Thursday, October 30, 2008

Market Bosworth, Leicsetershire

Regular readers of this blog will have realized by now that it’s mostly about the outsides of buildings. There’s a reason for this, which is that I want to share with you the buildings that I see on my journeys around bits of our country, many of which are glimpsed en passant as I travel around. I’m constantly impressed by the richness of our built environment – by the history, design, construction, decoration, evolution, and use of our buildings – and by the way these things can be appreciated all the time, as we go about our business. So, more days than not, I find myself peering down alleys, going around the backs of houses to see what they look like from behind, taking diversions up promising lanes, and craning my neck over garden walls.

This picture is the view over a garden wall in Market Bosworth. It shows a brick-built tower, and I presume it’s the belvedere that was put up in the garden of Bosworth Hall. This house was originally built in the late-17th century but was substantially altered twice during the 19th century. The belvedere was probably put up when the place was made over in the 1880s. A belvedere is rather like a gazebo, but in tower form. In other words it’s a tall building from which one may admire the view, usually the view of a garden or an estate. Perhaps when I took this picture there was someone inside looking out at the strange fellow trying to get a better view of its Italian-style brickwork and stone dressings.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

South Bank, London

It would take a Piranesi to do justice to the shell of London’s Battersea Power Station, vast, roofless, and decaying by the side of Chelsea Bridge. I was reminded of it recently as I crossed the bridge in a train from Victoria on my way to a meeting, and I photographed it hastily through the dirty window of the carriage. Hence this picture, as far a cry from Piranesi as possible. Perhaps this sorry gap between ideal and actuality is appropriate in this case. Battersea Power Station, which came into service in 1939 on the back of the establishment of the National Grid, is said to be Britain’s biggest brick building. It’s a towering masterpiece designed by J Theo Halliday with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (the latter also architect of Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern, and the red telephone box) and represented something of a great hope for power generation in the mid-20th century – a hope fulfilled until 1983, when the enormous power plant was decommissioned. Scott was responsible for many of the most creative design touches, and the building set the style for power stations – and sundry other kinds of industrial building – for a couple of decades.

Since then the glory – the citadel-like walls, the Art Deco interior, the four great chimneys – has been in decline. The roof has gone (taken off to remove some of the building’s contents) and much of the structure is propped up with scaffolding. Meanwhile, several ambitious plans for the place (a theme park, a mixed development) have come and gone. Another scheme, featuring a large and controversial ‘eco-dome’, is being worked up and presented to the planners. Further controversy surrounds the state of the chimneys, with different authorities agreeing that they are in need of work, but disagreeing about whether this should involve a rebuild or a repair.

Much as I like the gaunt, desolate quality of the power station as it is now, I know that this structure needs looking after if its condition is not to get seriously worse. So whatever in the way of renovation, restoration, or conservation is needed, I hope it’s done soon, before the whole lot collapses on to the surrounding wasteland, leaving still more work for the modern-day Piranesi to come.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The Cheltenham Festival of Literature is in full swing at the moment, so I thought it might be interesting, in between listening to what the writers have to tell us, to listen to what some of Cheltenham’s buildings have to say. I could, of course, go on at length about the town’s Regency architecture – and very beautiful its stuccoed terraces look between the autumn trees – but everyone does that, so I’ve plumped for a different approach: to look at one minor street in the town centre and see what catches my eye.

So here are some buildings in Winchcombe Street, which contains a few Regency houses, some modern sheltered flats, some shops, and several hairdressing salons. One of the latter occupies the former premises of W. W. Dowty’s Photographic Studio. They’ve kept the original sign on the fascia, and there’s a door with a tall oval pane and glazed spandrels with bevelled glass. I’m not sure of the date: perhaps some time between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the second. At the other end of the street, another hairdresser occupies a shop that must have once housed purveyors of fish and game, narrow panels of Edwardian or Victorian tiles illustrating the goods within. Tiles like these are a telling reminder that the town once had several fishmongers, whereas now people have to go to a supermarket to find someone who will mong them some fish. Meanwhile, these tiles remain, a source of historical evidence and visual pleasure.As is Cheltenham’s former Odeon cinema. This finally closed when another chain opened a multiplex in the town. It’s an undistinguished Art Deco building, with the redeeming feature of these two naked women tangled in celluloid high up on the façade. Most passers-by see only the boarded-up entrance of the cinema, steadily becoming more and more of a blot on the townscape. I’d lay odds that most of them never notice the silver ladies, two of several reminders of the unregarded past of a quiet Cheltenham side-street.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Great Witley, Worcestershire

I enjoy it when my explorations of buildings coincide with things I’m doing in other parts of my life. At the moment, I’m writing a book about mythology, so I was pleased to visit Witley Court in Worcestershire, with its fountain based on the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda.

