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CULTURE TRAVEL FOOTBALL HERITAGE LIVERPOOL

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Two of a kind


Monday, 13 June 2011


You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find a Venetian Gothic Victorian office building in the City of London...

Not everything over 100 years old needs a dirty great English Heritage plate bolted onto its façade, but a discreet panel would've been nice. I can't believe there's no information about this place - the only giveaway is a sign for a ground-floor winebar called Ruskins.

Mark Lane

Mark Lane, City of London

Anyone with a decent set of peepers would notice how this little building (nos59-61) stands out from its younger, blander neighbours on Mark Lane - a narrow thoroughfare that trundles down a gentle slope in the City of London towards Lower Thames Street and the river.

It's a fancy birthday cake surrounded by boring buns, a riot of round-headed windows topped with decorative arches and flanked by miniature granite columns. It's obviously Victorian and stylistically Venetian. In London I haven't come across many office buildings on such a compact and personable scale, probably because I haven't looked hard enough, but maybe because by definition the capital has always been home to big, imposing HQs.

I stare at it and think: James Picton. He's the architect responsible for some of Liverpool's loveliest 19th century offices: 11 Dale Street, 48 Castle Street, the Fowler's Building on Victoria Street, and particularly the Hargreaves Building on Chapel Street - originally built for the cotton merchant MP William Brown and latterly called the Racquet Club.

Brown had a street in Liverpool named after him, of course, where the Central Library's Reading Room was in turn named after Picton who was knighted for his services to the city. A prolific architect and historian, Picton was heavily influenced by the eminent art and social critic John Ruskin (last seen as an, er, impotent pedant in a BBC drama about the Pre-Raphaelites).

Hargreaves Building on Chapel Street

Hargreaves Building on Chapel Street, Liverpool

So, this office building on Mark Lane. Online information is scarce, but eventually I find that it's the work of an architect called George Aitchison and dates from 1864, around four years after the Hargreaves Building was completed. It's variously described as 'Romanesque Revival', 'reticent Venetian Gothic' and 'Italo-Byzantine' with 'Ruskinian continuous arcading' - as in plenty of windows to let in more light.

Aitchison as much as Picton, it seems, was a disciple of Ruskin who favoured the architecture of Venetian palaces because it dispensed with neo-classical styles (all the rage in early Victorian Britain) and stood for what he felt was more truthful and natural in building design. This is the man who went to the Alps and called them 'cathedrals of nature', so you can see where he was coming from.

This is a little gem. So glad I've stumbled upon it, and always much more fun when it appears unannounced.


Smoke it

For an architectural treat, head for Hoxton. Ignore all the scruffs trying to look cool and check out Rivington Place and its side streets - reminiscent of Liverpool's warehouse wonderland in and around Rope Walks and Baltic Triangle (as it's now called). Lots of tall slender buildings with fab brickwork, obsolete hydraulic lifts and bygone signage.

Along the Embankment and South Bank are strategically-placed metal plaques picking out the skyline on the opposite side of the river. Near Charing Cross Station you'll spot Whitehall Court and the National Liberal Club (1881) which Liverpool-born architect Alfred Waterhouse had a hand in (see his stunning Natural History Museum, and back home the Northwestern Hotel on Lime Street, old Royal Infirmary and University Victoria Building). Then there's Richard Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard (1891) to the right of Parliament, all streaky-bacon bands of stone like his Albion House (former White Star head office) at the bottom of James Street in Liverpool.

Waterloo Bridge and the two former power stations at Battersea and Bankside (now Tate Modern) were designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect behind Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral (and the classic phone box). Meanwhile the Royal Courts of Justice, where TV news cameras seem permanently stationed, are the work of George Edmund Street. He also designed St Margaret's of Antioch on Liverpool's Princes Road.


'It's a fancy birthday cake surrounded by boring buns, a riot of round-headed windows topped with decorative arches and flanked by miniature granite columns'


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