Thursday, October 10, 2013

Oxford


Back again

More than five and a half years ago (sometimes I find it hard to believe I have been blogging for so long) I wrote a post about this building in Oxford, and accompanied my thoughts with a rather lacklustre photograph, the best I could muster at the time. Aware that my photograph did not do the building justice, every time I've been in central Oxford since then I've had a look to see if the facade could be viewed with sunlight on its stone and without cars parked in front. As you can see, I have almost managed it – just the rear end of one car prevented me from getting the whole facade in the frame, and even with this intrusion, the result seemed closer to the mark.

So here it is: Vanbrugh House, a building of the early-18th century by an unknown designer that has more than a hint of the eponymous architect (or his brilliant assistant Hawksmoor) about it: those very plain window surrounds, with just the keystones emphasized on the upper floors and aprons in the middle floor; the exaggerated cornice and canopy; the pair of giant pilasters rising all the way up the building; the narrow space between the pilasters; the very plain doorway. The pilasters are especially odd: they seem to have been parked in front of the rest of the frontage, filling the gaps between the evenly spaced windows like an abandoned piece of stage scenery. The decoration towards the tops of the pilasters, beneath the protruding canopy, is also rather like scenery – a couple of those three-banded triglyphs to provide the idea of an entablature, but not the thing itself.

Like all scenery, it needs good lights. On a dark day, it can look brooding and oppressive. But with some sunshine it comes to life – although there's no getting away from the sheer weight of all that stone. Whoever designed it, he deserves Abel Evans's epitaph for Vanbrugh himself: 'Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he Laid many heavy loads on thee!'

7 comments:

Hels said...

Good stuff. I wonder if you were looking at this building without knowing where it was, would you ever pick it as being Oxford? I am not sure if the building material seems too modern. Or if the design (exaggerated cornice and canopy, pilasters etc) are not often found in Oxford.

But then a photo of the street puts Vanbrugh House right back into context :)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/browniebear/5378158049/in/photostream/

Philip Wilkinson said...

Helen: Thanks for the link. The building is also a stone's throw from the Oxford Union, so is in the heart of Oxford, in a way. It's not a very Oxford sort of building, but there are examples of similar things in Oxfordshire, perhaps showing the influence of Vanbrugh's Blenheim, which is not so far away.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I suppose it's meant to be Doric - an order associated with strength and manliness (Serlio suggested it for churches dedicated to militant male saints - according to J S Curl, Classical Architecture). My wife commented that it's certainly not a feminine building. What virile message is it trying to convey? What was its original use? Despite its rather odd features, surely it is speaking the language of Classical architecture - just as Blenheim Palace portrays the battle, maybe. J S Curl said the Classical language was not prescriptive and limited, but could allow a lot of individual expression within the rules - and does!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I'm sure it is meant to suggest Doric, the association of which with masculinity goes back to Vitruvius. As for more specific meanings, who knows. I believe the building was originally a house.

Chloe Marie said...

I have just stumbled upon this blog whilst researching the history of Manchester's Palace Hotel - what a find!! (: (:

(Love Oxford too!)

Stephen Barker said...

It does make you wonder how English Architecture would have developed if the Palladian Revival had not put a stop to the English Baroque of Vanburgh and Hawksmoor.

stag said...

It looks a bit like some of the Knights buildings on Republic Street in Malta. Those big blank pillars. Those were buildings made by men for men. (their words, not mine) Well, they WERE monks after all.