The Changeless Lives Of London Buildings
When we think about the multiple uses that buildings in London have over the years, it’s hard not to believe in psychogeography, the theory that land retains resonances from times past. But I think the reason for some changeless buildings lies less in the spirit than in the patterns of the land, and you could probably apply the same rules to many old cities. Let’s take just four examples.
1 The London Pavilion
On the north-east side of Piccadilly Circus, this huge building began life as a song-and-supper-room annexe to the Black Horse Inn, a home of entertainments that was turned into a music hall in 1861. There was a song sung here in 1878 during the Turko-Russian war that gives us the word ‘jingoism’.
We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do/ We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too.
That building was demolished in 1885 and replaced with a new pavilion for CC Cochran’s spectacular reviews. Cochran was the British Zeigfeld and kept it running until 1934, when it became a warren-like cinema. Now it houses a trashy ‘museum’ called ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!’ so in a way, its purpose has hardly changed in centuries.
But the site is where ‘entertainment London’ comes to a virtual full-stop (or start), at the end of Shaftesbury venue, before the roads slope down to royal grounds, and it makes sense that this building would establish the wall of the zone.
2 The Alhambra
This curious building in Leicester Square began life as the Panopticon in 1854. It was Moorish in style and had minarets (then fashionable), and a 30 foot fountain, but nobody wanted to come and see the scientific equipment housed within, so it reopened as a circus and music hall with Blondin, the man who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and Leotard, ‘the daring young man on the flying trapeze’. Things got a bit saucy after that and the place lost its licence after the dancer Wiry Sal raised her leg a few inches too high.
After reopening for proms and plays it burned down in 1882, was rebuilt and reopened as a music hall, where ‘If You Were The Only Girl In The World’ was first performed. It switched to ballet performances until 1936. It’s now the Odeon Cinema. But the square, which was until recently surrounded by cinemas, is the centre of modern tourist entertainment in London, and Leicester Square now has an Imax Laser – the closest there’s been yet to another Panopticon.
3 The London Palladium
This theatre in Argyll Street was originally the Corinthian Bazaar, then a circus and after that an ice rink. In 1910 it became a very high-end music hall with box-to-box telephones and a huge granite palm court. ‘Peter Pan’ was performed there every Christmas, the Crazy Gang appeared regularly, then it became the home of the TV show ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’.
It seats well over two thousand people and is now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, so it’s back to being a circus. Theatres are not like pubs, which live on corners, are narrow and often have five floors, three above and two below. They exist in the centres of streets and are harder to repurpose. Plus, they are ornately designed as palaces of delights, so preservation orders are quicker to appear for them. In truth most of the Palladium’s shows aren’t terribly good and it has a reputation as a ‘coach party’ theatre, but its place in the collective imagination and position in an area of high footfall keep it in business.
4 Alexandra Palace
‘Ally Pally’ was a disaster from the start, burning down just 16 days after it opened. In 1875 it became a concert hall and theatre but nobody went. In the First World War it ended up being used as a barracks, then for German POWs. In 1936 the BBC bought it to transmit from, and the world’s first TV transmitter was built there. It burned down again, and was reopened in 1980 as an events space, but has never satisfactorily worked. Something is wrong with the grand building’s location – it feels awkward to get to (although it isn’t really) and has an air of melancholy on the brightest days. It remains North London’s great white elephant.