Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lancaut, Gloucestershire

Lost among trees on the Gloucestershire side of the River Wye is the tiny ruined church of Lancaut. There’s a farm and a cottage nearby, but no village – just some lumps and bumps in the ground that mark the foundations of neighbouring buildings that disappeared long ago. The church is 12th century, shows signs of having been heavily restored in the 18th century, and was abandoned in the 19th.

The church at Lancaut seems to be the archetypal remote ruin. You drive a long way up a dead end and take to a steep footpath before you get here. But it’s accessible from the river on the English side, the bank being level here in contrast to the towering 200-foot cliffs on the other side of the Wye. Perhaps that fact makes one local story plausible: that the Cistercian monks who later made their home a few miles away at Tintern first settled here before upping sticks and building their monastery at the more famous site. The Cistercians, with their love of remote locations, would certainly have liked the look of this place, and they had a history of trying out sites before moving on elsewhere.

If Lancaut was just too remote for the monks, it continued to serve a tiny local congregation before the church fell out of use in around 1865. The farmers and labourers who worshipped here baptized their children in a cast-lead font (one of a number in Gloucestershire made from the same mould) that is now preserved in Gloucester Cathedral, a small memorial to one of the remotest of English buildings.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

This building began life as Oozells Street School, one of the board schools designed by J H Chamberlain, architect of Birmingham’s School of Art (see previous blog entry). These outstanding buildings were built as the result of a drive on the part of Birmingham’s politicians (especially the Liberals under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain, no relation to the architect) to make Birmingham better. The fruits of this work included a library, the Council House, the Art School, and 30 board schools. This one is a quality Gothic building in brick with stone ornament, evidence of what its architect had learned from Ruskin and of his employers’ commitment to providing decent school buildings for their children.

In 1997 the school was converted for use as an art gallery. The architects of the conversion, Levitt Bernstein, added new floors and incorporated glass extensions to accommodate the stairs and lifts. They weren’t afraid to be modern, juxtaposing their glass-and-steel stair towers with Chamberlain’s brick walls and Gothic openings. The contrast works. The see-through stair tower gives you close-up glimpses of the fine Victorian detailing while the stair itself adds all kinds of new lines and curves in counterpoint to those of the original structure. It’s a happy marriage of the two styles, and a testimony to the ability of English buildings to combine old and new in dramatic and interesting ways.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

School of Art, Birmingham

Schools, colleges, universities – they’re all buildings that ask for the best in design, but so often money, timing, expediency, or politics dictate that they don’t get what they deserve. J H Chamberlain, a Leicester-born architect who worked in Birmingham in the second half of the 19th century, wasn’t having any of that. As architect of Birmingham’s board schools he produced buildings that were a cut above the usual. And for the city’s School of Art he pulled out all the stops.

The School of Art is a very Victorian blend of brick, terracotta, stone, and tile. It’s very Gothic, too, with lots of pointed arches, little niches, and bits of moulding and carving. Elements like the repeated narrow windows and the band of tiles and moulded panels running around the building hold it all together. It must have inspired the first students when the doors opened in 1885. Even if modern students don’t quite respond in the same way to its Ruskinian Gothic, they still benefit from its light interiors, can still admire its glowing orange brickwork, and can still reflect that it was worth all the care that Chamberlain and his builders took.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Southwark, London SE1

Commit no nuisance
I first came across a sign bearing the words ‘Commit no nuisance’ on a wall in Southwark, London SE1, and realised fairly quickly that it means, in the words of one dictionary definition, ‘Do not use this place as a lavatory’. The sign – and the problem it addresses – is not unique to London. I’ve since spotted examples in other towns including Winchester and Cheltenham, where it is placed low down near one of the entrances to the former brewery, a building designed by virtuoso Victorian brewery architect William Bradford. A recent web search also revealed ‘Commit no nuisance’ signs as far afield as India and South Africa. There was probably one in Dublin, too, because James Joyce includes the phrase in Ulysses. Most of the British examples look as if they are in Victorian or Edwardian lettering; the Cheltenham brewery dates from 1898 and Joyce’s novel is set on 16 June 1904, Victorian values – and nuisances – surviving in to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Meeting Room, Defford, Worcestershire

Corrugated iron has so much going for it. It’s easy to produce, light and cheap to transport, strong, and simple to use. Corrugated iron buildings can be put up quickly, by people without specialist skills. The material can be used to roof broad unsupported spans and is equally at home creating curved or straight surfaces. And another thing: it can look good too.