Perseus has recently killed the Gorgon Medusa, and is flying through the sky on the winged horse Pegasus when he sees Andromeda chained to a rock. She’s been left there because her mother, Cassiopeia, has insulted some sea nymphs by saying that she, Cassiopeia, is more beautiful than them. Poseidon, god of the sea, is angered by this insult, so sends a sea monster to ravage the coast of Ethiopia, where Cassiopiea lives, and the beast will only be satisfied with the flesh of Andromeda. In the fountain sculpture, Perseus is about to dispatch the monster, before carrying off Andromeda and marrying her.

Witley Court itself is a fascinating building, now an evocative ruin. It began as a Jacobean country house, but was massively extended in both the Regency and Victorian periods to become one of the largest houses in the country. It was the famous scene of lavish house parties hosted by the owners, the Earl of Dudley, until the house was gutted in a fire in 1937. The ruin has now been stabilized and, courtesy of English Heritage, one can walk through the empty shells of rooms open to the skies, admiring fragments of wall decoration (a lot of it in carton pierre, which is rather like papier mâché) and meditating on charred timbers and lost glory.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Uffington, Oxfordshire*

Chalk, pale and friable, seems an unlikely building material, but it’s the local stone on the Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, and Dorset Downs, on the Chilterns, on the North and South Downs, in parts of Cambridgeshire, and on the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. In many of these areas you can find traditional buildings constructed of blocks of chalk. Builders liked this material because it is easy to shape, but they had to use it wisely if it was to last.

The village of Uffington is famous for the chalk figure of a horse, cut into the turf of the nearby hillside and best viewed from the air. The place has a number of old chalk buildings too, notably this schoolhouse, which dates form the Jacobean period as wears its 400 years well. Like many chalk buildings it stands on a base of stronger stone. It’s interesting to contrast the quality of the masonry of the upper and lower portions of the building. The tougher stone is rougher of surface and laid in irregular, rubble-like pieces. The chalk has been cut into larger blocks laid in regular courses, neatly jointed. This soft stone was much easier to cut finely and joint precisely, and masons no doubt liked the neat finish they could achieve with it.

A cottage in the same village shows the traditional roof for a chalk building – thick thatch with a generous overhang. The stone base and thatch covering give the house, in the old phrase, ‘a good hat and a good pair of shoes’, so relatively little rain gets to the chalk in between. Well constructed and cared for, this house has lasted for centuries in spite of the soft and yielding material of its walls.

*Postscript: To me, Uffington is still in Berkshire, and it is to be found in the Berkshire volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England series, which still adheres to the old county boundaries, praise be.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Map That Came to Life

On one of our recent visits to a local secondhand bookshop, my wife came across a copy of The Map That Came to Life, a book she read avidly when she was a child. Written by H. J. Deverson and illustrated by Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life was first published in 1948, and was much reprinted. It describes how two children (and a dog) go on a walk across the English countryside with an Ordnance Survey map to guide them. Much of what they find on the way is marked on the map, whose symbols for roads, railways, telephone boxes, tumuli, and so on and on, turn to reality along the way. The reader, meanwhile, learns how to read a map, and how maps have much to teach us about the world around us.

In some ways the world of The Map That Came to Life does not exist today. These two children set off on a walk across unfamiliar country with only their map for guidance. They talk to strangers – who give them fascinating nuggets of local information rather than luring them into dark corners. Their dog spends most of its time off its lead, rivers and lakes hold no terrors for them, and, of course, this being 1948, they are not much troubled by traffic.

It’s different in other ways too. The villages through which they pass are well provided with the kind of facilities – shops, pubs, Post Offices, a forge – that we mourn the passing of today. Interesting antiquities, such as a ruined abbey and a castle, abound, giving me an excuse for including the book in a blog about English Buildings. If truth be told, all these ancient and modern details are probably rather thick on the ground even for 1948, because their purpose after all is to show us as many map symbols coming to life as can be reasonably encompassed in 32 pages.And not just the symbols, but what’s behind them. Joanna and John learn about ruined buildings, tumuli, tithe barns, and ancient churches. They listen to bird song and discover what kinds of trees grow beside rivers. They find out the relationship between contours and man-made features like railway lines and viaducts. And by helping to alert some farm workers to a fire in a wood, they learn about one potential danger in the countryside.

