18: Blockhouses (2)

Goumier FarmElectricity substation, Soho

Goumier Farm blockhouse, Ypres; Electricity substation, Soho

Architect’s intention: This block has been designed to house an electricity sub-station in the middle of Soho. No doors open on to the street, so access is through the retail and office building it is attached to.

Effect in practice: This massive structure kills off all interaction on this street corner in Soho. Streets around it are full of ground-level shop fronts. This is the only exception.

Visual effect: The building is on the same scale as those around it, but any functions of the street have been excluded. At the same time, its own function is hidden.

Phenomenological effect: This extraordinary structure sits mysteriously at a busy intersection of streets, drawing attention to itself as much by what it isn’t as much as by what it is

Discussion: One commentator on the depressed 1930s wrote: “There was nothing to be commercial about in the Thirties.” That feeling seems to have been repeated here. The need for commerce and interaction seem to be alien to the thinking behind this structure. You wonder why a function which demands no daily, convenient access has been allowed to occupy a site where access is the main advantage of the location.

The buildings helps to destroy what the location might be used for, what its context suggests. It destroys the city as it was. It is not nothing, it is itself, but it has no known identity. Its identity, that which it is similar to, is hidden or lost. It is like an alien presence in the present, similar to Louis Kahn’s Museum of British History at Yale, where a brutal, enclosed concrete staircase protrudes into a large, wood-panelled art gallery.

An electricity substation such as this could have been located in somewhere less prominent. Its function doesn’t demand either this site, or such massive walls. One ends up casting round for a model, an image it may take its identity, its sameness, from given that its identity is not dictated by its function or anything near by. The Ypres blockhouse, whose ribbed concrete provided extra protection against gunfire and bombshells, would stand out if you imagine flicking through a file, or memory bank, of all the buildings that had been of any significance in the century before this strange intrusion appeared in the heart of Soho.