Friday, March 18, 2011

Launceston, Cornwall


Colour in buildings

Working on the book of the series Turn Back Time: The High Street last year focused my mind all too clearly on the plight of the British High Street today. Not simply the fallout from the global economic crisis but also the more chronic erosion of distinctiveness and character in the wake of the rise and rise of multiple retailers, with their standardized, and often tacky, approach to shop-front design. I was reminded of this once more by something that happened the other day, when a friend generously gave me a heap of copies of the Architectural Review from the 1940s.

These journals make fascinating reading, and among the first things in them to catch my eye was a series of pieces by John Piper dealing with subject of colour in buildings. These articles are illustrated with a number of drawings by Piper, and the words and pictures alike raise some interesting issues, as relevant today as they were in 1948. Piper’s main point is that the colour of buildings, although generally ignored, makes a huge contribution to the character and distinctiveness of our surroundings, especially town centres. We would do well, says Piper, to look at and look after local architectural colour. Already, in the 1940s, it was being threatened by the standardized colours and designs of chain shop fronts.

Launceston is one of Piper’s examples. It is a town he, says, ‘part granite, part brick, part colour wash’. Granite is represented by the churches (you can see a slender spire and a tower poking up above the shop fronts in Piper’s drawing), the castle (a Norman motte and bailey design rebuilt in stone in the 13th century), and the war memorial. I think the Gothic building to the right of the war memorial (it’s now a bank and maybe was when Piper drew it too) is also granite. There are several brick shops, picked out by Piper in pink, including the turreted building on the left (a Co-op in the drawing, now a Boots), and the tall building four doors along with its two imposing round-headed windows on the upper floor (another bank). Most of the other shops have upper floors colour washed in cream, with the exception of the café next to the Co-op, which has a white art deco frontage, the most outwardly modern thing there in Piper’s time.

A recent photograph (below) shows that the brick fronts, stone bank, and art deco café sign remain. Most of the cream colour-washed walls have been redone in white or, in one case, refaced with modern brick. The older structures – churches, castle, war memorial – survive. At street level, the shop windows and signs are mostly recent. So Launceston has lost some of its mid-century character – the colour wash, the shop fronts – but is still recognisably itself. It could be still more itself if Piper’s advice about standardized shop fronts had been heeded and if some of the expanses of white were broken up by the cream wash of the 19040s. It’s remarkable that familiar complaints about clone towns and standardized high streets should have been made more than sixty years ago. If only we had listened more carefully then.

Photograph John Baker
Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike License 2.0

10 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

This is absolutely brilliant. But watch those Architectural Reviews- I'm donning my striped jumper, mask and bag marked 'swag' now.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you Peter. I will make sure I lock those magazines in the muniment room right away.

SilverTiger said...

As we go around London and other cities, I find it painful the way beautiful old buildings have often had their ground floors gutted and "modernized" to accommodate shops. The result is that you feel like photographing only the upper storeys which still show some of the original beauty.

Once the damage has been done, it is done for ever. There is no possibility of recovery.

Vinogirl said...

Thank you for this post.
I love Launceston and have many, many happy childhood memories of the town. It looks good even today to my US weary eyes (it's a good job I will be back in England next month).

Philip Wilkinson said...

SilverTiger and Vonogirl: There's truth in what both of you say. It is indeed sad that we have lost so much, but at the same there is still a lot surviving, and we do well if we notice the survivals and appreciate them, in case they too become vulnerable. That's one reason, apart from the sheer historical and artistic interest of it, why I spend most of my time on this blog trying to point out the good bits of our built environment, including many that are generally ignored.

Ron Combo said...

Poor old Lanson. I used to spend my summer holidays as a young boy on my uncle's farm just to the north of Launceston and every Sunday I would be taken to St. Stephen's for Matins. The last time I was there it seemed so tired, usual array of charity shops, cider heads and not much else, castle excepted of course. Sorry Wilko, being very negative even 'though I enjoyed your post very much.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ron: I do know what you mean. There's a lot of poverty in Cornwall, and in spite of attempts to tackle it, the place still feels the effects of the decline in fishing, industry, and tourism.

Archimandrill said...

I think the modern photo illustrates
how important the look and quality (or lack of it) of road surface is to our visual experience of urban landscape. After all it can take up a large proportion of our field of vision,

Philip Wilkinson said...

Archimandrill: How very true. What acres of grey there are across our field of vision, and how often the attempts to relieve this montony with changes of material(and rows of bollards) fail quite to come off.

Thud said...

I think I was bought a plastic copy of an FN from the woolies in launceston as a little un , perhaps vinogirl can remember. I think i'd be afraid to go back and see the old place.