Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Keying in

While admiring the brick-built houses in Bridgwater, I noticed this interesting bit of brickwork. It’s on one side of King Square, a development that was meant to form the climax of Lord Chandos’s work in the town, but was never finished. Many of the houses here are rather plainer than those in Castle Street, without the segmental-arched windows or fancy pilasters to the doorways, and quite a bit later. But they’re still admirable. What my picture shows are protruding corner bricks at the end of a facade, left like this so that when building work was resumed, the builders could ‘key in’ their courses to those that were already there.

People may think this all looks a bit untidy now, and indeed someone has grown some creeper up part of the corner to soften the effect. However, I think it’s interesting evidence of a bit of history. Lord Chandos sold off the redevelopment area of the town in 1734 and thereafter building in the square proceeded sporadically. Most of the square dates to the early-19th century, after which things came to a stop, rather as they did as funds dried up after the financial crisis of the late-18th century in places such as Bath. What’s left, though, is still some of the best town housing one could hope to see.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Bridgwater brick

I’m impressed by the quality of some of the houses in this Somerset town. This is an example, from maybe the best street of all, Castle Street, which Pevsner calls ‘one of the finest early Georgian streets outside London’. It contains ten well proportioned five-bay houses built of brick – lovely local brick, which became the material of choice in the town from the late-17th century onwards. The brick walls are set off with white-painted quoins and, visible in my picture, segmentally headed windows. These windows are surrounded by moulded architraves; bracketed sills are another pleasant touch.

The doorways, in particular, stand out. There are several variations – some have Doric pilasters, some Corinthian, some, like number 10 in my photograph, Ionic.* The illustrated doorway also has a Gibbs surround, that band of alternating protruding and recessed blocks that gives it special prominence and goes with the ornate keystone at the top of the arch. The Duke of Chandos, who built this street as part of a larger development also featuring many brick houses of this period, must have been pleased. It’s not known who the architect was, but Pevsner and others point to the involvement of craftsmen who worked for the Duke on his properties in London and his famous, long demolished, country house, Canons in Middlesex. The houses they produced in Bridgwater still deserve our admiration.

- - - - -

* I recently posted this doorway and a couple of its neighbours using different classical orders on my Instagram page, @philipbuildings ; scroll down the Instagram page to find them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

In situ

Theme and Variations, 1969–72 is a sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth fixed to the facade of a building in the centre of Cheltenham that was originally the headquarters of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society. The 25-foot long piece was made especially for the building, has been part of the Cheltenham scene for well over 40 years, and was the artist’s last public commission. She made the sculpture to exploit the slightly curving frontage of the building – the relationship of the groups of semicircles is revealed more clearly as one walks along appreciating the artfulness of the way they are stacked. I think the work enhances the street and deserves to stay there.

However, a while ago the sculpture’s owner (not the same as the company that occupies the building) announced a plan to remove the piece and replace it with an exact replica. Many objected to this proposal, not because the appearance would change but on the grounds of integrity: Hepworth made Theme and Variations for the building and it should remain where it is. It is one of very few works Hepworth created to be attached to a building, which makes it still more important that it continues in situ.† Fortunately, Cheltenham Borough Council and the Twentieth Century Society agree. As a result of the Society’s work, the facade of the building with its integral sculpture have now been listed. It’s with pleasure that I report that this Hepworth is not going anywhere.

- - - - -

† The Twentieth Century Society says that her Winged Figure from ten years earlier, attached to the facade of the John Lewis store in London’s Oxford Street, is the only other work by Hepworth designed to be fixed to a building and still in its original position. It is listed at Grade II*.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

London, Western Avenue, travelling westwards

A different angle

I’ve read two recently published books that mention the old Hoover factory in Perivale, West London. Both books were good ones, but neither author had had the chance to cover at any length the building’s fast-changing fortunes. After Hoover left, Tesco eventually acquired the building and ran a supermarket there for some years. This is the stage it had reached when I lasted posted about it in 2010. Tesco pulled out and in 2017–18 the building was converted into 66 flats.

I’m all for finding new uses for old buildings – it’s often a way of saving therm from demolition. But when I passed the other day on the coach from London to Oxford, I thought the price of this change of use was a rather intrusive alteration – it seemed that the developer had very slightly increased the building’s height by adding a pitched roof behind the original sleek, white parapet. Looking into the history of the Hoover Building, however, I discovered that the roof line has been changing almost since the beginning. The Hoover factory was built in 1932 as a two-storey building with a front topped by a long white parapet, with a centre portion slightly taller than the rest. As early as 1935, the building was enlarged by adding another storey, its front windows set well back from the parapet. Soon after that, a gently pitched glazed roof was added, to let more natural light into the top storey, and some time later still, this roof became more substantial, reaching the form it takes today. Various photographs exist of these stages, and the first version of the pitched roof was there early on. But it’s not clear to me quite when the roof reached its current form.

The fact that I could see this roof so clearly, its grey slope detracting from the effect of the original white parapet, was due mainly to the fact that I was looking at it from an elevated position on the top deck of the Oxford Tube,* when I took the photograph above. I’m much more used to seeing it from the position of the driver of the silver car, or from pavement level. When the Hoover factory was designed in the early-1930s by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, the last thing the architects were thinking about was what their building looked liked from the top of a bus. Their main thought would have been for the result when seen at ground level – that and the host of other things that preoccupy the designer of a large industrial building: everything from getting the interior spaces to work for their intended purpose to making sure the building is completed on time and within budget. They might even be surprised that their building, years after Hoover moved out, having undergone two changes of use, is still, triumphantly, there.

- - - - -

*The name of a coach service that runs between Oxford and London

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

London, on the overground, southbound

Scene with cranes

Back in October 2008 I wrote a post about Battersea Power Station, then in sore need of care, which I spotted as I passed it on a train. I began my post with these words:

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.

After lamenting the building’s condition, I described it and its history very briefly, dwelling on the huge size of its brick structure, the role of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in designing its Art Deco details, its influence on later power stations, and the various schemes that had been hatched to restore it.* The other day I passed it again on the overground and aimed the camera of my mobile through the window. This time my photograph was a little brighter, even though the weather that day was far from sunny and I had just missed being drenched in a downpour.† As I looked at the building with the various bright new structures appearing around it, all surrounded by a forest of cranes, I wondered if its prospects were similarly bright.

What I could make out as the train accelerated towards Clapham Junction was the power station’s four fluted chimneys, made of pre-cast concrete blocks, and one stretch of brick wall, recessed in a pattern of verticals. Everything else is hidden by scaffolding and other buildings, completed or under construction. I was glimpsing a work in progress then, which will see the power station as the heart of new ‘mixed-use neighbourhood’ incorporating shops, offices, and apartments, a mega-scheme that is clearly proceeding apace. The power station itself is being redeveloped by architects WilkinsonEyre (no relation) to provide some of the most prestigious apartments in the complex. Many of the essential elements of the building will be preserved, others will go, but the new work will, we are told, “pay homage to its history”. A lot will be different – there’ll be a bit poking out at the top, for a start§ – but the corner towers and chimneys will remain, at least, and buyers are promised interiors that “resonate with [the original building’s] irrepressible character”.

Well, I hope the character won’t be repressed. We’ll see. But looking at the plans and the buildings that are already up, it seems unlikely that I’ll be seeing much of it from the train, though I might from a river boat. In the meantime I’m crossing my fingers that the noble structure is not totally subsumed by new build, and that the resulting flats are bought by people who actually live in them.

