Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Suffolk Place, London
A cunning plan
I often walk down side streets to avoid the bustle of the more well trodden thoroughfares. Suffolk Place was just such a cut-through, between Regent Street and the National Gallery, and I was glad I took it, because what I found was a rare architectural survivor of the Regent Street development – the grand scheme created by John Nash in the 1820s. This particular row of houses was built as a speculative development by Nash and has the sort of classical proportions and Greek Revival details that would have attracted buyers or tenants – particularly those generous full-height first-floor windows set off by shallow arched recesses, suggesting luxurious and airy drawing rooms inside.
The iron balcony rail with its elegant design made up of long rectangles and ‘wheels’ is another attractive touch. It’s very much of its period, and very much what we think of when we think of Regency architecture. The balconies are supported on Greek Doric three-quarter columns, which frame the ground-floor windows and give the lower part of the building a sense of solidity. I did wonder whether these columns were cast-iron, like those on Nash’s similar frontages on The Mall, but I could not get close enough to give them an investigative tap or kick.*
Whatever they’re made of, though, these columns are not quite as robust as they seem. When you look more closely, the building has a basement with, as is usual in houses of this period, a void (known as the area) in front of it, so that the basement can have windows. Pedestrians are prevented from falling into the area by the railings, but from the pavement one can look down into it, and it is very narrow.
The columns, if they continued down to basement level would obstruct the area too much, so the architect has placed them on brackets, leaving the area easier to access. It’s not quite proper to support such columns on brackets. According to the conventions of Classical architecture, the columns of the ground floor should stand on bases or, if they’re Doric, on the ground itself.† But the arrangement works, combining structural support, convenience, and elegance – almost the triad of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’, which the Roman writer Vitruvius said were the three essential qualities of a building. Clever Nash.
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* I posted about Nash’s iron Doric columns, and the occasional need to kick a building, here.
† There are other ways of solving the problem of the attached ground-floor column above a basement. In Bath, for example, the attached columns of The Circus rest on a stone ledge, created by setting the lower wall forward slightly. The result is more solidity, but the design takes up more space.