Friday, March 16, 2012

Notting Hill: The Museum of Brands & The Prettiest Public Toilet in London

This suburb is like a piece of cake: dainty, rich and iced in pastel colours. There are bowls of flowers hanging from lamp-posts and prada dresses sell for hundreds in the windows of gritty second hand shops. Even glances through housing estate windows reveal art deco lamps and photographs of grandchildren in neatly arranged silver frames. It's as quaintly charming as you'd expect, but with some unexpectedly quirky aspects.

Most people associate Notting Hill with the 1999 film of the same name, which I watched in preparation the night before I first visited, but there are a lot of different Notting Hills in popular culture. As I stepped out of the underground on that visit I remembered also the song from Mary Poppins, 'Portobello Road', and that the pub frequented in Martin Amis's London Fields, The Black Cross, portal to a gritty underworld of murder, darts and con artists, was also just off that famous street. Portobello Road turned out to be much smaller and sweeter than I had expected, twisting through residential areas and candy-coloured antique shops and cafes.

The less celebrated streets are no less lovely. On Ledbury Road I had one of the best cups of mint tea I've ever consumed at Ottolenghi and spent a while fawning over Olympia Le Tan clutches at The Village Bicycle, a store so fun to look at -with pink crucifixes and fake grass- that I didn't really care that I couldn't afford anything. A little further along is Doyle Devere Gallery, who have a good stable of artists (and where I met a cute barking dog).

Tucked in Colville Mews is the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, which starts out as a sweet place and ends up a bit sinister. The nineteenth century rooms are really charming, with cardboard Crystal Palace models from the 19th century and Louis Wain cat postcards. There are unfamiliar looks at familiar subjects, like a case of products cataloguing wartime humour. Pikachu is here! But as you reach the present day, the display of products as cultural commentary diminishes.

They've really succumbed to brand sponsorship and so there are cases dedicated to Cadbury products, all the brands shown in the section on alcoholic beverages are owned by the same company and there are Guinness posters everywhere. Some of these products are historically significant (some of the Guinness posters are really good and Cadbury is an important brand) but they're not accompanied with critical commentary (or even much design insight) and rival companies aren't acknowledged.

The museum is entertaining, especially when dealing with the past, and it's interesting to see one's childhood (in my case, the 1990s) summed up as it is, in four paragraphs: novelty bubble bath containers; the spice girls; the internet; the death of Princess Diana. By the end, though, I was resenting having to pay an entry fee to see cases of products grouped together under the words "sponsored by Tesco". 

It's a pretty good example of why museums need state, rather than private, funding. Certainly Robert Opie's original idea, of recording and displaying history through products, is a good one and, in the early stages of the museum, is well executed. But when it gets to time periods where private companies can have a vested interest in what's displayed and how it's displayed... it just becomes a shrine to consumerism. 

The unwillingness to deter potential sponsors seems, too, to seep unfortunately into a lack of deeper critical engagement elsewhere in the museum. "Brands are the friends in our lives," reads a sign next to a display of cigarettes and matches. Really?

I think adults generally have the power to identify aspects of the museum which are sponsor-driven, but I'm not sure children would necessarily resist the consumer messages. Regardless, museums are generally intended as sites of both education and entertainment and this display doesn't encourage people to think critically about the power of brands. If it did, there would probably be fewer messages from sponsors on the walls. 

Pleasingly, though, the best thing you'll find in Notting Hill is a public service, not a shop. Piers Gough (for CZWG Architecture) designed the Westbourne Grove public toilet in 1994. It's quirky and pretty.

The public toilet has a somewhat boatlike shape, a trend that started in the 1920s and which I've always been a fan of, and a transparent overhang in the style of Hector Guimard's entrances to the Paris métro. There's a clock on the building which both provides another service to the public by offering the time and works nicely as a round shape offsetting the angularity of this end of the building.

The light turquoise colour is in keeping with Notting Hill's uplifting pastels, but is also really playful, which I think is a necessary quality for a building to house a public toilet. There's something sort of ridiculous about the task of designing an elegant building that stands out for a toilet, a place generally seen as less elegant and often hidden away.

In addition to this, the public toilet shares its building with a flower shop, which I think also really adds to the success of this building. Flowers are all beauty and very little function, (usually) the opposite of a toilet, and so the cohabitation plays with one's expectations and balances these qualities out. It's a very stylish take on an essential service and it's nice to see that, in the priciest part of London, beauty isn't reserved for those who can afford luxuries.

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