- - - - -

* There had been a clutch of such schemes, involving everything from flats to a theme park.

† At least some of the brightness is due to the better quality of smartphone cameras these days.

§ There is so often a bit poking out at the top. Sometimes, aesthetically, it is a disaster.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Further into the past

Space, time and wallpaper, 2

If the Architectural Review was often looking forward, in January 1947 it also allowed itself a backward glance. That month marked the magazine’s 50th anniversary. A long article summarizes its editorial approach throughout this period, and then switches its gaze forward to how it might look at things in the new half century. Over those first 50 years, the Archie Rev had welcomed the opportunities provided by new technologies, chronicled the rise of modern design, and praised the work of pioneers such as Perret, Loos, and Le Corbusier. But it had also paid tribute to the great figures who were in a different tradition: Gothic revival architects or Cuthbert Brodrick – or William Morris.

So it is that this issue of the magazine has a William Morris wallpaper on the cover – or at least one produced by the Arts and Crafts leader’s firm, Morris, Marshall and Faulkner; the actual designer of the paper was Morris’s friend Philip Webb. After all, as the caption to the cover points out, it was high time in 1947, that Morris’s firm became the subject of proper historical research, and the magazine contributes to this with an article on the firm’s work at St James’s Palace. This very paper, in fact, was produced, in olive green and gold, for the Armoury at the palace. Often looking to the future, sometimes shocking the bourgeoisie, but generally offering hope, the Architectural Review could also pay tribute to tradition.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Into the past

Space, time and wallpaper, 1

Stuck at home meeting a deadline, I found myself taking a break by looking through some of the old copies of The Architectural Review that had been passed on to me by a friend, who’d found them during that melancholy but necessary process of clearing her parents’ house. The magazines’ original owner had already done a discerning job of removing the parts of the magazine that didn’t interest him – the casualties included many of the advertisements, which in retrospect is understandable but a pity: some of the ads that survived are fascinating.

What struck me in this ceaseless journey into the past was the feeling of hope that kept emerging in the early-1940s, a sense that in spite of the bombing, the deaths, and the relentless destruction of buildings, there was a future that architects could plan for. Indeed many architects must have been fighting or engaged in other war work, and those left in their offices would have been shoring up tottering structures or designing shadow factories or buildings on air bases.

To some, the idea of producing an architectural magazine at all must have seemed like a luxury in such troubled times. And what got printed was sometimes austere – the printing was in black and white, and the contents presented a telling blend of hopeful reports on new buildings in places like Sweden with stark – though often hauntingly beautiful – photographs of bombed buildings, from Hove to Hull. Occasionally, they were allowed a splash of colour on the cover, though even here it could be a single colour, meaning just one more plate on the press.

And so it was that readers in July 1945 were greeted with this striking cover when their Archie Rev flopped on to the doormat. Some of them must have wondered what parallel universe they strayed into now. This unusual pattern (yes, it is a pattern, although the cover is not big enough to show this), commemorates an exhibition of wallpapers held in London. A caption inside the magazine answers the reader’s bafflement:

Four pages of this issue are devoted to the Wallpaper Exhibition recently held in London. One of its major sections consisted of designs for post-War wallpapers and several of these were by Graham Sutherland. This month’s cover is a full size reproduction of one of his designs – a pattern which combines the strange animation of root or cartilage forms with the pleasant liveliness of traditional all-over designs. It is good to see that we can have busy, unostentatious, small-scale pattern without having to rely entirely on the chintzy flora of the past. The colouring on the cover is one of several suggested by the artist and shown at the exhibition.

Inside are more images – in black and white, alas – of other recent patterns on display. They are mostly made up of stripes, spots, and other abstract elements, some arranged in regimental columns, others more freely drawn. A couple of the more successful foliage designs are also illustrated. In 1945, none of these papers had much chance of getting produced. There were tight controls on the production and supply ofd paper, and few people, I’d guess, were papering walls. The designs were a glance towards a better future. People needed something new to look forward to, and in 1945 hopes that the war would end soon were at last realistic. But it would take another six years, and the Festival of Britain, for Lucienne Day’s bright and popular fabric designs to lead the way towards brighter interiors.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hook Norton, Oxfordshire

The Sentinel, or, odd things in churches (12)
In 1671, the justices of Oxford ordered all parishes in the county to keep a fire engine. This one is a survivor from that period – or at least from the 18th century – and is thought to have been made by Richard Newsom or Newsham of Cloth Fair, London.* Nowadays the church seems an odd place to keep a fire engine, but in the 17th ands 18th centuries it made a lot of sense. Everyone knew where the church was, it would probably have been left unlocked (or the key holder would be widely known), and churches were often, though by no means always, in the middle of the village. In any case there were few alternatives in most parishes: the church was the only public building. So fire engines, consisting basically of a handful-operated pump and tank on wheels, were often stored in churches, along with other equipment, such as metal hooks on long poles that were used to pull burning thatch off roofs.

Church records often show expenditure on maintaining a fire engine. At Hook Norton there’s also a record of money paid to buy a fire hook for the village. One wonders how effective these devices would have been. But in isolated rural parishes there was little alternative to whatever basic aid the locals could give. And in many places that no doubt involved a few men and a hand pump. This one at Hook Norton, known apparently as the Sentinel, was still in use in the 1890s. Now it seems to be used mainly as a stand for leaflets and hassocks. But at least it is still there, along with a fire hook and bucket, glowing resplendently red after a restoration a few years ago.

- - - - -

* This engineer made a similar fire engine in Wiltshire that I’ve come across previously.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset

Domes and silk stockings

I make occasional trips to Somerset and sometimes, having left the house early, stop off for a coffee somewhere en route. Bridgwater is one of my occasional stopping places. To some, it’s an unassuming town with a rather nondescript High Street, but there are plenty of architectural discoveries to be made (one of the best early Georgian streets in Britain, a Victorian concrete house) for anyone prepared to look. This building, with its square dome, is a landmark at one end of the town and it quickly caught my eye. ‘An early-20th century theatre,’ I thought to myself, and I was partly right. What was originally the Empire Theatre opened in 1916 with a performance of a play called A Pair of Silk Stockings. But the venue showed movies as well, making it one of the first wave of cinemas in Britain, a wave that was turning into a steady stream by 1916, as more and more people began to want to see ‘moving pictures’.*

If some of the very first purpose-built cinemas were rather anonymous-looking buildings with little to identify them apart from large boards for posters advertising what was showing, some adopted a theatrical look, or were indeed converted theatres or dual-purpose buildings like the Palace. Already, some people were starting to realise that a showy or glamorous looking facade with features like the Palace’s tower and dome, and its round window, decorative swags, and classical pilasters, helped draw the eye and bring in the customers.† A good 700 people per screening were accommodated in the interwar period, followed by many members of the armed forces when it became an ENSA venue during World War II.¶ But afterwards it was less successful, as going out to a film was steadily replaced by staying in and watching television. After a long period unused in the 1980s and 1990s, the Palace became a night club, like many of its kind. It may look a little dishevelled, but it’s still an eye-catcher.

- - - - -

* Britain’s first cinema opened in London’s Regent Street in 1896. By 1909 the wave was starting to break, with cinemas in places as diverse as Birmingham and Colwyn Bay.

† It was said originally to have been in the Moorish style; I wonder if that means the interior. The outside seems solidly Classical.

¶ ENSA: Entertainments National Service Association, set up to provide entertainment for members of the forces during the war.

