Quick! There are only ten days left to see the ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich up close before they take the scaffolding down and you won’t be able to get near to it for another hundred years, by which time your knees will probably be too tired to make the climb.
The scaffolding is there to facilitate a restoration which has been going on since 2016, which is also how long I’ve been living up the road, so of course I left it until it was almost too late to go and have a look. But I’m so glad I did! Completed under the direction of James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726, the Painted Hall was once the dining room of the Royal Hospital For Seamen, which went up in 1694, was designed by Hawksmoor AND Wren, and was (the name notwithstanding) a retirement home for old and poorly sailors. Its vast interior mural covers all of the ceiling and most of the walls, and features a festival of scenes from mythology, history and allegory, all of which are intended to be seen from 100ft away, rather than up close, which is exactly what makes a visit so interesting, because you (well, I) expect eighteenth-century paintings to be perfect, the toil and sweat involved in their creation to be hidden behind a glassily flawless finish, but here, because they knew that nobody would be looking too closely (surprise!), the artists employ an impressionistic approach, hinting at details rather than perfecting them, and using broad brush strokes which you can see perfectly plainly. And the fact of having to crane one’s neck at odd angles to begin to even see some of the scenes depicted brings a painful awareness of the extraordinary amount of effort that must have gone into painting them.
I took A LOT of photos but the below is just a selection and doesn’t even begin to convey the experience of actually being there. If you are in or close to London you must go immediately before it closes on September 30th. And if you can’t make it, the hall will reopen next year once the rest of the renovations are complete, with the most exciting part of that work being the opening up of the undercroft, which was also designed by Hawksmoor AND Wren and which nobody has seen since it was closed up a hundred years ago. Isn’t that exciting? Although also a bit scary, because there is almost certainly a becurséd creature sleeping down there and they are about to wake it up.
The architecture was painted first, to provide literal structure for the rest of the painting.
Brush strokes clearly visible in a painting that was never meant to be seen this close up.
A rat (barely visible with the naked eye, and certainly not from floor level)
One of only four real people featured on the ceiling (the others are William, Mary and Louis XIV), this retired navyman whose name I’ve forgotten was one of the first residents of the Royal Hospital.
Another attempt at a lion
Medusa on a shield
A tour group
It is impossible to understand, much less photograph, the perspective when you’re close to the painting.
Medusa in real life
Fruit – with a level of detail entirely invisible from below.
A lion, just about
This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it’s not real.
(That sentiment could apply to quite a lot of things, I guess.)
There was a programme on BBC2 this evening about Taipei 101, the counterweighted skyscraper I wrote about a few months ago. If you can endure Richard Hammond (who, separated from the others, is fairly inoffensive, though I prefer the wild-haired one and have no time at all for Clarkson), it’s worth checking out on the iPlayer. The show focuses on the various feats of engineering which went into the building’s construction, and I was pleased to discover that the story of the building is just as fascinating as the finished product.
It also has the world’s fastest elevator, which travels at the unlikely speed of 1010 metres per minute. I’ve had my ears pop in Japan’s fastest elevator, in the Yokohama Landmark Tower, but at a piffling 750 metres a minute it barely compares. (Though looking it up now I discover that it’s also the world’s second-fastest elevator.)
Anyway, I’ve never been to Taiwan, though I’d like to, so I don’t have any photos of Taipei 101. Instead, here’s a photo of the view from the top of the Yokohama Landmark Tower, reflected in a mirror inside the viewing gallery:
This is interesting, if you are interested in skyscrapers. Or people.
After a series of stories about mooted and improbable mile-high buildings, it’s almost a novelty to read about one which is actually being built as we speak. The new Shanghai Tower will be a respectable 632 metres tall, making it the tallest building in China. What I like most about this story, though, is the way the illustrations make Shanghai look as though it’s either in space, or the future, or both.
The centre may be for the most part the same as it was when Georges-Eugène Haussmann introduced his planning reforms in the 1850s, but in other parts of Paris all kinds of interesting things are happening. La Défense, to the north-west of the centre, is the city’s business district and has the highest concentration of skyscrapers of any urban area in Europe. Since the 1980s the most striking of these has been La Grande Arche, which is brilliantly and thoughtfully designed so that it lines up with the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, whose name I never knew before today, meaning that if you stand in the Tuileries gardens you can look straight through all three of them, over a distance of several miles.
But today inhabitat has designs for a new, ecologically-minded skyscraper which is about twice the height of the Grande Arche (though still smaller than the Eiffel Tower – some things are sacred) and which looks great. I’m very happy to live in a time when people have discovered that buildings don’t have to be square or rectangular. We’re building pyramids and pods as well as star-shaped cities and Teletubby houses. It all makes London’s shard of glass seem almost pedestrian.
I spent this morning at TfL’s newest home, the Palestra building on Blackfriars Road. When construction began several years ago I used to pass the site every day on my way to work and wonder whether it was ever going to be anything other than an enormous hole, until one day it seemed to emerge from the ground fully formed, dwarfing everything around it.
Some local residents opposed its construction, and it’s not hard to see why: there’s nothing context-friendly about the design, and apart from anything else it blocks the river views of the buildings immediately opposite. But once you’re inside there’s a lot that’s good about it: it’s open-plan without being blandly corporate, the communal areas look like some actual thought went into how and when they would be used, and I only heard good things about the canteen. Plus, they gave me free tea and cake.
More importantly, though, everything that can be done to reduce a building’s emissions is done here. I’m told it’s 100% carbon neutral, although I can’t find any official confirmation of that. But certainly a significant amount of the energy it uses comes from solar panels and wind turbines on the roof (you can see them from the nearby railway line, if you happen to be travelling into Waterloo East). This is all good.
Even better is the view from the eleventh floor, but I’m afraid I didn’t have the guts to ask if anyone minded if I took a photo, so you’ll just have to trust me on that.
I’ve just come across this design for an eco-efficient but super sexy new skyscraper on the Dubai waterfront. If it’s genuinely possible to build green skyscrapers, and to make them look this good (though it may lose something in the translation from paper to stone) then all kinds of possibilities open up, especially in housing, where before long we are going to be forced to have some new ideas.
Edit: having spent five minutes investigating, I see there are lots of designs for green skyscrapers out there. If I get a chance I’ll link to some of them later on.