Thursday, May 8, 2008

New Street, Birmingham

In spite of blitzkrieg, modernism, decay, and demolition, there are still plenty of Classical buildings in England. And so architecture buffs, who know their metopes from their triglyphs, get used to recognising the Classical orders. But how often do we really look at their details, the curving spiral volutes of Ionic capitals, the curly acanthus leaves of the Corinthian?

Of course, capitals are usually high up on a building. You need binoculars and toned neck muscles to look at them closely. One of the joys of visiting the great cities of the ancient world – Istanbul is supreme in this respect – is the amount of Classical rubble lying around on the ground. In places like that you can look at all kinds of architectural sculpture close-up, without craning your neck.

Now and then in England, though, the accidents of building design bring you face to face with this kind of detail.This Corinthian capital is in the New Street branch of Waterstone’s bookshop in the centre of Birmingham, which occupies the former Midland Bank, a building of the late-1860s designed by Edward Holmes. The style is a grand, confident Classicism. It’s just the kind of thing for a High Victorian bank but the generous spaces also make it a good setting for a large bookshop.

The stairs afford interesting glimpses of some of the Classical details, and the invention and craftsmanship that went into their creation. The picture shows the capital atop one of the giant Corinthian pilasters inside the shop. Face to face with this capital, we see the Corinthian order, or an eccentric Victorian adaptation of it, afresh. Crisp acanthus leaves curve inwards and outwards, spirals thrust up and forward like springs, and the whole thing supports, not an entablature or lintel, but another piece of decoration, an even bigger piece of foliage. The most striking touch of all, though, is the centrepiece – a bird opening its wings amongst the scrolls and leaves. All praise to the Victorians for their whimsy, and to Waterstone’s for their conveniently sited staircase that gives us this close-up view.

1 comment:

Peter Ashley said...

Thankyou for the tip about photographing birds from the Waterstone's staircase.