Orbit House and Thomas Kilpper

One of the charms of living in Rowland Hill House, prior to 2002 was that as you stood in your kitchen washing up you could gaze on St Paul’s. The building opposite our block was Orbit House, a fairly anonymous structure which housed the India House records, part of the British Library collection. (And as we later found out a Ministry of Defence secret printing press.)

The site of current Travelodge Hotel and view to Tate Modern and the City, now obscured. NSGCA archives
The site of current Travelodge Hotel and view to Tate Modern and the City, now obscured. NSGCA archives

All that changed when the building was scheduled for demolition and the overweening Palestra building was built. We lived through over three years of demolition and construction within a few yards of our homes. Now we just gaze at TfL office workers as we wash up.

Prior to its demolition, an artist called Thomas Kilpper moved into Orbit House and constructed an enormous art work called The Ring: Fight On 1999–2000

Some of the locals went to see it – our first visit inside Orbit House. Kilpper had carved a giant boxing ring and around it portraits of leaders such as Ho Chi Minh – the Vietnamese war had profoundly affected the artist. As the Tate catalogue reads:

This is a rectangular section of carved mahogany parquet floor comprising 112 pieces arranged in a grid of seven rows and sixteen columns. It is part of a site-specific work created in an office block on Blackfriars Road, in the London borough of Southwark, known as Orbit House. Kilpper carved a giant woodcut into the tenth floor the building covering an area of approximately 400 square metres. The woodcut depicted a boxing ring surrounded by an audience of some eighty characters whose names were cut around the edge of the image. The artist derived the portraits from photographs and etchings which he made into slides and projected onto the floor. He used chisels and a chainsaw on the parquet to carve the relief. He then made a succession of prints on fabric, paper and sections of UV polythene film. … Daylight from the surrounding windows filtered through their semi-translucent supports. Visitors would walk on the floor while looking at the prints. A huge banner was printed from the entire surface and hung on the outside of the building for the duration of the installation.

The subjects of the woodcut are characters and events related in spirit or in fact to the location and to the artist. Kilpper selected Orbit House because of the fascinating history of the building and its site and their connections with his own personal history and motivations. In 1780, the Wesleyan Surrey Chapel was erected on the site by the charismatic preacher and orator, Reverend Rowland Hill (1744-1833). It served as a chapel until 1890, when the octagonal building was taken over by first an engineering company and then a furniture warehouse. Between 1907 and 1909 it functioned as one of London’s earliest cinemas. In 1910 it became a popular boxing venue, The Ring, until 1940, when it was destroyed by a direct hit in a Luftwaffe raid aimed at the nearby rail link to Dover. During its time as The Ring, the building doubled as a soup kitchen for the poor, a music hall and a theatre hosting productions of Shakespeare by The Old Vic Company. It was also used by Alfred Hitchcock as the set for his silent movie The Ring in 1927. Orbit House was commissioned in the 1960s by Labour minister Denis Healey to house the secret printing office for the Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the British Library’s Oriental Collections Department shared the building to store part of its collection, including the oldest wood-printed book The Diamond Sutra (868 AD) discovered in a cave in western China by the explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) in 1907. Kilpper has commented:

My work is a sort of reinstallation of the Blackfriars Boxing Ring in the British Library. I picture the very special audience of a special boxing fight. About eighty people are packed together to join this spectacle, some are well known, others not … From my perspective all are connected to the particular site, to the Southwark area, or to me.

A YouTube video on the installation (in Spanish)

Below photos of the demolition of Orbit House in 2002-2003:

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