In spite of all its advantages, most people think of corrugated iron as a lowly material, good for barns, shanty towns, and temporary buildings. Well, here’s a building that’s been standing for over a century and, thanks to a recent lick of paint, is looking as good as ever. It’s a church, one of hundreds of ‘tin churches’ that were put up at the end of the Victorian period to satisfy demand quickly. Many were ordered as flat-packs from companies, often British, who shipped them to the far reaches of the empire – or to needy clients nearer home. The people who put up this ‘Meeting Room’ probably didn’t think that it would still be here in a hundred years’ time, but it’s still functioning, still hosting the weekly service where the Gospel is preached, as the notice says, ‘If the Lord will’.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lock-up, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire

The lock-up was once a common sight in English towns and villages. The local constable found it useful to have a place where wrongdoers could be detained until the authorities could deal with them and hotheads and drunkards could be locked up until they cooled down. In other words, lock-ups were used in a similar way to the cells at the police station in a time before there was an organized police force.

Cramped and dark, lock-ups fell out of favour when social reformers won better rights for prisoners in the 19th century. Only a few survive, like this 18th-century one at Breedon-on-the-Hill. The tiny, one-room building is all about security. There is a stout door, no windows, and – because tiles or shingles might be removed from inside by an inmate eager to climb out – a solid stone roof. The adjoining wall is part of a secure enclosure or pound, where stray animals could be kept until claimed by their owners.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Upper Parliament Street, Nottingham

One of the landmark buildings by Watson Fothergill (see previous blog entry) is the office and printing works of the Nottingham Express. This picture shows just one corner of the building, the striking entrance, beneath its round tower. Fothergill liked towers and turrets – he knew they gave variety and eventfulness to a façade and must have relished the opportunities they provided for interesting roofs, openings, gargoyles, and so on. This one has more than a touch of one of Fothergill’s heroes, William Burges, the architect of Cardiff Castle. Burges would have admired the polychrome masonry, the Gothic arches and ornate capitals, and the generous use of sculpture on the building as a whole.

As on Fothergill’s own office, the carvings tell a story. To highlight the political stance of the Nottingham Express, he included heads of three prominent Liberal politicians: William Ewart Gladstone (who had served his first period as Prime Minister and resigned his leadership of the Liberal Party by the time this building was constructed in the mid-1870s), Richard Cobden and John Bright (MPs and leading campaigners against the Corn Laws). Both architecturally and politically, the Nottingham Express building nails its colours to the mast.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

George Street, Nottingham

The architectural history books are full of the names of the great architects who changed the face of England, the big names whose work took them from one end of the country to the other. But there are also distinguished local architects, people who are known mainly for their work in a specific town, city, or area – Godard of Leicester, the Jearrads of Cheltenham, and the Bastards of Blandford Forum, for example. One of the most notable of these local heroes was Watson Fothergill, the Victorian architect who left the city of Nottingham a host of lively, original buildings. Many of them are still giving pleasure today.

This is part of the façade of Watson Fothergill’s office in George Street. It’s a wonderfully Victorian mixture of advertisement and creed. ‘I can do multi-coloured brickwork, timber-framing, and intricate Gothic details,’ it says. And also: ‘I employ the best carvers and take trouble with my lettering.’ But it’s more than this. The little heads above the windows are identified as A W N Pugin and G E Street, two of the most revered Gothic architects of the Victorian period. The man who displayed mentors like these on his office façade was insisting that he could deliver the best – and that he believed in the transcendent value of Gothic architecture. Further along the front are more names – William Burges (another Goth with a flair for decoration) and Norman Shaw (pioneer of the Old English style that inspired the Arts and Crafts movement). Fothergill learned from these designers too, to Nottingham’s benefit. Shops, houses, offices, a bank, and other buildings from his office enliven the city’s streets.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Adam Street, London

Nowadays people think of Robert Adam as above all else a master interior designer – pastel shades, plaster cameos, and elegant fireplaces were his forte. But his many country house projects show that he could design on a grander scale and he wanted to do so in London. So in 1768 he and his architect brothers leased a site between the Thames and the Strand, planning one of the biggest mixed developments the capital had seen. The project, known as the Adelphi (from the Greek for ‘brothers’, adelphoi), was made up of rows of houses, set above cellars with river access that were to be let for the storage of wine and coal.

It was a grand scheme, designed to high specifications, and the houses were decorated by the best artists of the time. But it proved expensive to build and the houses were slow to find tenants. The brothers finally got permission to run a lottery to finance the completion. Sadly, the Adelphi didn’t last. Many of the houses were altered in the 19th century, and more still demolished in the 20th. Now only a few houses remain, together with the impressive headquarters of the Royal Society of Arts. For many passers-by, the street names (John Adam Street, James Street, William Street) are the only reminder of the brothers’ project. This is one of the best surviving Adelphi houses, its white strips of decoration marking it out as an Adam building. It maintains its neoclassical dignity, in spite of being dwarfed by the office block behind.