Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

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London, a freezing weekday afternoon walking from Spitalfields. We’re looking for churches, and a synagogue, which we picked from a handbook. Whitechapel Gallery beckons on the way and we go for a look. I’ve no idea what’s on, but it turns out the theme is Urban Nature, which is fairly apt. Only 24 hours in London but fate assumes we’re missing trees and moorland already.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Giuseppe Penone has found a tree, cast it in bronze, gilded the interior and cut it into pieces so we can gaze through the hollow trunk that once rose up and away and into the sky. It’s called Space of Light, or more fluidly, Spazio di Luce.

I’m not thinking of trees, but concrete cylinders, because a few days ago I saw a road trip movie where the characters stowed away inside one on the way to Spain. But then today I’m the country mouse and so perhaps the impact is working in reverse. Are Londoners sensing the forest?

It’s great to be in the city after a stretch in the tiniest villages: I need the antidote, keen to fill the mental landscape with tube trains, cranes and artificial light. It’s a bit like Lucozade, which as a child I would have drunk regularly except it was only allowed when you had a cold.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Rise trees of the wood, of the forest… rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land.

Text by Giuseppe Penone writing in 1979, cut and pasted from Wikipedia

There’s a display about Rovesciare I propri occhi (To reverse one’s eyes) which involved the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses and exploring the countryside by touch. His quote alongside connects trees reaching for light with the retina capturing images with light. It suggests we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun.

It’s reminding me of the rental DVD that hung around for weeks because the unappetising description was ‘astronomers search the skies for stars while a group of women search for body parts in the desert nearby’. Nostalgia for the Light was actually beautiful and meditative and mind-expanding: astronomers experiencing stars as history – via light years – are linked with a harrowing archaeology of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, to explore the past and what really constitutes our now and future.

I’m not sure if there’s any genuine connection, but all these ways of thinking about light feel like pieces of a jigsaw which would probably be worth the effort… that our history is carried in the light is a fantastically poetic concept.

The sky outside is pewter grey and glacially cold. Looking up I see a crow – all very Gormenghast – and the building is gilded with leaves (by Rachel Whiteread). It’s a hyperreal, gothic moment, compounded seconds later by a White Hart nestling in the greenwood of a pub sign alongside the sunset glow of Burger King signage.

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The synagogue is closed, as are a couple of churches. The past is close at hand, glimpsed through rails, definitely asleep. Construction is everywhere: plate glass moves vertically at a stately pace and the new structures expose their vital organs, sometimes messily.

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The trees opposite one church are gruesome – stunted and blackened, purest 21st century gothic (above). But in the gleaming hermetically-sealed paneling there are secret latches…

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So sudden, it’s a hallucination. I’m reminded of a series called The Georgian House from the 1970s, in which a servant boy was transported from 18th century Bristol to the future, only to rush out in shock and headlong into the traffic.

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We’re forced to look upwards and pointed to a gilded heaven. But this is not an instruction from the past: it is everywhere, in the pneumatic drilling on the air and the visions through the window.

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Like the gilded tree, this poor creature is felled and hemmed in too…

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And in case we might linger too long, a glance up at the wall urges us to make much of time…

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With all the relentless development outside, you could feel pity for poor besieged churches. Hemmed in like this precious table…

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Be at rest: the table is preserved. No-one has put anything on it or under it – like these caskets of history, these places of worship we’re standing in. The power of God can resist building directly on even if it can’t manage the doorstep outside.

But for a moment I see little difference between inside and out, past and present. Perhaps this isn’t a benign oasis. It’s all power and awe. Look up, look up. These ancient buildings are not besieged – they are bulwarks of power, just like the monoliths in the financial heart of the City of London. They’ve both met head on and neither will budge.

Meanwhile, someone else who wouldn’t budge looks on…

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Charles I was my favourite King. Here he’s restored, airbrushed, gilded, and the focus for another slightly odd cult. What with Richard III, there seem to be opportunities these days in marketing maligned monarchs as celebrities.

Back home I read that Rachel Whiteread’s decoration of Whitechapel Gallery is echoing “London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests”. Looking back on the photos, there’s gilding in most of them. A country mouse might think London’s really paved with gold.