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (3)

In his book Historic Architecture of Leeds, Derek Linstrum begins his entry on this building with the words, ‘One of the best-known exceptions to the rule of simple functional buildings for industry is Temple Mills.’ Which is true, though it doesn’t tell the whole story. Little could be further from the usual functional brick walls and repeating rows of regular windows of the normal Victorian textile mill than this facade, with its slightly sloping walls, massive columns with papyrus or lotus capitals, and winged solar discs. It’s riding a wave of the ancient Egyptian revival, and it’s the work of Joseph Bonomi, who came from Durham but had Italian ancestors on his father’s side. That father, also Joseph, was an architect, and there was a brother, Ignatius, who was a prominent architect too. The young Joseph was better known as an artist and Egyptologist. He would have been familiar with the temple at Edfu, on which the facade of Temple Mills was based. Massive and weatherbeaten, his building is one to stop you in your tracks, and no doubt the mill’s owner, John Marshall, wanted to make just such a memorable statement. In a city of big buildings, it more than holds its own.

But a factory is more than a statement, and this mill were unusual in another way. Inside, it’s laid out very much along up-to-date lines for 1838, with rows of iron columns well spaced to accommodate machines for spinning linen yarn. In addition, as a single-storey building, it can be top lit, so Bonomi, or perhaps the engineer with whom he worked, John Combe, specified row upon row of glazed domes set in vaults, an brilliant and original way to spread natural light on to the factory floor beneath. In a final bravura touch, grass was grown on the roof, and a flock of sheep ranged across it, stepping between the domes and cropping the greenery to keep it short. This too is a functional feature – the grass roof helped maintain the humidity that was beneficial to flax-working, keeping the thread supple – and the sheep helped maintain the grass. As sheep don’t take to climbing stairs, a hydraulic lift was installed to get the creatures up to their aerial grazing grounds. Add to this steam heating and baths for the workers, and you have the model of a 19th-century functional mill, albeit in an ancient Egyptian package.

‘You couldn’t make it up,’ as they say. But Bonomi, Combe, and Marshall did make it up, all 18 Egyptian columns and 66 glass domes and what was, when it was built, the largest room in Europe. So the mill was much admired, but it was never as successful as Marshall hoped. A slump in textile prices, together with a period of poor management and poorer industrial relations, saw the business decline and the mill was sublet in the 1870s. Empty and fragile now, it remains a memorial to the optimism and flair of its creators and the city as a whole, a place I’ve called Gigantic Leeds.

Sunday, September 22, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (2)

My second gigantic and over-the-top building in Leeds is the Corn Exchange, another enormous structure by Cuthbert Brodrick and, like the Town Hall, a design that won a competition. Brodrick based it in the Halle au Blé in Paris, a domed circular building that had already inspired a major structure in London, the Coal Exchange by John Bunning, a masterpiece that John Betjeman tried unsuccessfully to save from demolition in the 20th century. Brodrick’s Leeds building, though, is elliptical with three semicircular protrusions that mark the entrances. While the Halle au Blé had a classical design with quite plain detailing, the Corn Exchange in Leeds is probably closer to baroque, with its gigantic size, its varying curves, and the monumental treatment of its masonry.

The exterior is of sandstone ashlar and the masonry is imposing, if not almost overwhelming in its finish. Most of the blocks are rusticated and carved to form diamonds pointing outwards; decoration includes swags and paterae; the clock is surrounded by garlands. The identifying inscription, by contrast, is in a dead plain sans serif letterform that seems to mean business.

And this was also, when it was originally completed in the 1863, a highly practical, businesslike building, housing a ring of offices for the corn factors around the perimeter and a large open market space accommodating stands for the factors in the centre. A balcony running around the walls half way up gives access to a further collection of offices, and above that is the vast dome, its structure largely visible from within and its great sweep dominated by two openings – a huge oval window that forms part of Brodrick’s design and an additional window like a vast curving slit, that is a later modification and adds another touch of eccentricity to this highly original building.

Since the Corn Exchange ceased to be used for trading in grain in the 1980s, it has undergone two restorations to attempt to adapt it for retail use. On the face of it, the result seems successful. The rings of offices convert easily to small shops without destroying the integrity of the building, and the open areas lend themselves well to café or restaurant use. However, the trading areas seemed very quiet when I visited and I do hope they weather the current difficult time for retailing in Britain. Brodrick’s building deserves to survive and deserves to be used.

Sunday, September 15, 2019


Gigantic Leeds (1)

Visiting Leeds recently, I found the experience fascinating, and in a way overwhelming. Some of the civic buildings are so large, they’re almost impossible to take in, and are difficult even to cram into the confines of a camera viewfinder. This phenomenon is not unusual in the large cities of northern England, the ones that saw their greatest expansion in the 19th century, but Leeds seems to take the effect to extremes. It’s a place I’ll have to return to, but for now, I’d like to record my impressions of a couple of the city’s most vast and remarkable structures – yes, for once on the English Buildings blog, after the telephone boxes and public lavatories, some truly grand and commanding architecture, structures obvious to the eye and compelling to the attention.

In 1852, a competition was announced for a new town hall building for the centre of Leeds. The demands were extraordinary: a public hall with standing room for 8,000 people, function rooms, reception rooms, a large suite of municipal offices. The whole caboodle was supposed to cost a mere £35,000, and just £200 was offered as the prize for the winning design. So much for so little: the job looked like a poisoned chalice and not many bothered to enter the competition. Charles Barry, who was hired to pick a winner chose the entry from Cuthbert Brodrick, a young unknown architect from Hull.

Brodrick didn’t have much experience, but the burghers of Leeds were impressed by his proposal – a vast complex surrounded by giant classical columns and set on a high plinth. In planning such an important building, the authorities might have insisted that Brodrick work with a more experienced architect, but they accepted him alone and merely asked for some modifications to the design, including the addition of a landmark tower, for which they undertook to provide a few more thousand pounds.

As the new building began to rise, it became clear that Leeds had chosen well. Photographs (imagine me, dear reader, jammed into a doorway opposite in an attempt to stand far enough away to get the whole thing in the frame, and straining to hold the camera high in order to avoid distorting all the columns out of the vertical) do not do it justice and cannot prepare one for the reality. It is enormous. The giant order – perhaps inspired by examples in France, perhaps by Vanbrugh’s giant columns in his country houses – dwarf passers-by, street furniture, double-decker buses. Even visitors from Bradford, which had recently acquired its own large Town Hall, or Liverpool, where St George’s Hall was monumental but smaller, might be impressed. The tower is more or less in proportion with the whole, unified with it by its own order of columns, and topped (after various suggestions by Brodrick) with a baroque eight-sided dome. The whole thing made contemporaries’ jaws drop, and has a similar effect today.

- - - - -   

On the story of this building and its architect, see Derek Linstrum, Towers and Colonnades: The Architecture of Cuthbert Brodrick (Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 1999)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Avoncroft, Worcestershire

Plain, simple, and solid

Before I leave the subject of telephone boxes, a recent visit to the excellent Avoncroft outdoor museum in Worcestershire reminded me that I have never featured an example of the first standard telephone kiosk, the design that became known as the K1. This is in part because K1s are rare: the survivors are mostly in museums – and they are baffling because there are variations in the design from one box to another.

