Friday 24 September 2010

Up On the Roof

Open House Weekend is for me what the end of the Season is for Tatler-readers; the last gasp of summer, the year's final outdoor event, before we all head back to our burrows and turn into hobbits. Looked at another way, it's a London-wide party, a housewarming when we all get to nose around the hidden rooms before the people who work there take them back. On the weekend, and for a few days afterwards, I always catch myself looking at the city with new eyes, temporarily transformed into an architectural trainspotter.

My highlight this year was the Kensington Roof Gardens, built in 1936 by Ralph Hancock above what used to be the Derry and Toms department store. It was a bit of an icon of my childhood - whenever my grandmother came to London, part of her routine was a cream tea atop D and T. The roof garden survives as a private members' club, run by Virgin, which means that the weekend was one of the few opportunities I'd have to visit without adding to the wealth of Richard Branson.

The garden is seven storeys up, and hosts a cafe and champagne bar of almost parodic luxury -the toilets have a tropical fish tank between the Ladies and Gents, the first time I've seen that outside a film. The garden itself has three sections - one designed to resemble an English woodland, including a lake with four flamingoes (the younger pair are called Splosh and Pecks), one mock-Elizabethan and formal, and one Spanish, based on the Alhambra in Granada. This, with its palm trees, quasi-Moorish architecture and pink walls, is the first thing that you see on coming out of the lift, and I have to admit that my immediate reaction was to burst out laughing. The audacity of building a pseudo-Mediterranean garden above a department store in soggy, crowded London is so extreme - idiotic in some ways, admirable in others - that the only reasonable response is to giggle.

A fellow visitor said 'It's like Portmerion.', and that's not a bad analogy - if you can build an Italian village in North Wales, why not a Spanish garden above West London? Both places are a bit like three-dimensional scrapbooks, full of oddments of statuary, bit and pieces that their architects had picked up abroad and needed a home for. They're eclectic, made up of ideas from elsewhere, and necessarily incomplete, always allowing for another item.

This magpie impulse isn't quite the same as the colonialist urge of a Lord Elgin or William Randolph Hearst, looting the art treasures of the world, or the Las Vegas desire to reproduce everything bigger and better. It's a more modest wish, to take a little bit from everywhere, and it's very British (I nearly said 'English', but Hancock was from Wales.). In its refusal of an overarching aesthetic, it's connected to what Keats called 'negative capability' - the capacity to remain undecided, without striving after certainty. Possibly one reason for the national love of gardening is its unperfectability - you're never finished.

Speaking a language that cherry-picks the best bits of Latin and German, with a national culture that's based on waves of invasion (up to 1066) and immigration (after that), British people are natural collagists, picking up symbols, icons and ideas where we can find them, but rarely buying anything in its entirety. When the Pope talked about 'picking and choosing' morality, he thought he was describing the country's atheists - in fact, it's just how we are, the religious as well. The Kensington Roof Garden is like the national mindset; eclectic, eccentric, and up in the air.

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