time and distance permit, I generally prefer walking to cycling.

A couple of things I've found useful:
Waterproofs, just in case. Noise cancelling headphones, since it's annoying trying to listen to music in traffic, and turning up the volume is bad for your ears. And I've recently decided that for my route it's best to go in wellies and carry my shoes in a pack,

as it's difficult to predict how muddy things will get.

When I used to only drive to work, I thought that walking was totally impractical. It's always easy to think of reasons why not. I was somewhat put off when I tried it one summer, and was a bit over-dressed and under-hydrated. Nowadays, the main challenge is getting up a bit earlier, as I'm by inclination a late riser.