Before the 1920s, telephone boxes were not standardised at all. Telephone services were provided by various local companies, who adopted their own designs for kiosks. But in 1912 the General Post Office took over most of these companies (Hull in Yorkshire was a notable exception*) and soon looked for a standard design. Kiosk No 1 (later known simply as the K1), a plain, simple, solid box on a square plan with a pyramidal roof, was the result, and was introduced in 1923. Some K1s were made of wood and some had concrete walls, metal glazing bars, and a wooden door. Some of the variations in appearance were linked with this difference in materials – the concrete boxes, for example, have a different pattern of glazing. Some were also given a roof sign saying ‘Public telephone’, which concealed the top of the pyramid roof and its finial.

This example at Avoncroft, part of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection,† which is housed there, is a concrete K1, painted in the combination of grey and red that was usual at the time. The design was simple, but not much liked visually. At Eastbourne, the local authority even insisted that the boxes on the sea front should have thatched roofs! K1s were therefore superseded when a design competition of 1924 produced Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s popular K2 design, which is most people’s favourite telephone box. We have to be grateful to Avoncroft for giving less illustrious but historically important kiosks a home.§

- - - - -

* My mother, who was born in Hull, told me with a certain puzzled pride that the telephone system in her home town was run by an independent company, and that the telephone boxes on Hull’s streets were painted cream, to mark this difference. They still are. Yorkshire: another country, it sometimes feels like, and in one corner of it they do things differently there.

† K1s, ‘Vermillion giants’, AA boxes, even a lovely Morris Minor telephone engineer’s van – they have it all in the National Telephone Kiosk Collection.

§ I am indebted to Gavin Stamp, Telephone Boxes (Chatto & Windus, 1989) for information about the history of these useful, interesting, and tiny buildings.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bath, Somerset

The red box ten years on

I can hardly believe that it was ten years ago that I blogged about the Gallery on the Green in Settle, Yorkshire, an admirable example of finding a new use for one of the redundant red telephone boxes that used to abound in Britain and are no longer as common as they were. The gallery, which launched itself as ‘probably the smallest art gallery in the world’ is just one example of this creative repurposing, and there are now many more.*

And just as well for people like me, who admire these fine bits of British design, because the numbers of red boxes have continued to go down. There were once 70,000 red boxes on Britain’s streets. There are now only 10,000 of the famous classic boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,† left, plus a further 20,000 public phone boxes of other designs. Only about 30,000 calls are made per year from all of these 30,000 boxes, so more will vanish. But a scheme allows local councils to ‘adopt’ a redundant box if they can find a new use for it. A number of the boxes in my local area (the Cotswolds) now house defibrillators. Others are miniature galleries, book-swapping facilities, or even small businesses (there’s one in London where smartphone screens are repaired which I pass from time to time). In Cheltenham the local museum took over a couple of adjacent boxes for a while, although these now seem to be empty again. My photograph shows one of several boxes used as planters that I recently saw in Bath, another clever reuse in which, back in July, red geraniums were blending pleasingly with the paintwork of the box itself.

Most of these conversions are of the familiar K6 design of telephone kiosk. The earlier and slightly larger K2 boxes, which are scarcer, represent the original successful version of Scott’s design so are doubly precious; these are all listed and so will survive. Many of the K6s are likely to be removed in this age of mobile telephones, unless more new uses are found. I think their total removal would be a shame as Scott's is a beautiful design and such a recognisable part of the British scene, in both town and country. So I hope that as many red boxes as possible will be repurposed, and that those who adopt them continue to look after them, keeping their shiny red paintwork both shiny and red.

- - - - -

* There is a good article about reusing red boxes in The Guardian, here. I suppose purists might object to the reuse as planters, given that it involves alterations such as removing the glass. But better this than the scrapyard.

† Sir Giles Gilbert Scott is also famous for his work on the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool (still happily with us), Bankside Power Station (in large part preserved thanks to its conversion to Tate Modern), and Battersea Power Station (which has fared less well, but is currently being redeveloped).

Monday, August 26, 2019

Chard, Somerset

Statement in stone

Chard’s impressive Guildhall was opened in 1835. The building was designed by Taunton architect Richard Carver to combine the roles of town hall and market, and was a replacement for an old building on another site. Its grand double order of classical columns – Tuscan below, Doric above – dominates this stretch of the street and the very plain classical design of Ham stone columns and pediment could perhaps look a trifle sombre. But it’s topped by a little clock tower and cupola that set a different mood – still classical in design but slightly less straight-laced – and useful, originally, as few passers-by would have worn a watch.

One can imagine this building as the heart of the town, when the market was the focus of everyone’s shopping. I can also imagine the platform on the upper floor being a perfect stage for proclamations and election speeches. Something akin to the mixture of farce and seriousness that attends the election at the memorably named Eatanswill in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers comes to mind – though perhaps in real life there would have been less of the farce… Elections or no, this facade certainly makes a statement. Few towns the size of Chard can boast such a memorable building as their town hall, set among the shops of its main street.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Shepperdine, Gloucestershire

Ready for service

Perhaps if the vegetation had been a bit less lush and a bit more wintry, and the road had been somewhat less bendy, I’d have seen the corner of the tiny corrugated iron church at Shepperdine behind its hedge, but as it was, I completely the missed the track that leads to to it. So I had to stop, check the map, and retrace my steps. Having found the right place, I followed the track and turned left through what was little more than a hole in the hedge, there it was – and, to make things better still, the sun came out, throwing the corrugations of its dark walls into shadow and highlighting the green paint on the bargeboards, down pipes, and window frames.

I have a liking for ‘tin tabernacles’, those little churches made of corrugated iron that were put up, mostly before World War I, usually from flat packs. A parish on a tight budget would get hold of a catalogue from a company such as Boulton & Paul of Norwich, find the design they wanted, and check the dimensions and the number of seats it would accommodate. Then they’d order it up, carriage paid to the nearest railway station, and organise a local carrier to bring the components to the site. Once they had prepared a suitable solid base, the framework could be erected and the walls and roof fitted in short order.

This kind of building was ideal for urban communities that were expanding fast. This was not the case here. Shepperdine is quite remote, near the River Severn in the region of Oldbury, and the community is one of farms and scattered houses, and before 1914 was well away from the nearest church. So in that year, an agreement was made to buy an existing church, which was moved here by a group of local men. The little building is said to have come from somewhere in Wales, and the locals transported it to Shepperdine, presumably in sections, and reassembled it here.

Only a small church was needed, and this one has a plain design design (some others have pointed, Gothic style windows and even small bellcotes or spires). Here the main decorative elements are the curvy bargeboards and the trio of roof finials.† There’s a single tiny bell, hanging free above the small upper window, a light above the door, and that’s about all. But it was enough, and it looks as if it still is. The church remains in use, and a hand-painted name board on the side of the porch announces its dedication and the name of the vicar. It’s one of the few tin churches still regularly used for services.

- - - - -

* I’ve posted about another plain but colourful corrugated iron church here, and a more ornate one here, and one with a tower here.

† These and the tiled roof may be later additions. Most tin churches had iron roofs.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Chedworth, Gloucestershire

Nissen and his huts

The other day I was driving to Cirencester and the route was blocked by roadworks in a village. I took the prescribed diversion, but turned off the signed route after a short distance, to take a back road that I didn’t know, but which the Resident Wise Woman and I both thought would take us closer to our destination. As we rounded a bend, a shout of delight rang out from the passenger seat: we had spotted the building in my photograph, probably the longest Nissen hut I’ve ever seen. A convenient gate provided a temporary parking space and I was soon out of the car and zooming in to this amazing enfilade of corrugated iron and developing rust. It was going to be a good day.

