Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Adlestrop, Gloucestershire

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (3)

Even bus shelters, the humblest of buildings, can have their fascination. At their best, built of local materials, they enhance the roadside scene and make relaxing places in which to sit and wait. But this one has a different story to tell. It is the bus shelter at Adlestrop, the village immortalized in a poem by Edward Thomas, who described how his train stopped unexpectedly at the tiny village station: 'What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name / And willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry...'. It's a short poem, but one of Thomas's most popular, both because of its evocative description of a summer halt in rural England and because the place seems to stand for all the villages of England (and the blackbird that sings there for all the birds, not just of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, but of all England too).

Trains to London still pass through Adlestrop, but there's no longer a station here for them to stop at. When it closed, one of the station signs was saved from the collectors of railwayana and erected here, with a tiny plaque on the bench reproducing the text of Thomas's poem – a telling reminder of how poetry and place can creatively collide.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gloucester Cathedral

Glouceser Cathedral is one of our most beautiful buildings, rightly famous for its Norman nave and for its outstanding 14th-century choir. Here is a detail from a part of the building that most visitors overlook. It is part of a window in a tiny chapel off the Lady Chapel – a chapel within a chapel, as it were. The windows in this little space are memorials to the musicians who have worked in the cathedral, men including that most English of composers, Herbet Howells. This window remembers another Herbert, Herbert Sumsion (1899–1995) who was organist and choirmaster at the cathedral for nearly 40 years of his long life. His window, by Fiona Brown, although almost abstract in style, seems to evoke the Gloucestershire scenery that inspired him and his colleagues, with the winding River Severn and the Cotswold Hills beyond. An empty stave follows the line of the hills, waiting to be filled with more music for the cathedral's choir.

Corporation Street, Birmingham

This is an engaging example of the way a detail can reveal the history of a building. The carvings form part of the front of an imposing 1890s shop front, now occupied by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, not far from Birmingham’s Law Courts. The frieze shows carpenters at work, because the shop was originally built for the furniture firm of A R Dean. Nearby are carvings of people eating, because part of the building was a vegetarian restaurant. The friezes are by Benjamin Creswick, who started out as a knife-grinder in Sheffield before his talent as a sculptor was discovered by Ruskin. There are other examples of his work in Birmingham, including carvings on the Junior School at Bournville.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Edgar Street, Worcester

The 18th century produced some of England's most delightful small houses – buildings that are compact, light, and well proportioned. These Georgian houses in Worcester's Edgar Street, a stone’s throw from the cathedral precinct, are typical. They are arranged in a terrace, but it’s not a grand terrace in the style of Bath – here, each house was built individually, to specific requirements, resulting in lots of variety unified by sash windows, classical door cases, and delicious red brick.

This house stands out not just because it is taller and broader than its neighbours, but because of the large window on the upper floor. This type of three-light opening, with a semi-circular top to the central light, is called a Venetian window, and it was an especially popular feature in the first half of the 18th century. In this house, it breaks the architectural rules of the time. The usual pattern was for the top storey to be a ‘low-status’ floor, housing servants’ rooms lit with small windows – like the ones in the house to the left. The big Venetian window makes this little house look grand all the way to the top.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Marlborough House, London

Most people striding along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace don’t look over the wall about half way up on the right, but they should. Just visible above the stonework is Marlborough House, one of Britain’s royal palaces. This important but little known English building was originally the town house of the Duke of Marlborough, the general who won the Battle of Blenheim and was rewarded by Queen Anne with the stupendous Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Marlborough’s Duchess, the queen’s bosom-friend Sarah, fell out with John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim, and chose Christopher Wren to design their town house. It was finished in 1711 in Wren’s trademark ‘brick-with-stone-trimmings’ style, though the architect’s son, also called Christopher, may have been mainly responsible for the drawings.

Marlborough House became a royal palace in 1817. It was the home of Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, and later of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). In the 1960s, it became home to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation. The building is only occasionally open to the public, when the elaborate wall paintings depicting Marlborough’s victories can be seen on the stairs and in the saloon. For the rest of the time, we must be content with the view over the garden wall, while officials diligently discuss burning issues such as the Kiribati question inside.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

West Kirby, Wirral

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (2)

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window through thy grace.

From George Herbert's The Windows, in a vestry window at West Kirby, Wirral, Cheshire

Holy Trinity, Teigh, Rutland

A tiny gem in a Rutland village. In 1782, Robert Sherard, fourth Earl of Harborough, commissioned an architect to rebuild the church at Teigh. The result was rather unusual. The medieval tower was kept and extended. It acts as an entrance hall into the main body of the church, which was completely remodelled. Unusually, the pews, instead of facing the altar at the east end in the normal way, are placed facing each other along the length of the church, like cathedral choir stalls or the seats in a college chapel. Parishioners sitting in these pews look one way to the high altar, the other to the west end, where a pulpit and a pair of reading desks are arranged around the entrance door. The vicar climbs a narrow stair from the tower to appear as if by magic in the pulpit above the entrance door. The charming arrangement is completed with a painting of a window, which frames the pulpit.

Who was the architect of this unusual and surprising little building? It was probably George Richardson, who had designed two other churches for the earl. Richardson didn’t design many buildings, but was well known in the late-18th century because he published a number of popular architectural books, generally illustrated with his own engravings. Most of these were pattern books, volumes with titles like A Book Of Ornamental Ceilings or Original Designs For Country Seats Or Villas, containing designs which readers or their builders could use or adapt for their own homes. Richardson also worked for years as a draftsman and designer in the office of the famous Adam brothers. The delicacy of the design – with the domestic-looking plaster ceiling, the little pulpit and tiny reading desks, and the trompe l’oeuil foliage in the painted window – would have certainly been within the scope of someone who worked for Robert Adam and his brothers.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mundesley, Norfolk

ARCHITEXTS: Things written on buildings (1)

Good friends that to this seat repair
Rest and be thankful but forbear
With sordid scraps the ground to strew.

Shelter, Mundesley, Norfolk (and elsewhere?)

Memorial Hall, Manchester

All eyes in Manchester’s Albert Square turn towards the stupendous Town Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse and one of the biggest and most magnificent of all 19th-century Gothic structures. The other buildings on the square are apt to get overlooked as a result, so here’s one worth a lingering glance that was completed in 1866, just before work began on the Town Hall. It’s the Memorial Hall, on the corner of Albert Square and Southmill Street.

The hall was built by Manchester’s dissenters in memory of the Nonconformist clergy who were forced from their livings by the 1662 Act of Uniformity. It was designed by Thomas Worthington, an architect who was responsible for several of the city’s major buildings, as well as Manchester’s Albert Memorial. The Memorial Hall looks like a Venetian palazzo untied from its moorings and floated to Manchester, and these rectangular traceried windows on the upper floor are a typically Venetian feature. Venice and its buildings were in the air at this period. Worthington had been to Italy a few years previously, but the main influence was the writings and drawings of John Ruskin, whose three-volume work The Stones of Venice came out in 1851–3. Ruskin was especially keen on using different coloured materials and Worthington responded with a lively mixture of brick and stone.

Manchester soon had a number of buildings in this Venetian style – Worthington’s Crown Court is another one that has survived. Perhaps it’s an especially appropriate style because Manchester, like Venice in its heyday, was a major mercantile city, humming with commercial activity. The stripey polychrome masonry of buildings like the Memorial Hall seems to reflect the busy confidence of this great and successful city.