Sunday, May 24, 2009

Park Road, London

Freewheeling forms

The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner was the creator of Anthroposophy, a movement that attempted to link and reconcile science and mysticism. His work touched many fields, from medicine to education, agriculture to architecture. Although Steiner himself died in 1925, his legacy remains in many forms – his mutlitudinous writings, schools founded on his principles, and the work of the Anthroposophical society, which has its headquarters in Dornach, Switzerland in a building, the Goetheanum, designed by Steiner himself.

The United Kingdom Anthroposophical Society is based at Rudolf Steiner House in Park Road, London, a stone’s throw from Regent’s Park. Here they hold classes, run a library, put on theatrical productions, and host exhibitions and other events. Begun in the 1920s and extended in the following decade, the building was designed by Montague Wheeler and features curves, artfully placed windows, and other details that set it apart from the buildings around it. I don’t know anything about Montague Wheeler, except that he was himself involved in the Anthroposophical movement.

Coming across this building unawares, one might suspect that a distant echo of Art Nouveau has survived here in northwest London. But the architecture must also be influenced by the more outré curves of Steiner’s Goetheanum, which Wheeler must have studied, bringing a more restrained version of Steiner’s expressionism to the terraces of London. The interior, recently refurbished, has its less restrained moments, though. I must return and look at the extraordinary twisting staircase, the organic, plant-like forms of which seem to chime well with Steiner’s pioneering work in biodynamic agriculture. English buildings, like Steiner’s voluminous works, are inexhaustible.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Bricks of Bridgnorth

This Wesleyan chapel of 1853 clings to the hillside just off the High Street in the middle of Bridgnorth. It caught my eye because of its strong Classical façade and as I squinted at it through the rain on a darkening afternoon I thought its front wall was painted grey between the white pilasters. But the grey is actually the purplish grey of the bricks themselves, which have been used to striking effect here.

As with most nonconformist chapels, the emphasis is on the entrance front, a grand version of a common formula for dissenting chapels, with pitched roof, pediment, round-headed windows, and central doorway. The sides are much plainer, but the builder took the trouble to mirror the shape of the front windows in a series of blind arches, the first of which can just be glimpsed in my photograph.

The chapel’s front does have its oddities, it’s true – the curious moulding above the name stone towards the top and the little circular opening higher still. But its frontage shows a nice, and I think quite unusual, use of grey bricks, which are generally reserved for engineering projects such as bridges and viaducts. Even in the rain, they look good.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Funiculi funicula

The Shropshire town of Bridgnorth is set on steep sandstone cliffs that have brought all kinds of advantages to the place over the years – a good defensive position, caves that have been lived in until surprisingly recently, excellent views into the countryside. But it’s a challenge scaling the scores of steps that climb the 111-foot rise from the Low Town to the High Town and so in the 1890s a solution was found that most of us associate with the seaside: a cliff railway.

The building-fancier in me was immediately taken by the head building at the top of the track, a charming bit of 1892 fancy with an ‘old English’ timber-framed tower topped with a rather French looking roof. Beneath it run a pair of tracks. The original twin carriages were powered by water and gravity. Each car was mounted on top of a water tank. When the car reached the top of the slope its tank was filled, the weight sending it down the track and pulling up the other car with its empty tank.

Nowadays the lifting is done by electrical winding gear. The cars were renewed in 1955 in a curvaceous style like miniature versions of the charabancs of the time. But if with its 1950s cars and 1890s ticket office the cliff railway looks old fashioned, it’s obviously still providing an important service. The day I was there passengers were plentiful – and engineering, design, and public service were combining triumphantly together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Royal College of Organists, London

Pulling out all the stops

I probably first went to a concert in the Royal Albert Hall about 30 years ago, and when I came out I was amazed and slightly stunned by the building just to the west of the hall. I must have passed it dozens of times since then, but it still makes me look. How could such an extraordinary building have materialized among the terracotta and brick of South Kensington?

It was part of the succession of educational and artistic endeavours that took place in the area in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. From the Natural History Museum and the V & A northwards to the Albert Hall, a swathe of culture and learning was cut through West London, turning the area into what became known as Albertoplis. With the great elliptical Albert Hall completed, a proposal was launched for a National Training School for Music, and this was the building that emerged to fill the role.

It was designed by Lt H. H. Cole, one of a number of military engineers associated with the buildings of Albertopolis and the son of Sir Henry Cole (mastermind of the Great Exhibition, prime mover of the V & A, designer of the first postage stamp, and creator of the first Christmas card). A hard act to follow for his son, who’d been a Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey in the North-West Province in India. Cole Junior was not an experienced architect, and he worked with his father and a committee of the great and the good developing the design over a period of months after the committee was formed in 1873. Its light rooms and convenient position served the Training College well until it was closed after the formation of the Royal College of Music. The Royal College of Organists moved in during 1904 and stayed until 1990.

