In my first two building blogs I featured iconic London buildings that have been demolished: in the case of Temple Bar, dismantled and relocated twice, in the case of Euston Arch demolished, drowned and a candidate for restoration.

In this third blog we look at the Floral Hall at London’s Royal Opera House, the first of two examples of how buildings learn to survive. As always these buildings live on in the wonderful models made by Timothy Richards. In the next blog we will look at the Hoover Building on Western Avenue, London.

Orchids to Opera

In central London the exodus of the Fruit and Veg market from London left an almost vacant space and buildings needing a new life.  Unlike Les Halles in Paris, we have retained most of the buildings, which I prefer to the way Paris has struggled with the space. Despite the crowds, sometimes Covent Garden seems rather soulless, a tourist attraction with restaurants of all kinds and some street entertainers.  One building that could easily have been demolished was the Flower Market building next to the Royal Opera House.

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The Floral Market 1913  Picture source: Historic England Archive

Oysters and Opera

The Floral Hall retains a sense of history though it was completely rebuilt when being made part of the Royal Opera House.  In the words of Historic England it is designated a Grade 2 building “As a fine example of Victorian technological innovation despite its dismantling and re-erection in the 1990s; For the high quality of its design and decorative elements; As an example of the work of the eminent Victorian architect EM Barry; For group value with the same architect’s Grade I listed Royal Opera House, which it was originally designed to complement”.  In truth from the outset the Floral Hall was part of the Royal Opera experience, in that not only was it designed by the same architect, E.M.Barry, the third son of Charles Barry of Houses of Parliament fame etc, when redesigned the Opera House itself, but also the occasional ball was held in the Hall.

The Floral Hall now provides entertaining space for the Opera House, with its oyster bar and other dining areas, and a roof terrace overlooking the Covent Garden piazza when you need a breath of fresh air in the interval.

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Floral Hall set to party

Tim’s model focuses well on the Hall’s Victorian 1870s ironwork and glass facade, the light shining through. It pairs up well with his second model of the Opera House itself.

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Floral Hall on the left, Royal Opera House on the right

Echo-chamber and informal performance space

One downside, inside, is that despite the high ceiling it is a really noisy space.  I’ve never actually stopped for oysters but have watched the crowd briefly as I glide upwards on the escalator to the bar upstairs.  In this first video the echo-chamber effect makes it sound more like a railway station than a genteel watering hole for opera.

In the second video a flashmob seems to quieten it down.

Vilar to Hamlyn

What I also rather like is the name on my particular model, the Vilar Floral Hall. Many of our buildings are now advertising boards for their sponsors. The rescued Floral Hall was originally named after the arts sponsor Alberto Vilar who pledged funds to many musical ventures around the world – but this was not the only one where he fell short of delivering on his full pledge. Convicted of fraud, money laundering amongst other things I believe he is still serving his sentence in the US. I like to think my out-of-date model is a bit of a collector’s item, like stamps that have been wrongly printed. It is now the Paul Hamlyn Hall, following a grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (founded by the late publisher) for education and community activities at the Royal Opera House.

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Collector’s piece

Windows maketh a building

The glory of the building is not only in the sweeping ironwork curves in their windows – and doubtless were key features is preventing destruction. There is value in windows- no wonder they were once taxed. It’s probably irrelevant, but I note the window tax was finally abolished in 1851, less than a decade before the Floral Hall was built in 1858/9.

How buildings learn

All this leads to the question of how buildings adapt, or, in the phrase of Stewart Brand, how they “learn”.  For a longer discourse on how buildings learn to survive I do recommend looking at Stewart’s  1997 BBC programme “How buildings learn” with music by Brian Eno. The programme, based on Stewart’s book of the same name, was also innovative by being filmed entirely, I believe, with handheld cameras, doubtless cutting filming costs!

Also changing to survive……

Next week, from Hoover to Tesco, a look at the one of the classic industrial buildings built alongside the arterial roads running out of London, the Hoover Building.

Previous Building Blogs

  1. Temple Bar and the End of Geography
  2. Euston Arch: A Hub of Controversy
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