There was no one around to ask, but we guessed that the hut was a building associated with a former airfield nearby, itself not far from the current RFC Rendcomb Airfield. RFC.* That's RFC as in Royal Flying Corps, which is to say before the RAF. Suggesting that the area was home to a World War I airfield. If that’s the case, I thought we could be looking at quite an early Nissen hut. but it turns out to be a World War II hut, part of Chedworth airfield.¶

It was in 1916, that Lt Col Peter Nissen had the idea of combining a metal frame and sheets of corrugated iron to produce cheap, easily assembled huts for the Allied armed forces.† The army acted quite quickly on Nissen's idea because, they needed huts: like many a good inventor, Nissen had seen a need – for cheap huts that could be made quickly to house an expanding army – and set out to solve it. Although the idea of the hut is very simple, the finished design was not done in a day, because Nissen had to refine it, thinking of everything from an easy, watertight way to joined the iron sheets to a set of simple illustrated assembly instructions that could be followed by unskilled men working at speed.

And so it was that these strange rounded structures began to appear. The Daily Mail, being cheerful in terrible times, described what it must have been like they they emerged on to the field of conflict, without any apparent preparation and in magically short order:

‘At about the same time as the tanks made their memorable debut on the battlefield, another creature, almost equally primaeval of aspect, began to appear in conquered areas. No one ever saw it on the move, or met it on the roads. It just appeared! Overnight you would see a blank space of ground. In the morning it would be occupied by an immense creature of the tortoise species, settled down solidly and permanently on the earth, and emitting green smoke from a right-angled system at one end, where its mouth might be, as though it were smoking a pipe.’

The huts caught on, at first to house troops, kit, and even field hospital beds, after the war for all sorts of civilian uses. They're not uncommon on airfields§ and many have also ended up on farms, or used as factory extensions. But I have not seen one as long as this  – even the lon huts I saw on TV making up a former prisoner of war camp were not, I think, as big as this one. It must need its many windows, as the standard layout for the shortest huts, with just a pair of windows in each end, simply would not work in a structure as long as this. But work this one must have done, for years, for whatever purpose it is now used, and although somewhat rusty, it shows signs of care and recent repair. Long live Nissen’s huts!

- - - - -

* Wingwalking is one of the activities pursued here. For a fee, you too can get strapped on to a framework on the upper wing of a lovely Boeing Stearsman biplane and zoom and bank above the Cotswolds. I find it a frightening idea, but many love it, and someone was enjoying the experience as we drove past.

¶ Thanks to readers who supplied information via the Comments section.

† For much of my information on the origin of these ingenious huts, and the Daily Mail quotation, I am indebted to Fred McCosh, Nissen of the Huts, BD Publishing, 1997.

§ Back home, I checked the OS map and saw that the airfield indeed extended in this direction – and that maybe even the road I was driving along was originally part of it.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Wick, Worcestershire

Other times, other walls

One evening earlier this year, I came across this cottage on my way to give a talk. I was early, having as usual given myself more than enough time for my journey, so pulled in and took a look. I was attracted initially by the cruck frame – the pair of big diagonal timbers, making a large upturned V-shape, in the end wall. Worcestershire, along with other western counties, is a good place for spotting crucks: they were always more common here than in the south and east, where rectilinear box frames were preferred. A structure of this size would have several crucks, one at each end and others, concealed at stages between to make up a number of structural ‘bays’. Vertical walls would then be erected on either side, to accommodate windows, support the eaves of the roof, and provide enough height inside at the edges of the building.

At first glance, the white infill between the dark timbers is the wattle and daub (a plaster made of mud, straw and other ingredients) that was traditionally used. That is true of the end with the cruck. But the side wall is different. If one looks closely, it's possible to see that the infill here is actually made of brick painted white. This use of brick between timbers is not uncommon in Worcestershire, and the look was so popular that there was a Victorian fashion for imitating timber-framed construction by painting a brick wall black and white. That is not the case here: it’s the real thing.

Those brick side walls may have started out infilled with wattle and daub, like the end. The plaster may have failed at some point and the repairers substituted brick – this certainly happened on occasion. So although crick frames themselves had to be very carefully planned, with timbers of the right size sourced and prepared, the actual structure may be an accident of history. Another thing that will be the result of change is the upper floor – this building would have started life as a house on one level, probably with a central hearth and a hole in the roof for the smoke to exit. The big brick chimney is likely to be a later addition, as are the upstairs rooms and windows. Houses like this are the result of years of changing priorities, their early owners as keen to adapt to the times as people of today who put in central heating or the latest thermal insulation. Houses like this might seem timeless, but they are as subject as any to changes in fashion, expectation, and need.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Torbryan, Devon

Community of saints

There may be a few loyal readers of this blog who remember a post I did back in 2013 about the beautiful Devon church of Torbryan. On that occasion I reported the recent theft of two panels from the church’s late-15th century painted screen. This was a damaging crime in several ways. The screen is precious because few medieval screens have survived with their painted images intact, and even fewer have paintings of the quality of those at Torbryan. In addition, the thieves vandalised the screen not only by removing two of the panels but also by badly damaging another panel in the process of the removal. It was a cause for celebration, therefore, when the police recovered the stolen panels in 2015, enabling the Churches Conservation Trust, who care for the building, to have them reinstalled, and to restore the damaged panel too.

All this was very much in our minds when the Resident Wise Woman and I visited Torbryan a couple of weeks ago, so that I could introduce her to this wonderful church and have a close look at the restored paintings. The visit was one of the highlights of our recent short trip to Devon, given us the time and opportunity to marvel at each image. They’re an impressive collection. Not all the saints can be identified, but a number have attributes that help put names to the images. St Peter has his keys, St Luke his ox, St Matthew his angel, St Andrew his saltire cross. St James the Great, apostle and pilgrim, holds a staff; St Catherine of Siena, who bore the stigmata, wears a crown of thorns; St Dorothy carries the roses and apples that figure in the story of her execution; St Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, has pincers and a tooth. And so on. The stolen and retrieved panels, which are in the northernmost section of the screen, have images of St Margaret holding a cross and an unusual saint, Victor of Marseilles. Victor was an officer in the Roman army* and holds a windmill, which is both charming and nice reference for anyone who wants to know what a late-medieval post mill looks like.
It’s good to see them back in place, and they remind us of the may ways in which such paintings have value above their monetary worth. They're historical evidence (of how the saints were seen and what they symbolised and for such details as that windmill). They depict saints who were revered – and who should command at least respect for what they endured for their sake of their beliefs. They are vigorously drawn, appealing, and cherishable works of art.

And above all, they’re part of a whole. Painted panels of saints might be nice things to have on one's wall at home, but they work best when they are where they were meant to be. Here, they form part of a screen of which the design (beautiful tracery, elegant proportions) and carving is transparently effective and right. They are members of a whole community of saints, of which the thirty-odd in the screen are representative and shining examples. And they are part of a wider context, that of the whole church, which in the Middle Ages would have been further adorned with wall paintings and stained glass (gone now), to make a complete and glowing world – a cosmos even – in which the flesh and blood worshippers, the people of Torbryan, once formed the vital, animated part.

Of course, much of that decorative community – the frescoes, the stained glass, other three-dimensional images – was taken away after the Reformation. Even the screen has lost its upper part and its crowning Rood. The painted saints are yet more precious because they are still right there, still in their original setting. They are windows into this lost world.

- - - - -

* St Victor, who served in the Roman army in Marseilles in the 3rd century, denounced the worship of idols, and was tortured and martyred for his beliefs. After Victor refused to make an offering to Jupiter, kicking over the god's statue, the emperor sentenced him to be put to death by being ground beneath a millstone, hence the windmill.