The college would be a pleasant but unremarkable structure without the reliefs and sgraffito decoration designed by F W Moody and carried out by the artist’s students. Musical personifications, instruments of all sorts, portraits of composers, musical putti, the building has the lot. It’s a façade as noisy as the studios and practice rooms it no doubt contained. A writer in Country Life said that the effect was as if the building had strayed here from Istanbul, and it is just as lively as any building in that noisy and vibrant city. A bit of a fish out of water, then. But not a cold fish, nor one that need be ashamed of its scales.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Crouch Hill, London

The White Stuff

I travel regularly to Central Europe, and one of the pleasures of going there is the long and rich tradition of decorating the external walls of buildings. Why should wall painting be for indoors only? In the Czech Republic fresco and sgraffito abound on medieval, Renaissance, and baroque buildings, and their subjects tell stories, recall past owners, or act as testimony to religious devotion.

The efforts of these artists sometimes make me wish that more English buildings bore this kind of decoration. A few from the late-19th century do. This one, the Old Dairy on Crouch Hill, still bears a stunning series of seven panels in red and white fresco. Dating from around 1890, they illustrate the dairying process, from grazing and milking, through cooling and butter-making, to delivery, and were commissioned by the Friern Manor Dairy to give their premises a new public face. The artist is unknown.

There is, of course, something idealized about these frescoes. They’re a form of advertising, after all, and the dairy clearly had an interest in making us imagine pretty milkmaids, shining milk churns, and idyllic rural settings. But they’re well drawn, with cows, horses, and indeed buildings, that one can believe in and that could teach city children who’d not seen a cow something about where their milk and butter came from. Making a rather ordinary city street extraordinary, they can teach us a thing or two.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Overbury, Worcestershire

Small but perfectly formed

Bus shelters. Most of us hardly notice them, and the people who need them are just as well protected from the elements by today’s glass and steel advertising boxes as by something more traditional. And yet these modest buildings can be as important an ingredient in the character of a place as a cottage or a pub.

I was made strikingly aware of this once when I went to a talk by Sue Clifford, co-author of the essential book England in Particular. She flashed up a series of slides of bus shelters from different parts of the country – cob and thatch from Devon, limestone from the Cotswolds, timber and shingles from the Chilterns, or whatever, to show how they could be both contributors to and barometers of local character. It was as clear, as swift, and as striking a lesson in the notion of local distinctiveness as one could have.

I’m reminded of all this when I pass through the village of Overbury, beneath Bredon Hill in south Worcestershire. Here the estate was owned by the banking Martin family in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and they employed both Richard Norman Shaw and Ernest Newton to make improvements. A school, village hall, several cottages, and many additions to other houses, were the result.

And this little gem. It’s said that Overbury’s bus shelter began life as a roadside fountain, designed by Newton in the 1870s before later being converted when the omnibus arrived to take villagers to Evesham or Tewkesbury. Local stone, stylish carpentry, and that lovely moss-covered half-hipped roof make this little building special. The seating arrangements and board for notices must be appreciated by users too. Overall, it’s a class act.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Compton Verney, Warwickshire

Palace of art

When I first came across Compton Verney the place had an air of melancholy mystery. The great 18th-century house can be glimpsed through trees from a road the joins the Fosse Way, the old Roman route that runs northeast from Cirencester to Leicester and on to Lincoln. Rows of sash windows and gigantic corner stones made the place look imposing in the manner of a house by Sir John Vanbrugh, but in the 1970s it all looked rather down at heel. What was this place, and who lived there?

The building that I could make out through the trees had been begun on the site of an older house in the early years of the 18th century for the 12th Lord Willoughby de Broke. The designer isn’t known, but the strongest candidates (apart from Vanbrugh) are William and Francis Smith of Warwick, successful Midlands master builders who often also acted as architects. What is known is that in the 1760 the 14th Lord Willoughby de Broke had the place remodelled by Robert Adam. It was Adam who was responsible for turning what had been a courtyard house into the striking U-shaped building that still exists.

In the 1970s, when I first saw the place, no one lived there. Requisitioned by the army during World War II, Compton Verney had stood empty ever since, and could easily have been one of the hundreds of country houses that were demolished in the years after the war. But the building’s absentee owner held onto it, and it was finally bought and turned into an art gallery with funds from the Peter Moores Foundation. The architectural firm Stanton Williams were commissioned to convert the interior and build an extension – modern in idiom but discreet and complementary to the original building – on the site of former service buildings.

After almost 50 years of neglect, Compton Verney has found a fitting role. The building houses a permanent collection that specializes in a number of interesting areas of art history (highlights: Chinese bronzes, British folk art) and puts on temporary exhibitions that keep one going back. No doubt one day the place will have me blogging again, too. The conservation work, which embraces the Capability Brown landscape in which the house sits, is now turning to the ice house in the grounds. I wonder if they will find a way of showing visitors the impressive sunken brick-domed interior. Anyone for CCTV?

Go here for more about Compton Verney and its history.