Designer Paul Smith Tells Londoners To Look Up

By Paul Smith Last edited 9 months ago
Designer Paul Smith Tells Londoners To Look Up
A Paul Smith elephant sneaks up on someone in 2010. Photo: Stuart-Lee

I'm blessed with having eyes that look and see: many people have eyes that look but they don’t really see. My Dad was an amateur photographer and the founder member of the local photography club in Nottingham. From the age of 11 I was given a camera and every Thursday I used to go to camera-club meetings where people would talk about composition and perspective; I learned a lot about looking through viewfinders and the composition of shots at a very young age. So I suppose my eyes got trained to look at things in an inquisitive way.

I take pictures every day of my life. I'm a very curious person, so I tend to look up as well as at eye level. This morning I took a photograph of a building and posted it on Instagram, saying, "Look up in London; there are so many beautiful things to see. Here's the Grand Trunk Railway building." Someone replied and said, "Just by looking up you can see some of the history of the buildings and the great architecture." I always do this and bump into folks looking down and reading on their phones. There are so many amazing buildings in London that have been created over the years and unfortunately so many people spend their time looking at their smartphones and don't really see what’s there.

The old Grand Trunk Railway Building, off Trafalgar Square. Photo: sinister dexter

If you walk down Oxford Street, for instance, most of the shop fronts are dreadful and very of the moment — all advertising hoardings and Perspex. If you do the same journey but look up instead of at eye level, suddenly you see the top of Corinthian columns; you see cherubs, sculptures… If you go to the top of the offices opposite the Liberty building, you'll see that the tops of the buildings are magnificent.

Unfortunately, nowadays, property developers are building as deep as they can, as high as they can, for as low cost as they can. Previously people could build to impress and create a symbol for their company. Just look at the BBC building in Portland Place, or the amazing Nash terrace that runs up and into Regent’s Park (and that once began in Regent Street).

Broadcasting House is easier to see at night. Photo: James Beard

Looking above eye level is like discovering a secret world, and that’s one of the aspects I love most about London: its secrets. There are so many secrets that people don't know about. There’s the pet cemetery on the edge of Hyde Park, where the park meets Bayswater Road; there's a Victorian tunnel under the Thames; the whispering gallery at St Paul's… Near where the Photographers' Gallery used to be, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane, there is a little theatre — on the wall there's a hook where policemen who were doing traffic control used to hang their cloaks. It's still there, to this day.

And one of the things that are easy to forget — though it's not really a secret — is how many parks there are in London. When people from my Japanese office come over they can't believe how many parks there are, like Holland Park, with its rabbits, peacocks and squirrels — it's like being in the countryside. It's all there if you just look for it. So go on, do it: start looking up.

This is an extract from For the Love of London by Conrad Gamble (Cassell £14.99).

Last Updated 15 February 2017