Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Colmore Row, Birmingham

William Richard Lethaby is one of my architectural heroes. Born in Devon in 1857 he served his apprenticeship locally before working for Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most versatile and influential late-Victorian architects. Through Shaw, he met William Morris and joined Morris’s circle, becoming an early member of the SPAB. He was committed to craftsmanship, the tactful treatment of old buildings, and to old-fashioned quality – what he called ‘Good honest building’. As a result he had a significant influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.

He had another side, yearning for a quality of efficiency in building that has led some to see him as a precursor of Le Corbusier and the modernists. ‘A house should be as efficient as a bicycle,’ he said. These two sides of Lethaby come together in interesting ways. His stunning church at Brockhampton-by-Ross, Herefordshire (subject of a post on this blog soon, I hope) has stone walls, thatched roofs – and a concrete vault. And the building illustrated here, one of Birmingham’s finest, is a happy marriage of craftsmanlike detail and rather modern lines. It was built as the offices of the Eagle Insurance Company, though nowadays, in keeping with these sybaritic times, it’s a coffee house. I love the big window, making a bold statement on Colmore Row, and the decorated parapet, which still has its emblematic eagle. The door on the left is simply stunning, a piece of beaten metalwork under a curving stone canopy that must have given Lethaby particular pleasure.
So why isn’t England full of landmark buildings by this fine architect? The rigours of life on site don’t seem to have suited Lethaby that well. Bad experiences managing the construction of the church at Brockhampton caused him major problems – he acted as master builder as well as architect and when things did not go smoothly Lethaby suffered both financial loss and severe mental strain. It was his last building.

But Lethaby had at least three other creative lives. At Westminster Abbey, where he was surveyor to the fabric, he had the chance to put into practice his ideas about restoration. He was also a pioneering educator, founder of the Central School of Art and Design in London and, from 1901, first Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. Third, he worked in architectural history and theory, publishing on medieval art, on the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (to get inside of which he apparently had to disguise himself as a woman, the building being closed to western men at the time), and on Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth. That rather odd title perhaps sums up his mixture of interests: like the really great modern artists, he could be very old and very new at once. Hats off to William Richard Lethaby.


Thud said...

Birmingham...who would have guessed?

Peter Ashley said...

The more I see and read of Mr. Lethaby's buildings I want to know more. Thankyou for introducing me to his masterpiece Brockhampton-by-Ross, even if we did have to stand in a wet hedge for ten minutes waiting for the sun to come out.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well I remember that day. Ten minutes wasn't long to wait for such a definitive decisive moment. When you went on your whistle-stop visit to Orkney you should have gone to Melsetter House, which from the point of view of the unmitigatedly English, is Lethaby's most far-flung building. Another time, another time...

Birmingham Park and Fly said...

Colmore Row is one of the iconic landmarks in Birmingham. It is really a beautiful building.
I'm glad to see that there are people interested in the architecture in Birmingham.