Friday, March 28, 2008

Former City Electricity Works, Worcester

From majestic cooling towers to backstreet substations, England’s electricity industry has produced many different kinds of buildings, mostly ignored by architectural historians and passers-by, sometimes condemned as eyesores. This one is far from an eyesore. It’s the former City Electricity Works outside Worcester, sitting back from the road southwest of the city across a meadow by the River Teme. Apart from temporary structures, this delightful building, now converted to apartments, was the first hydroelectric station built by the authorities of an English city. Worcester’s city engineer, S. G. Purchas, did the designs, fitting three big turbines across the river. The red and yellow brick, arched windows, and water-meadow setting ensure that this fine building of the 1890s looked good then and now, generating admiration as well as 400 kilowatts.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The weakest go to the wall

There are rumblings in the Church of England. Up and down the country, pews are being removed from parish churches and not everyone likes it. Press reports that stress the new uses to which pewless churches can be put - yoga classes and the like - make yet more hackles rise. We know the C of E is a broad church, but yoga classes? Really? There's the stuff of comedy and soap opera here, and Ambridge is already debating the question. But, as so often, the soaps are airing a real issue.

In many places, the church is used by a handful of people for an hour a week, and such a group finds it hard to raise the money to maintain an often old and listed building. Meanwhile, there's frequently the need for a comunity building to house all kinds of activities from drama groups to, yes, yoga classes. Not all villages have a village hall and removing pews from a village church frees up space for such activities. To many, opening up the church in this way is a chance to bring the building back to the wider population - and to give the church the chance to raise money for costly repairs too. To others, such a move seems like heresy.

Well, it's a bit unfair to condemn it when, for hundreds of years, churches have been used for so much more than services. In the Middle Ages, church buildings were used, amongst other things, for court sittings, village meetings, charitable handouts, and sealing business deals. Later they became in addition repositories of records or schoolrooms, or provided garaging space for the local fire engine. Most of these things took place in the nave, the main body of the church, while the chancel, the domain of the clergy, was reserved as the truly sacred space.

Many of these secular uses of church buildings required flexible space, and early medieval churches had little in the way of seating - mainly seats for the infirm near the walls (hence the expression 'The weakest go to the wall'). In the later Middle Ages, many churches fitted pews (though not always throughout the church) and pews were also the staple of church fitting in the Georgian period. The Victorians too were great pew-builders, and many of the pews now slated for removal are Victorian. By the Victorian period something else had happened too. People were thinking of the whole church as an exclusive 'sacred space', devoted entirely to God. Business dealings, fire engines, and the like just weren't appropriate here.

And that's still one reason why, for many, pews are sacrosanct. They define sacred space - as well as being old, traditional, what people are used to, and better looking than the insitutional chairs that so often arrive as pew replacements.

In my opinion, there's often a case for removing pews (though I'd keep historical fittings like medieval benches and Georgian box-pews) from at least part of many church buildings. A clear, uncluttered pewless area can enhance the spatial dignity and grandeur of a church interior as well as making it usable for all kinds of activities and so bringing more people in. But if you do scrap the pews, for goodness sake find some decent chairs for parishioners to sit on. Then open the building up to the groups that need the space, introduce people to the church, and get them raising cash for the roof repairs. Then the building itself won't go weakly to the wall.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Over at the excellent Unmitigated England a recent post lamented the fashion for putting up ugly signs in the countryside, thereby messing up the scenery they’re designed to protect and confusing passers-by whose Health and Safety they’re meant to promote. Passing through Ross on Wye the other day I was reminded of an antidote to the visual illiteracy of such notices – this collection of old enamel advertising signs. Not only do these fine signs enliven a rather ordinary brick wall, they also bring to mind an evocative selection of mostly past brands, from Fry’s chocolate to Carreras Black Cat cigarettes, all instantly readable, immediately recognisable, and winningly memorable.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Baker Street, London

There’s a whole world on the rooftops of London – roof gardens, modernist balconies with ship-like rails, groves of trees launching attacks on penthouse ceilings with their roots. Look up in London and you see visual treats like this 1930s “arch in the sky” atop the former Abbey National building in Baker Street. This building is the place that acted as the mailbox for all the correspondence people sent to the fictional address (221B Baker Street) of Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. But I like it for its tower, which makes me smile whenever I pass by. Its stone shines in the sun, enlivening bright, cold winter days like the one on which I craned my neck to take this photograph. I don’t know much about it, but I think this piece of aerial triumphalism must have been designed by someone who’d spent a lot of time admiring the buildings of Edwin Lutyens. I seem to remember the building below was gutted and renovated in 2005, and the arch had to be held up with scaffolding. I think the effort was well worthwhile.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Radisson Edwardian Manchester Hotel, Manchester

Before I move on to something completely different, here's the third of my trio of Manchester vignettes. It's from the building that I still think of as the Free Trade Hall. The 1853 building where the Hallé Orchestra used to play is now the incongruously named Radisson Edwardian Manchester Hotel, but the air-conditioned rooms with their Scandinavian slate bathrooms do not concern us here. The Italianate palazzo-style exterior has, mercifully, been preserved – a memorial not only to Manchester’s role in the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws but also to the design flair of architect Edward Walters and the art of sculptor John Thomas. Foliage, lovingly undercut, is the keynote of many of Thomas’s carvings, and here the leaves surround a cartouche with a relief of a medieval market hall, with an upper room above an open arcaded ground floor and a cross beneath one of the arches. The image nicely suggests that, although Manchester’s wealth as a city was in the 19th century a relatively recent development, the local concern for equitable, honest trading goes back much further.

