Reflections of the Town Hall in the Hotel windows

It’s the steps I remember most.

Two people sitting on them, one crying, one comforting.

Often late at night.

In the morning, they were steps to run down because I was late. I was often late.

Later in the day, they were steps trudge back up.

And check your reflection in the glass wall.

I don’t remember anyone taking pictures of the chemistry building, or commenting on its significance. It was just a concrete and glass building. It wasn’t the place you stood next to for your graduation picture, or proudly showed your mum and dad as you walked around on the campus tour.

I thought of this building, thirty years later, when listening to 99percentinvisible discussing Wurster Hall in UC Berkeley. I’d played the podcast in the shower and came out of the bathroom to my son complaining “concrete is an optimistic building material” and other quotes before ending with how loudly I’d played this, and woken him up. I said sorry.

The podcast talked of the origins of concrete buildings as honest, capable and humble. How concrete had been used to build libraries, city halls, social housing, and university buildings, with a vision of the future.

Trying to find anything about the Royal Holloway chemistry building was a challenge. There are lots of photographs and information online about its pretty Victorian campus neighbour the Founder’s Building. It has its own hashtag on Instagram. The chemistry building has a reference in Contemporary Architects, as designed by Colquhoun & Miller. They also designed social housing in Milton Keynes, Scottish holiday chalets, and the renovation of Whitechapel Art Gallery. Colquhoun later worked at Princeton and published essays for MIT.

It reminds me of how overlooked something can be. How I could walk past it each day, and not think about how it was designed, or by who, or why. How the original designer may not have known how the building would be interacted with, or how future buildings would turn it into a route to somewhere else. It’s evolution.

Which leads me to the hotel in the village where I live. It’s on the main road up to the ski resort Courchevel. Like the chemistry building, it has a very pretty neighbour in the Baroque church. Neglect has taken its toll.

The challenge is to see this building. To pay attention to the subtleties of its beauty. The symmetry and order of its windows. Where open shutters have produced darker rectangles, protecting the wall from the bleaching sun. The hotel was built with the optimism of early tourism in the Alps, and the start of alpine skiing. How I see it today maybe less of “a building on the left” as you go up the road, and more like a part of the evolution of the village. Not just nostalgic for its youthful heyday but a little love for the story it tells today.

A kind photographer’s eye.

Village Hotel in Saint Bon Courchevel, France

Show Your Work

Structure of this story inspired by Liam Hess The Prada Menswear Show I Didn’t Attend, But Will Never Forget.

The smell of concrete blog and podcast by 99percentinvisible

Architects Journal Robert Maxwell remembers architect and critic Alan Colquhoun.

Contemporary Architects Muriel Emanuel includes photograph & history of Chemistry building at Royal Holloway London

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