Top picture St Luke, St Matthew, St Andrew, possibly St Philip

Second picture St Victor of Marseilles

Bottom picture St James the Less, possibly St Thomas, St Simon the Zealot, possibly St Matthias  

Monday, July 29, 2019

Chew Magna, Somerset

Stop and look

Sometimes I want to share something on the blog, even though I have little to say about it. Instagram can be the place for this, but because not everyone looks there, here’s one of the monuments in the church at Chew Magna that caught my eye. It’s to Sir John and Lady St Loe and dates to the mid-15th century. They’re members of the family that built the church house in my previous post, and their monument, a tomb chest topped by these recumbent figures, is one of several outstanding monuments in this church. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that even in a parish church in a relatively out of the way place, there’s terrific sculpture waiting to be discovered. I’d encourage anyone with even a passing interest in these things to get out there and look for themselves

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Chew Magna, Somerset

For ales

On my way to visit the parish church of Chew Magna, I couldn't help but notice this building, right next to the churchyard gate. It was signposted as the Old Schoolroom, but I wondered, looking at it, if it was actually a medieval church house, and so it proved to be. A church house was roughly the medieval equivalent of the village or church hall. It was used for certain secular activities held on behalf of the church, especially fundraising events called church ales. As their name suggests, church ales involved a lot of drinking, together with entertainments such as dancing, plays, or sports. As many people in the Middle Ages seem to have had few inhibitions about using the church building for a range of secular activities, church ales and similar events were sometimes (perhaps often) held in the church itself. However, in some parts of the country, for example the southwestern countries of Devon and Somerset, parishes often built church houses for the purpose.

Most church houses are late medieval. This one once bore a date, 1510. This had led some people to believe that church houses became widespread when parish churches were fitted out with permanent pews in the later Middle Ages, rendering the buildings useless for activities like dancing, eating, or drinking. In any case, many clergy objected to these secular uses of church buildings, and no doubt ushered them out of the church into a more suitable building if they could. But not every church had a church house, and the cost of building one but have been considerable – the basic requirements were for a large room (often upstairs) for the festivities plus additional space for the storage and preparation of food and the brewing of beer.

The building at Chew Magna looks well built and impressive. There are plenty of windows, and a doorway with a pleasant, but not overstated, ogee head. There's a small sculpture in a niche high up, with Pevsner believes to have been St Michael killing the dragon, although this is hard to make out, plus a shield bearing the arms of the prominent local St Loe family.* The building must have been a valued social centre, although when the Puritans banned such enjoyable events as church ales, it, like others, was put to new uses – a lock-up, poorhouse, and, if the sign is to be believed, a school. Anyone wanting ale would have had to repair to one of Chew's pubs, which are still mercifully in evidence. 

- - - - -

* A 15th-century St Loe has an impressive monument in the church.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Bovey Tracey, Devon

Something for the weakened

I do like bits of traditional signage. Today's high streets are too full of ephemeral plastic signs, designed by computers with the help of committees, plonked on facades with one thought only: to shout loudest at passers-by. Many high street businesses have either given up or seem to be trying too hard, buses drive around swamped in graceless advertisements like walking billboards, and round my way the Co-op screams at me in a sign of bilious green.*

There are, though, quite a few places where an effort has been made to stop this rot. Bath is a haven of decent, discreet signage; so is Chipping Campden; towns like Ludlow have some terrific examples of traditional shop signs; in Upton on Severn they have even revealed a number of beautiful old ghost signs and have found ways to keep these visible while creating new signs that work among and around them. More often, it's a mixed picture, with lacklustre stuff interspersed with signs in which someone has been allowed to get out his brush and mahl stick and do his best.

My eyes having been rendered bloodshot by poor signage recently, and my spirits weakened by the sheer oafishness of some of it, it was good to come across one or two modest gems. Like this barber's in Bovey Tracey. It could hardly be simpler. Just a small square window, without anything much to display in it. And a sign which, though simple, shows that someone has paused, and thought, and cared. Plain, sans serif capitals, hand painted; a colour scheme that reflects the traditional barber's pole†, and a frame for the sign in the same red as the window frame.

Screw the sign firmly to the wall and you're done. Locals are reminded where a chap can get a haircut and visitors are shown the way too. The simple purposefulness of the sign suggests a good old-fashioned barber's shop, where a man will ply his scissors with skill and a cut-throat razor will be on hand to smarten you up around the edges. Will there by Brylcreem? Maybe.§ Vitalis? Possibly.¶ Will the barber ask quietly under his breath if the customer would like 'Something for the weekend'? Perhaps. But whatever the answers to these nostalgic questions, the appreciative passer-by will be pleased with the look of the shop and its sign, and will proceed with his jaded spirits uplifted. For surely such things are indeed something for the weakened.

- - - - -  

* That's enough bile from me for now. I do try to restrain myself when writing my posts, and I steer clear of commenting about some of the bad architecture around us. Others do that better than I could, and I'm happy that they do. My role in general is to share what I appreciate and like.

† The traditional sign, the red of which is sometimes said represent the blood let during the barber-surgeon's work. Curiously from a modern perspective, the two 'trades' of barbering and surgery were combined in the Middle Ages and early modern period.

§ Brylcreem, fashionable in during World War II and the post-war period, certainly still exists as a range that includes the 'traditional' hair cream. As can be seen from my photograph, the barber's wasn't open on the day I was there, so I was unable to investigate the interior, its contents, or what might be offered to customers.

¶ Vitalis, something on my barber's shelf when I was a boy, is marketed as a 'hair tonic' that makes your hair more 'manageable'.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sticklepath, Devon

The Quaker graveyard in Sticklepath

I came to Sticklepath by accident, stopping there because the village shop advertised coffee, which I needed. I didn’t have time to visit the place’s most obvious attraction, the Finch Foundry (a working forge, not a foundry) other than pausing to admire its water wheel from beneath the head race, dodging drips as I watched the ironwork turn. But I did stop for a moment in the Quaker graveyard behind the forge, for a short contemplative break, and to wait for the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the tiny structure in my photograph.

It’s a shelter in one corner of the graveyard. I’ve no idea how old it is – the very solid looking walls seem to have some age, but the lovely thatched roof is recent, though no doubt a replacement of earlier thatch, perhaps of many generations of earlier thatch. It’s tiny, just big enough to contain a bench seat with room for two, looking out over the graves. It seemed to me to be an excellent example of the value of taking pains over a modest structure: how much pleasure it must have given, over the years, to people who need a rest, and to those who just like to see something well made.

I don’t usually feel morbid in graveyards and, in spite of the proximity of the tables where visitors to the forge could take refreshments, the place was quiet and peaceful. Could I hear the occasional drip and splash from the water wheel? Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t recall noticing it, but if I had it would have seemed a sound fit as much for calm as anything. The mood was enhanced by a poem by the hymn-writer and humanitarian James Montgomery (1771–1854) about just such a place.* The words are hand painted on a noticeboard attached to the back of the shelter. The poem seemed apposite: it ends:

Green myrtles fenced it, and beyond their bound
Ran the clear rill with ever-murmuring sound.
Twas not a scene for grief to nourish care,
It breathed of hope & moved the heart to prayer.

They’re lines very much of their time, and somewhat conventional, but well made and right – like the little shelter that contains them, and no doubt the products of the forge nearby. Fortified by such thoughts – or maybe by the coffee – I went on my way.