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1947: England and a past and future beauty

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In the last decade or so it seems people have realised the huge debt we owe Penguin and Puffin books. We can buy boxes filled with postcards of their immaculate book covers, while the iconic orange and white originals are available on tea towels, mugs and even deck chairs. And that’s just the look of it all: pick up any of the titles that turn up from the middle decades of the 20th century and you could disappear forever into second-hand bookshops, charity shops or attics, as lost a cause as any Victorian gentleman or woman consigned to the opium den or brothel.

Town and Village dates from around 1947, the paper fairly rough and uncoated, which makes the artwork appear as fresh as some lovingly-crafted linocut.

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There are two covers, so can you choose from a utopian future or an idyllic past.

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Inside, there are beautifully-designed diagrams, and this one provides a colour-coded map of the United Kingdom to show how local materials shaped the built landscape. Even more valuable now than then.

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There are images of the idealised English village, carefully illustrating how the past builds layer upon layer and lives side by side.

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But this is no misty-eyed wallow in the ‘scepter’d isle’ imagery of the war years. This is also about the future, one that accounts for everyone and gives them light, air and space. Turn the page and the ugly truths are revealed.

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There is no beating around the bush here, as S R Badmin continues…

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He’s in full flow now – you can’t get more damning than ‘fancy dress houses’. And I can’t help wondering how many of the slums or industrial buildings are now the facades of ‘luxury apartments’ for the affluent of today.

Moving on to the brave new world, our author is more than comfortable with the shock of the new. But it’s a careful argument, taking the reader by the hand from the past into the future (which, marvellously, he tells us will involve ‘plastics such as Bakelite’). He wants everyone to move beyond the Tudorbethan, mock-Tudor sentiment of the pre-war years. (It’s often overlooked how little impact the stylised art-deco movement had on everyday homes: many preferred barley-twist oak, stained glass and olde-worlde brass.)

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Be sure that if a building is well-designed for its purpose, without trying to be new-fashioned or old-fashioned, it will fit into its surroundings just as all the buildings do in the villages we love.

Perhaps not a bad design for life, that one, with endless applications… as long as he doesn’t mean a bland compromise, which I don’t think he does. Although his definition of the English style of building as ‘solid, suitable and not fussy in appearance’ sounds a little joyless.

The last page is given over to the S R Badmin manifesto, which I imagine involved clambering atop the table, waving spectacles and going all-out for a full-on Robert Hardy thespian workout:

We could keep the country as real country, for farming and holidays, instead of eating it up with bungalows. We could do all that and more if we made plans in advance, instead of muddling along as we do now, allowing people to build more or less what or where they fancy, whether it is ugly or not. Is it possible for planning to be carried out when so many people own so many pieces of land?

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As a child, I imagine you might return this to the library believing that the war had changed everything, and feel, as the National Health Service began, the first warm rays of utopia.

Until you realise the unpredictability of the British weather.

Ancient landscapes, present days…

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I found this tucked away in a bookshop not long ago, looking a bit crumpled and water-stained. I loved the cover for its striking black and red, the bold question mark and the barest cut-out houses. It’s not the sort of visually-clever trick that would get used for this kind of thing today, and even then, in 1955, it was more like design for a movie poster. But it’s a tiny work of art. It makes you stop, and think, and put the pieces together – ancient landscape, super-imposed houses, traditional fonts that conjure vintage auction posters. Course I’m reading too much into it, I just want to know why I like it.

Dartmoor folk have in the past built honest, comely houses, in keeping with the unique and characteristic quality, the rugged integrity, of the Moor itself… [we] see no reason why this tradition should not be preserved.

– from the introduction

In the back is a paint chart, great in the way it encourages buildings to be part of the landscape, to grow with it, not against it.

It gently asks planners and architects to absorb and feel the history of the landscape and interpret it afresh, so that buildings belong to the landscape.

Here’s an ancient heart still beating. This is a photo from inside, of Drewsteignton village, circa 1955…

…and here’s the same scene, more or less, today.