Victorian Revival, With a Twist
|By Roderick Conway Morris|
LONDON 29 October 1993
Piers Gogh's Superloo, Notting Hill, London
What baths were to ancient Rome public lavatories were to Victorian Britain - their shining glazed-brick interiors, dazzling white enamel and polished brass fittings palpable proof of the triumph of hygiene and urban civilization.
The onslaught of modern-day Vandals and the advent of the coin-in-the-slot street lavatory led to the inexorable decline of the old-style public loo. Many have been demolished, and some turned to other purposes: in one London borough, for example, loos have been converted into offices, an art gallery and even a pizzeria.
Notting Hill, an attractive west-central London neighborhood of neo-classical, white stucco terraces and leafy squares, lost one of its principal lavatories fifteen years ago, when the underground convenience on one of its main streets, Westbourne Grove, was filled in with an ugly, prefabricated street-level loo put in its place.
After more than a decade of agitating for a suitable permanent replacement, the Pembridge Association, a local residents' conservation group, discovered last year that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, had finally drawn up some plans. 'You'd have thought that after more than ten years they would have been enlightened enough to have an architectural competition,' said John Scott, the formidable and outspoken 58-year-old Honorary Planning Secretary of the Pembridge Association, whose apartment actually overlooks the triangular traffic island on which the loos were to be built. 'But they didn't. And when I went to see the drawings at the borough engineer's office, the only thing that could be said about them was that they were extremely banal.'
Despairing of persuading the borough to find a more imaginative alternative, the Pembridge Association, marshalled by Scott (a man with, as even a few minutes' acquaintance makes evident, a passionate detestation of the nondescript and the mediocre), resolved to commission an architect of their own, calling on Piers Gough of CZWG, a partnership with a reputation for flamboyant and unusual designs - a singularly unexpected choice for a local conservation organization primarily dedicated to preserving the historic character of the neighborhood.
Gough's solution was a startling triangular building with glazed, bright-turquoise brick, crowned by a dramatic, fan-shaped semi-transparent roof (reminiscent of Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau Paris Métro entrances), with the lavatories and attendant's office in the back, and a glassed-in florist's kiosk at the front, the whole structure tapering into a sharp, thrusting point.
'So much modern architecture,' said Gough, 'is anaemic and over-cool. We like our buildings to be lush - to be a strong response to their location.' The site was obviously crucial in this case in deciding the shape of the building. The fact that it is flanked by neo-classical stucco houses but has a backdrop of post-war public housing blocks (built to replace houses destroyed during the Blitz) is addressed in Gough's part archaic, part futurist design. The use of glazed brick beloved of Victorian lavatory builders, but in a daring turquoise hue (custom-produced and dubbed by the makers 'Gough Green'), provides a link with the past, while making for an arresting colorful impression (bold enough even to hold its own amid the West Indian Carnival processions that pass by every August).
Both the borough's workaday plan and Gough's extravaganza won planning approval - the crunch coming when the architect's design was found to exceed the allowed budget of £190,000 ($285,000). Scott wrote a personal cheque for £10,000 the very same day to make up the difference, and he and the Pembridge Association have since raised a further £13,000 to pay for the rescue of an adjoining Victorian drinking fountain, the new loo's splendid external clock, higher-quality fittings, benches, trees and landscaping. As there was no provision in the borough's estimate to employ an architect, Gough's fees had to be paid to him by the building contractors.
The exuberant building cried out for somebody to match its verve and panache in the running of the florist's kiosk - and just such a person appeared in the form of 35-year-old Nikki Tibbles, who had only recently left a career in advertizing and design for follow her new calling. Tibbles has created an entrancing shop, overflowing with fascinating foliage and blooms - amaranthus ('love-lies-bleeding'), black roses, bright blue delphiniums, glory and Casablanca lilies, baby pineapples, cabbage plants and kangaroo paw - many of which you would never find in a conventional shop. Orders have been flowing in for weddings and other do's, and regular customers include the Harold Pinter-Antonia Fraser household and Rifat Ozbek.
Known locally as the 'superloo', the building is already established in the affections of a very wide variety of local residents, some of whom would normally take a dim view of 'modern architecture'.
'The point is,' said Scott, 'gazing down from his window upon the loo with fatherly pride, 'that it makes you look with new eyes not just at it, but at all the other buildings around.' And then shooting a penetrating glance at one or two peeling, unkempt classical stucco buildings in the terrace across the road, he added: 'Who knows, it might even encourage some people to get round to restoring their own buildings properly.'
First published: International Herald Tribune
© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023