- - - - -

*James Montgomery was just a name to me, someone whose work was praised by Lord Byron. He seems to have been a good egg, supporting abolitionism, upholding the right of protestors to make their case, and writing a poem against the practice of employing small boys to climb up chimneys to sweep them. He wrote the carol ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ and adapted Psalm 23 to create the hymn ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

Hung well

When I was staring at the medieval arch in my previous post and checking my camera, a woman came up to me and said that if I liked old buildings, I should look at one a couple of doors along the street. This was a slate-hung building with a very unusual set of shapes cut into the slates. I told her I’d already spotted it and she said that the shapes cut into the slates – hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades – were there because the building was once ‘a gaming house’. I've not been able to find any reference to this history in books or online – I have few books on Devon apart from the usual Pevsner and Shell Guides. It’s possible, but it’s equally likely that someone just liked the shapes and had a bright idea about how to use them them.
As with the arch in the previous post, it’s interesting to think about this history, but my appreciation of buildings relates at least as much to aesthetics as to their usefulness or the ways they may have been used in the past. I like the way this building looks, with its slate-hung  walls, its twin gables over an overhanging, dentil cornice, and its sash windows with their small panes in the Georgian style. I hope the current occupiers (the Co-op) are proud of it.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ashburton, Devon

The sweep of history

Places like Ashburton warm the cockles of my heart. Any small town with an ironmonger and a bookshop is bound to please me. Anywhere with a good selection of charming houses, dating from the medieval period to the 19th century, is likely to please me too. Put the two together, with some decent coffee shops and a smattering of other eateries and pubs eateries, and you have a winner.

I was, of course, immediately attracted to this medieval arch, around which later buildings have grown up and multiplied with a casualness which, combined with slate-hung walls, or timber framing, or decent brickwork, makes satisfying townscape. That sort of satisfying milieu is just the context here, and the arch, charmingly encumbered with washing-up bowls, dog baskets, and other impedimenta of ironmongery, plays its part. It’s thought to be late-medieval, and looks it, and there have been remodellings in various periods, from the 16th century onwards

The building must have changed use a few times. It is said to have once been the Mermaid Inn. It’s easy to start fantasizing about the life this building has seen – everything from drunken brawls to debates about the merits of plastic and galvanized metal buckets – and this modest building played a part in at least one of the pivotal phases of the great sweep of English history. It’s reported that General Fairfax, Parliamentary General of Horse and supreme commander (before he was replaced with Cromwell when he refused to march against the Scots, who supported Charles II), stayed here after he drove the Royalists out of the town on 10 January 1646.

Fairfax is certainly a figure worth remembering, but this small medieval building, with its arch made of huge chunks of granite, is worth looking at for itself. Not least because medieval town houses are unusual. In Devon they’re almost as scarce as hens’ teeth.

- - - - -

* During their advance into the West Country, the Parliamentary army were active in Tiverton, Bovey Tracey, Torrington, Launceston, and Truro. There is more information here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Varieties of architectural experience

Susannah Charlton, Elain Harwood, and Clare Price (eds), 100 Churches 100 Years
Published by Batsford

Lots of people like visiting churches, but the image of the traditional ‘church crawler’ is of someone who likes old buildings – and often old buildings in the countryside. That range of interests excludes most 20th-century churches, which are widely seen as assertively modernist and are most frequently in towns. So 20th-century churches tend to be neglected by visitors, except for experts and the growing number of enthusiasts for the art and design of the last 100 years. This new book, published under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Society, presents a fresh look at British church architecture between 1914 and 2015, revealing the field to be rich and full of surprises.

The range is enormous. The period is not all about rebarbative modernism. It embraces such fine buildings as St Alphege, Bath (designed in the style of an early Roman basilica by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) and St Mary the Virgin, Wellingborough (Ninian Comper’s masterpiece, in a style that blends Gothic and Renaissance); or St Saviour, Eltham, London (by Cachemaille-Day, Welch & Lander, under the influence of German expressionism) and neo-Byzantine St John the Baptist, Rochdale (by Hill, Sandy & Norris, with glittering mosaics by Eric Newton). There’s modernism aplenty too, like St John the Baptist, Lincoln, where architect Sam Scorer and engineer Kálmán Hajnal-Kónyi contrived a hyperbolic paraboloid roof of breathtaking sweep, or, yes Brutalist-fanciers, the sad, decaying corpse of St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross, a concrete masterpiece (‘already British modernism’s most spectacular and erudite ruin’) that’s quietly rotting away.

One hundred of these diverse examples, each glowingly photographed and briefly described, make up the body of the book. There’s also a series of short chapters on notable architects and practices – including Edward Maufe, H. S. Goodhart-Rendell, George Pace, and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia (the latter the progenitors of the ruin of Cardross). And in addition the editors have called into being specialist chapters including revealing surveys by Jane Brocket on stained glass and by Alan Powers on the art and artefacts, from fonts to altars, murals to lettering, that enhance many of these buildings.

It’s often the art that lingers longest in my mind when I visit these 20th-century churches, but the book is more than a series of portraits of single buildings and fine artworks. It also gives a sense of how changing ideas about religious practice, different artistic influences from Europe, and varying social and economic conditions have influenced the architecture.  So we get a sense of the variety of architectural choices – but also the monetary constraints – at play in the 1930s, of the moves towards liturgical reform in the late-1950s and 1960s, of the influence today of the changing landscape of faiths (the subject of another specialist chapter, by Kate Jordan). And so the change and variety continue, and along with them the plenitude of artistic and architectural interest. 100 Churches 100 Years will inspire many to seek these qualities out.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

From Berlin to Britain

Alan Powers, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Published by Thames & Hudson

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the influential German school of design that began in Weimar before moving to Dessau and finally to Berlin. The school nurtured so many artists, designers, and architects who were pivotal to the modern movement during the 20th century. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy were all at the Bauhaus: Gropius was its founder; Breuer was a student and then a teacher there; Moholy taught the famous foundation course, as well as heading the metal workshop. All three spent time in Britain after the institution closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Other less well known Bauhäusler came to Britain too, a small host of people such as teacher and textile artist Margaret Leischner and Otto Neurath, an associate of many Bauhaus people, who created the important ‘picture-language’ system called Isotype. All these, and many more, appear in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, a highly informative and readable study of the school’s influence on British art and design.

The British work of each of the ‘greats’ (Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy) merits its own chapter, and these chapters throw up fascinating insights. We see Gropius building in timber and brick, in contrast to his more famous works in concrete; we learn of Breuer’s insistence that modernism need not be ‘cold’ or ‘mechanistic’, we find Moholy at work on a model of a future city for the film Things to Come. And we learn about the networks sustaining the modernists. An example is the various ventures of Jack Pritchard who was behind a company manufacturing plywood furniture and the now-famous Isokon flats in Lawn Road, North London, designed by Wells Coates but also involving Breuer. Indded Pritchard was pivotal in the British careers of Gropius, Breuer, and Moholy.

All this is fascinating, but perhaps still more so are Powers’ general chapters. One of these, ‘Elective Affinities: England and Germany’ outlines the relationship between the two countries in terms of design. It shows how British interest in modernism and modernist ideas predates the Bauhaus émigrés, tracing links between Britain and such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, and noticing items with modernist elements being exhibited– carved reliefs by Eric Gill, textiles by Phyllis Baron, Dorothy Larcher, and Enid Marx, to name but a few. As businessman and social reformer Harry Peach (who himself visited the Bauhaus at Dessau) said of Britain in 1927, ‘we had a modern movement’.

