London Walking Tours    with Joanna Moncrieff

An evening with Mike Leigh – on Architecture

As a Westminster Guide I’m interested in buildings.  However  I wouldn’t say I was particularly interested in the technicalities of architecture more about the look of a place and how it fits in with its surroundings.

Before becoming a Guide however I would never have attended a lecture on architecture even it was being given by Mike Leigh, the film director.  The talk took place at the Geological Society, next door to the Linnean Society where I had volunteered in September.  The subject of this lecture was London’s hidden gems.  However it transpired that Mike Leigh had only noticed this subtitle on arriving at the Society so confessed this to us and started to talk about his two favourite buildings by way of a fascinating autobiographical journey. 

Mike Leigh grew up in Manchester just after the Second World War and told us how dirty and polluted the City was although an audience member later pointed out that Manchester was the first city to benefit from the Clean Air Act.  His first sight of London on any trip down was of course Euston station and this station with its historic Doric Arch was one of his favourite buildings.  He talked about the Victorian station and how the porters looked like figures from Ronald Searle cartoons.  The sight that I think all of us wanted to see again (now long gone) was the barbershop and marble lined public bathrooms that used to lie beneath platform 6 where you could go for a long uninterrupted soak and all for a shilling.  

Moving to London as a RADA student he lived for 10 years in a mouse infested flat in Eversholt Street which runs alongside the station.  He experienced his first curry in Drummond Street (still a great place for curries).  He talked about the demise of the station and the demolishing of the arch and how could this possibly have been allowed to happen. 

His second favourite building the British Museum is not that far away from Euston and he passed it many times on his way to and from drama school walking through it as part of his journey or just popping in for short periods of time.  He told us how swathes of streets were threatened in the early 1970s with the new British Library being originally intended for Bloomsbury, this plan thankfully being defeated by local opposition and being built instead at St Pancras.  Mike Leigh still lives close to the museum; what an ideal place to live.

The panel discussion after Mike Leigh’s talk was fascinating.  The panellists were Jonathan Glancey from the Guardian, Ptomely Dean the presenter of Restoration and architect Liza Fior.

The phrase that stuck out for me from the evening was Jonathan Glancey saying (whilst talking about Jean Nouvel’s One New Change and other similarly designed buildings) “Why do some of the world’s best architects build their worst buildings in London”.

It was a fascinating evening and I am looking forward to two more in the series – Will Self talking about Stockwell Bus Garage and Monica Ali discussing 19 Princelet Street.

As a last word I wouldn’t have found out about these lectures if I hadn’t been regularly reading Ian Visits’ calendar of events.