Architectural admiration (3)

Here are seven more feats of architecture and design that I have been privileged to see. Spanning many centuries, and a variety of styles, they all have their singular merits. I hope that you enjoy them.

The Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

When I visited Uzbekistan, in the late 1980s, it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, it has been an independent country. It has a southern border with Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan is to the north. The city of Samarkand was well known in the west as the central point of the Silk Road, halfway to China, and it was also one of the most important centres of Islamic studies. The Registan is the large public square of that city, including the three buildings that housed madrasahs, schools of Islamic teaching. Built from 1410-1660, these similar buildings are all in an identifiable Islamic style of architecture. The complex includes dormitories, classrooms, minarets, and a large mosque. Arriving on a warm evening in late summer, I was struck by the wonderful colours of the mosaics that decorate the exteriors. I was doubly pleased that the vista from our hotel room balcony gave us a good view of it to savour too. Touring the buildings in a small group the following day, there were few tourists or visitors there; so the large area was a place of great peace, full of wonderful sights. This link has day and night photos. Please explore them.

Michelin House, London.

On the corner of Fulham Road and Sloane Avenue in Chelsea, stands this unique building. It is now called Bibendum, (The name of the Michelin Tyre man) and houses an up-market oyster bar, restaurant, and delicatessen, developed by Sir Terence Conran. Once the home of the UK branch of the French tyre company, Michelin, it appears to have been lifted from fin-de-siecle Paris, and transplanted in this unusual location. The style is somewhere between Art Noveau and Art Deco, with an individual twist. The building was opened in 1911, and boasts three large stained-glass windows echoing advertisements of the time. Exterior lighting appears to emulate stacked tyres, and the central area once housed a large tyre fitting bay. At one time, it had an oval track on the roof, where cars could be tested. In 1985, Michelin left the building, and it was sold to Conran, a style guru, and furniture designer. He and his partners developed the whole complex into a shop, restaurant, and oyster bar, retaining and renovating almost all of the original features. Just to gaze at it is an amazing experience. If you can afford the price of a snack or meal inside, despite wallet-emptying prices, so much the better.

The Forth Rail Bridge, South Queensferry, Scotland.

There are undeniably much grander bridges in the UK, and across the world. Sydney Harbour Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, the list goes on. I have not seen them, but I have seen The Forth Bridge, which I first saw in 1964, on a family holiday in Scotland. I was struck by it then, and despite crossing alongside it on the road bridge, or passing over it in a train, a total of perhaps forty times since, I still think that it is an imposing and wonderful structure. Spanning the Firth of Forth, a few miles from Edinburgh, it was opened in 1890, for use by the railway companies to reduce the travelling time between London and Aberdeen. It is of cantilever construction, and still considered by many to be one of the finest examples ever built, as well as a monumental feat of engineering. With its distinctive red oxide paint finish, it is best viewed near sunset, and it has enough popularity as an attraction in its own right, that there is a car park close to the south side, and a visitor centre is currently in the planning stages. Just to the west of this rail bridge is the road bridge, a suspension bridge, built in 1964.

The Moscow Metro, Russia.

This is not so much about a building, but an underground architectural marvel, beautifully preserved to this day. The underground train system of the city of Moscow was opened in 1935, under the Stalinist regime. No expense was spared to make it a showpiece for the Russian capital, and it is unlike any similar system you will see anywhere. Stations have marble floors, tiled walls, mosaics, reliefs, chandeliers, statues, friezes, and incredible lighting. They appear to span every style ever known, from Byzantine to Art Deco, and beyond. Heroic figures, propaganda-style pictures made from small tiles, even stained-glass windows, it is all there. And this in a system serving a huge population, used extensively every day. I managed to find a link with some very good photos. There are lots of them, but if you have never seen this wonder, please try to view as many as you can.

Windmills, Norfolk, England.

I have always enjoyed looking at windmills. Many countries have them, but here in East Anglia, we have them in abundance. Once the essential hub of farming communities, they are now mostly used as accommodation, restored as museums, or occasionally used as working examples of the millers’ craft. Norfolk has many fine examples, including Cley-Next-the Sea, Burnham Overy, Stow, and Sutton Mill at Hickling. There is a recently restored windmill near to our home, in Dereham, somewhat incongruously situated in the middle of a modern housing estate. Fortunately, most are listed buildings, so cannot be demolished, or substantially altered. Some are brick-built, others made of wood; many are painted white, others black, with white sails. Some lucky families enjoy living in one as their main residence, and many others take great pleasure in renting one as a holiday home. They are one of the most constant reminders of the past still with us, and stand proud above the generally flat landscape of the eastern lowlands. Here is a link to some good photos of Norfolk windmills. There are many others to explore.