Sadly, this book would not be published today. For one thing, it’s very specifically British in its content, and publishers nowadays cry out for books that will work in an international market. For another, it’s not an outwardly exciting book – its information about the past contains no pillaging Vikings, no bombs, none of the opportunistic stink and goo of ‘Horrible History’. Yet in its quiet way it conveys a different kind of excitement – the excitement of finding things out, of being inquisitive about the environment, of thinking about what you see. And that is one of the best kinds of excitement there is.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire

Hidden among the green hills and evergreens of rural Herefordshire is All Saints, Brockhampton, the perfect Arts and Crafts church, built in the first years of the 20th century to the designs of W. R. Lethaby, the architect about whom I enthused in the previous post. Although it’s constructed mainly of local sandstone and looks perfectly at home in its quiet corner of Herefordshire, this church is quite unlike anything else you’ll find locally – or anywhere else.

It’s outstanding in several ways – the resourceful use of materials (timber and thatch as well as stone), the pleasing balance of masses (the two towers, the porch and transept), the careful fit of building and site. More than this, there’s an artful combination of simplicity (the pointed entrance arch, the rectangular window openings on either side of it, the plain thatch of the nave roof) with decoration (the more ornate windows of the tower, transept and chancel, and the decorated chancel thatch). The decoration, in other words, emphasizes the eastern end of the church, the most sacred space where the high altar is placed. Inside, once we’ve got over the pleasant surprise of the sweeping vault (concrete with stone ribs), there’s a similar effect. Looking down the simple nave, one sees the choir beyond, flooded with light from the tower windows above, and beyond it the chancel. This is a holy of holies, but it’s made special not by being screened off from the rest of the building, as a medieval church would have been, but by being beautifully furnished with tapestries, altar hangings, and carvings. It’s lit by a lovely three-light window with a charming Star-of-David-shaped opening above.

The story of the Arts and Crafts movement is a two-fold one. On the one hand there’s the traditionalism – the respect for craftsmanship, the interest in ancient forms, the love of the imagery of nature. On the other hand, there’s the sense in which Lethaby and his peers were pioneering modern design, with bold forms like this church’s vault, and touches like the light fittings that hang from the ceiling. These two sides of the Arts and Crafts movement sometimes seem at odds, but at Brockhampton they fit beautifully together to make a building that’s both fascinating and moving.Detail, font, Brockhampton

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Colmore Row, Birmingham

William Richard Lethaby is one of my architectural heroes. Born in Devon in 1857 he served his apprenticeship locally before working for Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most versatile and influential late-Victorian architects. Through Shaw, he met William Morris and joined Morris’s circle, becoming an early member of the SPAB. He was committed to craftsmanship, the tactful treatment of old buildings, and to old-fashioned quality – what he called ‘Good honest building’. As a result he had a significant influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.

He had another side, yearning for a quality of efficiency in building that has led some to see him as a precursor of Le Corbusier and the modernists. ‘A house should be as efficient as a bicycle,’ he said. These two sides of Lethaby come together in interesting ways. His stunning church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire (subject of a post on this blog soon, I hope) has stone walls, thatched roofs – and a concrete vault. And the building illustrated here, one of Birmingham’s finest, is a happy marriage of craftsmanlike detail and rather modern lines. It was built as the offices of the Eagle Insurance Company, though nowadays, in keeping with these sybaritic times, it’s a coffee house. I love the big window, making a bold statement on Colmore Row, and the decorated parapet, which still has its emblematic eagle. The door on the left is simply stunning, a piece of beaten metalwork under a curving stone canopy that must have given Lethaby particular pleasure.
So why isn’t England full of landmark buildings by this fine architect? The rigours of life on site don’t seem to have suited Lethaby that well. Bad experiences managing the construction of the church at Brockhampton caused him major problems – he acted as master builder as well as architect and when things did not go smoothly Lethaby suffered both financial loss and severe mental strain. It was his last building.

But Lethaby had at least three other creative lives. At Westminster Abbey, where he was surveyor to the fabric, he had the chance to put into practice his ideas about restoration. He was also a pioneering educator, founder of the Central School of Art and Design in London and, from 1901, first Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. Third, he worked in architectural history and theory, publishing on medieval art, on the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (to get inside of which he apparently had to disguise himself as a woman, the building being closed to western men at the time), and on Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth. That rather odd title perhaps sums up his mixture of interests: like the really great modern artists, he could be very old and very new at once. Hats off to William Richard Lethaby.