So Britain was fertile soil for the Bauhaus designers when they arrived, a point shown in another general chapter, ‘The People With No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s’. This chapter title is of course ironic. Powers shows that there was plenty of taste around, and much of it involved appreciating modern design. It was possible, as Paul Nash famously said, both to ‘Go modern’ and to ‘Be British’. A host of examples – some starting before the Bauhäusler arrived, some under the émigrés’ influence – shows British modernism alive and kicking. Powers covers both the endeavours that showed people ready to appreciate modernism – the efforts of Nikolaus Pevsner, the Council for Art and Industry, the magazine Circle – and the actual products of the designers – from innovative light fittings to revolutionary school buildings.

For anyone looking for an introduction to this aspect of British modernist architecture and design, this book is an excellent place to start. For someone keen to refresh and sharpen their knowledge of the Bauhaus and its influence in Britain, Bauhaus Goes West is likewise truly enlightening.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Carving out a life

Alex Woodcock, King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture
Published by Little Toller Books

When I’m wandering about looking at old buildings, I often get into conversations with people. One of the most frequent comments I hear when standing in front of a beautifully crafted bit of masonry or carving is: ‘Of course you couldn't find anyone with the skill to do that now.’ I usually respond by pointing out that, although skilled stone masons and carvers are hardly thick on the ground, they do exist, in the workshops attached to our great cathedrals, for example. A few cathedrals, like my local one, Gloucester, retain a full-time group of masons who work away at the conservation of their cathedral’s ancient and fragile fabric – replacing worn stones, carving new corbels or gargoyles, and so on.

Alex Woodcock – an archaeologist, expert on medieval sculpture, and poet, among other things – knows all about this. He took a mid-life career turn, perceiving that he might learn more about stone carving by actually doing it, and training to become a mason and carver. Coincidentally, he cites the writing of Richard Sennnett (whose recent book on cities I reviewed in my previous post), who said that when ‘the head and the hand are separate…it is the head that suffers’. By learning how to make the sort of sculpture produced by the builders of medieval churches one should come to a deeper understanding of the ancient work.  

This book is Woodcock’s account of the route he took from fascinated student of medieval carving to fully trained carver working on the repair of the sculptures of Exeter cathedral. His narrative is absorbing, even moving, and full of insights into the way such a carver has to work. It is nourishingly rich with descriptions of different kinds of stone (Woodcock loves stone), knowingly alert to the qualities of tools such as mallets and chisels, and atmospherically thick with the dust and stone fragments of the mason’s yard. It is also full of descriptions and appreciations of the Romanesque carvings in parish churches in the English West Country. It’s hard to describe the appearance of these carvings briefly – Woodcock evokes it in a series of accounts of different churches, building to a picture of a style that, broadly, combines figures carved with a simple and powerful directness and ornamental patterns of sometimes great complexity but similar boldness. Anyone who doesn’t know these wonderful carvings – on doorways, crosses, baptismal fonts – will find the book an eye-opener.

Woodcock describes these carvings, which date from the 11th or 12th centuries, in a way that brings them alive in the imagination. He has a go at the scholars and writers who pigeonhole this sort of work as ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ with the implication that it’s far inferior to the more ‘finished’ and ‘naturalistic’ Gothic sculpture that came after it. By contrast, he sees in the simplicity and clarity of the Romanesque carver’s lines and forms something of the power of modernist sculpture, comparing it to Brancusi. I agree. Woodcock is with the artists in this – John Piper loved this sort of thing, for example, as did Henry Moore – and the descriptions in this book are persuasive and are worthy to stand beside Piper's photographs.*

There’s a clue in those references to past artists and fellow-appreciators of the Romanesque, a clue to what makes this book stand out. It’s raised above the level of another ‘mid-life journey from crisis to fulfilment’ narrative by its deep appreciation of the ancient sculptures and by its admiration for past advocates of these neglected works. Among the book’s heroes, along with Piper, are people like the historian Kate Marie Clarke, who learned to understand and appreciate Norman fonts by making line drawings of them, and architect Philip Mainwaring Johnston, who restored churches and whose talent for drawing informed his sensitive work on medieval churches. These are all people for whom hand and head worked effectively together.

By the end of this book I was ready to give a triumphant cheer for Woodcock when he found employment as a stone mason, and was ready to believe I understood the carvings a lot better for reading his informed accounts of them. I now have another list of churches to visit and sculptures to look at. I was also ready to applaud Little Toller Books for publishing the book and for commissioning the excellent artist Ed Kluz to do the jacket. I hope that face smiles out across Britain's bookshops and that it attracts many buyers. I don't think they'll be disappointed.

- - - - -

* If you can get hold of the Shell Guide to Dorset, look at Piper’s photograph of the font at Toller Fratrum to see what I mean.

Friday, June 21, 2019


For a week or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some recent publications that have struck me. To begin with, a book about cities and the life lived in them...
Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling
Published by Allen Lane

There are lots of books about cities and how they should be shaped to meet our needs today. They range from academic studies and guides for planners to more general works, all of which can be peppered with obfuscating jargon (that can be variously weighted with politically biassed meaning, or vapid, or both). Richard Sennett is part academic sociologist, part city planner, and part generalist. His recent books have included studies of craftsmanship and cooperation. Building and Dwelling is the third in a trilogy that includes those two predecessors. Like them, it’s direct and clear in its language, rich with telling examples and engaging anecdotes, and full of good sense.

Sennett begins with a useful distinction between what he calls, borrowing the French distinction, ville (the architectural, physical reality of the city) and cité (the human life lived in it). His particular interest is in how these two interact – how people live in cities and alter them physically, and how the built environment influences the dwellers within it. A key point of the book is that city planners – like Cerda in Barcelona or Hausmann in Paris – can have a huge influence on the way cities look and develop, but that those living there after the planners are gone alter the buildings and neighbourhoods in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Cerda’s wonderful plan for Barcelona with its distinctive grid of octagons still gives the city its character – but not quite in the way the planner intended; we still walk along Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris, but in 1968 we were reminded that no plan could stop protests and riots as the baron of the boulevards had intended.

In the course of the book, which is dense with examples, Sennett covers as many kinds of diverse territories as a wide-awake urbanist or an exhausted traveller could imagine. At one end of the historical spectrum is classical Athens, with its agora (part marketplace, part law court, part eatery, part temple precinct) and pnyx (home of popular assemblies and political discussions). At the other end is the New York Googleplex, a ‘shell renovation’ of an old building, in which everything is available to Google’s employees – they don't have to step outside to get their clothes laundered, visit the gym, consult a doctor, eat, or even sleep.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that it is best to plan for cities to be adaptable or ‘open’. Sennett finds this admirable quality in unlikely places – in Nehru Place in Delhi, where there are businesses that form a kind of downmarket Silicon Valley, and a market where Sennett buys a dodgy smartphone. Or in parts of Shanghai, where people are faced with garish new capitalist office blocks, but react against their stridency by looking to the past.

But Sennett is not after some nostalgic hankering for an ideal past. At the end, after a traversal of many cities and accounts of many reactions to them (including outright escape from the city altogether), he comes down in favour of adaptability, of reconfiguring or repurposing parts of the city rather than either restoration on the one hand or sweeping everything away on the other. It's a humane kind of conclusion, based on the recognition that grand plans never turn out as they were intended and that modern pieties like ‘public consultation’ are often ineffective. And it's based on an obvious love of the world’s cities. Any other lover of cities with an interest in their history and their future should read this book.