County Hall, Norwich, England.

Opened in 1968, the administrative headquarters for the large county of Norfolk covers an area over thirty acres, to the south of the city centre. To call it incongruous would be an understatement. This huge slab of a building dominates the southern approach to the city, and is generally detested by its inhabitants. So why is it included here? I actually like it. Maybe it it the brutalist style that appeals, or the uncompromising way it is allowed to overwhelm its surroundings. You could be forgiven for presuming that it is home to the Secret Police, or a clandestine government organisation. It is far removed from the Victorian and Edwardian edifices that normally serve the purpose of housing County Councils, and it seems that it would be more at home in Soviet Russia, or North Korea. However, it is easy to forget that many buildings revered today were considered monstrosities when they were built over 100 years ago. I believe that County Hall will stand the test of time, and emerge as something regarded with affection in the future.

SIS Building, London.

Talking of clandestine government organisations, the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) building at Vauxhall Cross, London, must be one of the world’s worst-kept secrets. Home to MI6, one of Britain’s two major spying and intelligence networks, it is so well known, it has even been featured in a James Bond film. But this post is about buildings, and what a building it is. Like something of a cross between an Aztec temple, and a Las Vegas casino, it is unique on London’s riverside. It stands in an unattractive area, opposite an ugly modern bus station, and adjacent to the 20th century Vauxhall Bridge, that crosses the Thames into Pimlico. The building was opened in 1994, and immediately drew criticism from many detractors, being described as ‘Babylonian’, (not a bad thing, in my book) and also as ‘Legoland.’ The cream-coloured stone, together with green tinted windows, sets it apart from anything else in the city. Best viewed from north of the river, I think that it is one of the finest modern buildings in London, and something that will go down as a marvellous architectural achievement. Here is a link to its use in that James Bond film. It shows it off well.

I hope that you are continuing to enjoy this series. I have more to offer, so look out for them in the future.

23 thoughts on “Architectural admiration (3)

  1. Pete, yet another fabulous post. The beautiful windmills were amazingly kept up. What an adventure you’ve had and I feel honored that you are so kind to share these with us. The SIS building was a sight as well, loved that they had the green tinted windows. Makes me want to go through my library of movies in search of James Bond 007 ..

    Take care and happy blogging (adventures) to ya, from Laura ~


    1. A lot of those windmills are available to rent for holidays Laura. And yes, I have been lucky in the past, to see many amazing things.
      Thanks for your much-appreciated comments, and the time spent reading all these posts. Pete.


      1. Pete, it’s truly been an honor to read your traveling post today. It’s Saturday and cold outside, but your series today has warmed my inner traveling soul… Bringing back many memories of my grandfather and I jumping a plane, train, or car, heading off on our own adventures.

        Take care & happy blogging to ya.. from Laura ~


  2. Wow yet more amazing buildings, fascinating post. Lovely to see something from my homeland too! Really enjoyed this and the Registan reminds me of Fitzroy McLean’s adventures! Wonderful Pete. Best wishes as always, Jane x


    1. Scotland has much to offer, although I never took to the Scottish parliament building. Samarkand is really something different, and worth the effort it took to get there! More to come… x


  3. Pete,

    I am always a bit better after reading one of your articles. Sometimes it’s better informed. Sometimes I marvel at the village of Beetley and others at the Moscow Subway – both better me in different ways and raise the spirit. Thank you so much for sharing with us.



  4. Pete, I might be a bit undecided on County Hall, but I really like the SIS building. As a Miller, it comes as no surprise that I have a great fondness of windmills. The Moscow Metro is truly magnificent, and is justifiably famous. The Forth Rail Bridge is definitely of distinct design, and I would love to photograph it myself at sunset. I would never tire of snacking at the Michelin house, and would thoroughly enjoy touring its attractions. As for the Registan, it is quite stunning, with clean lines and beautifully ornate façades. I very much enjoyed this third entry into your architecture series.


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