Palace Hotel, Manchester

This depiction of a building on a building is a far cry from my previous Manchester vignette. We’re now well and truly in the Victorian era with a combination of tough, very red bricks and dark red terracotta courtesy of the ubiquitous Doulton’s. So what’s the castle all about? Well, this building, now the Palace Hotel, was originally the offices of Refuge Assurance. It was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in the early 1890s, in the heyday of terracotta and brick (and indeed of Doulton’s). Waterhouse’s son, Paul, did the adjacent extension. You can’t get a much better symbol of safety and refuge than the double towers of a medieval castle gatehouse. So that’s what we have on this corner – the full castle Monty, with cross-shaped arrow slits, battlements, and overhanging gallery with holes (machicolations, in castle-parlance), to allow the imagined retainers to pour boiling oil on attackers below. One hopes the insurance business was rather more laid back, but we get the idea. High security, Victorian style.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

City Art Gallery, Manchester

There’s so much for the buildings buff to enjoy in Manchester – the city's industrial and commercial history can be traced in its bricks and stones; great architectural statements like the famous Town Hall speak of justifiable civic pride; modern regeneration unravels here, there, and everywhere… But walking around Manchester I’ve also been struck by small things, like bits of decoration, that are easy to miss in the rush. Again, many of these are bits of Mancunian myth-making, like the industrious bees and images of cotton on the Town Hall that tell us what made the city rich. So I’ve picked a few different ones. And what better for the English Buildings blog than images of buildings?

This one is a panel from the City Art gallery. It’s one of a series of allegorical figures carved by John Hemming Junior to relieve the stone walls of this very serious Classical building designed by Barry and erected in the 1830s. Presumably this is Architecture, in front of a Greek temple, appropriately on this building in the Greek Revival style. A charming personification to adorn a temple of the arts.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Staunton and Snig's End, Gloucestershire

Chartism was a movement for social change that began in 1838 as a working-class reaction to the 1832 Reform Act, which had given the vote to many members of the middle classes but excluded the lower social orders. The movement began with a document called the People’s Charter, which demanded half a dozen political and electoral reforms (universal suffrage for men over 21, equal-sized constituencies, voting by secret ballot, an end to the property qualification for MPs, pay for MPs, and annual parliamentary elections). Two waves of protests and riots followed in the Chartists’ cause, culminating in 1848 in a mass meeting on London’s Kennington Common, but after 1848 the movement lost momentum. Even so, all but the last of its aims eventually became law, with a much-increased franchise in 1867 and the secret ballot introduced in 1872.

So what does all this have to do with English buildings? Another issue espoused by the Chartists was the lower classes’ access to land. Chartists believed that one solution to the well-being of working people was to give them access to land that they could cultivate. The Chartist Co-operative Land Company was formed and five estates of bungalows were built, each dwelling set in a 2- to 4-acre plot, and allocated to applicants chosen by lot. One such development was at Staunton. Although the land company was short-lived and the bungalows were sold off, many of the original buildings survive, and their design – two wings on either side of a central, gabled section, is unmistakeable. The kitchen was in the middle, with the bedroom and sitting room on either side. The photograph below shows one of the bungalows looking rather like it must have done when built – many of the others have been rendered and some have been extended. Nearby was another Chartist settlement, Snig’s End, where the focal point was an impressive school, above, with classrooms on either side of a gabled centre section. It’s a pub now, but its brickwork still glows.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Castle Frome, Herefordshire

When not admiring Herefordshire’s black and white houses (see previous post), I’m diving into its churches to look for carvings. Herefordshire has its very own school of Norman sculpture, active between, say 1140 and 1190. This school produced work of outstanding vigour – figures, Biblical scenes, dragons, and beak-heads abound in that wonderful mixture of Christian and pagan that the Normans loved. The figures display deeply folded drapery, strong gestures, and, sometimes, unusual poses. This intense style of carving is not quite like anything else in Britain, but scholars have traced antecedents in various places on mainland Europe from western France and northern Italy to Compostela, where it is known that at least one local lord went on pilgrimage.

The font in the small, isolated church at Castle Frome is one of the masterpieces of this Herefordshire school. It depicts the symbols of the four Evangelists and, centre stage as it were, the Baptism of Christ. Christ has entered a rippling, fish-rich pool, St John stands by, the hand of God and dove of the Holy Spirit appear above. The scene takes one back, not just to the first century, but also to the Norman period, when a priest in a remote country parish about to baptize a baby could explain to his illiterate congregation their links to an event in the far western Mediterranean some 1200 years ago.

Weobley, Herefordshire

With one city, no big towns, a small, mainly rural population, and a dearth of motorways and heavy industry, Herefordshire is one of the quietest of all English counties, little known to outsiders. Yet it has a beautiful rural landscape – of rolling hills, sheep fields, cider apple orchards, views towards the uplands of Wales. As in much of rural England, buildings add to and enhance this character. Herefordshire has some good building stone – the pinkish sandstone that Hereford Cathedral is built of, for example, and limestones in a range of colours from yellow to chocolate. But in many areas the dominant local building style is “black and white” – a timber frame infilled with wattle and daub.

There are whole villages of black and white houses in Herefordshire, and one of the finest is Weobley, between Hereford and Kington. The photograph shows the Red Lion, bits of which date back to the 14th century. This part of the building has a timber-framed upper floor on top of a sandstone ground floor. The upper floor has a big overhang, a feature called a jetty which gives a little more floor space upstairs. More importantly, a jetty was a sign of status – to the medieval mind it said, ‘I can afford the extra wood and the skilled carpenter that this feature demands.’ The arch-shaped timber braces either side of the window on the end wall are high-status features too. The plaster red lion is a much later addition, but affords a touch of charm and colour. Here’s to it.