Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

Keeping up appearances

On a recent visit to Stratford I was struck by this substantial town house. The street front is built in a Gothic style, but we’re not in the realm of cathedral Gothic here – this is the fancy, rather feminine style popular in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and often dubbed Gothick. Just the kind of facade that a prosperous townsperson would like to build in order to show they are up-to-date, fashionable, and sophisticated. And a very far cry from what then, even more than now, was the prevailing architectural style in the town – the timber-framed vernacular.

But for all their sophistication, this fashionable householder apparently did not have funds enough for a full rebuild. This is how the house looks when we step back a little and take in the side:

It's as timber-framed and old-world as the next one in Church Street, Stratford. Clearly, no one was fooling anyone with this partial makeover. The side wall of the building is highly visible from the street, and would have been more so when there was no vegetation to hide the join. With its curvaceous ogee-framed windows, battlements, and columned doorway abutting on to a Tudor or late-Medieval structure, it’s a bit of a joke, it’s true. But jokes aren’t all bad.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Embankment, London

Water gate revelation

I used to work in Covent Garden and sometimes, especially in summer, there was a strong temptation to cross the Strand and make for the refreshment provided by Gordon’s Wine Bar in Villiers Street. After a glass or two one could walk back via an architectural detour, through the remains of the Adelphi perhaps, or across the Embankment Gardens, past this monumental gateway, a reminder of a London long gone.

Before the Victoria Embankment was built in 1862, the gateway stood on the river bank. It was built in 1626 as the water gate to York House, home of George Villiers 1st Duke of Buckingham (whose name and title are commemorated in the street names hereabouts). The builder was the appropriately named Nicholas Stone, Buckingham’s master mason and an associate of Inigo Jones, the man who had introduced Palladian architecture to England a few years earlier.

Stone’s water gate is a vigorous, almost restless, design with its banded columns, its big keystones, and its busy cornice jutting in and out. Less restrained than most of Inigo Jones’s rather severe surviving buildings, it seems to look forward to the more baroque style of the late-17th century. And stranded in its garden it looks even odder than it must have done in the 1620s. One up to the London County Council (also long gone) for preserving it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Much Wenlock, Shropshire

Space invaders

After the church, the chapter house was often the most impressive part of a medieval monastery – especially if that monastery was a house belonging to the Cluniacs, an order who were famous for their ornate buildings. This is part of the chapter house at Wenlock Abbey, which was originally a Saxon monastery but was re-established by the Cluniacs after the Norman conquest.

The monks of Wenlock built their chapter house in about 1140. Every day they met here, entering through a magnificent triple-arched doorway, and sitting down to discuss abbey business and hear a reading of one chapter of the monastic rule. What remains of the interior now is three high stone walls, each decorated with intricate multiple arcading. This kind of decoration, covered with chevron or pellet motifs or with carved mouldings, is a hallmark of the most elaborate late Norman architecture in England.

I photographed the one wall of the three that has plants growing on it. The other two are kept scrupulously clear of vegetation, but here nature is taking its course and the flowers (are they some form of campanula?) grow freely. I’m not sure if this is a conscious decision on the part of the building’s custodians, English Heritage, although I do know that they have approved of this kind of equilibrium between plants and stones at certain sites.

Deliberate or not, I like this modest invasion. The plants don’t seem to be doing any harm to the masonry and the unruly splash of colour they provide is welcome amongst the grey stone and clipped lawns. There is more than one way to display a ruin, and old buildings are hospitable to other species than our own.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wroxeter, Shropshire

What the Romans did for us

The Romans – and those among the British who adopted the Roman way of life during the occupation – built a great deal. But most of their buildings in Britain, if they survive at all, do so as ruins a foot or two high. For example, only a few full-size Roman arches remain in Britain, and even Hadrian’s Wall, in all its windswept magnificence, is a shadow of its original self. The remains of a Roman town like Wroxeter, which survive as an acre or two of foundation and hypocaust, and a section of high wall, are impressive. But much more has vanished. Where on earth did it all go?

Well, some at least of the stone and brick was recycled. I have seen Roman bricks incorporated into the structures of Saxon churches, Norman castles, and gatehouses of uncertain age. The gateway to the churchyard of St Andrew’s, Wroxeter is testimony to just such a case of reuse. The two round stone columns come from the Roman site down the road, an inspired piece of recycling and rejigging - the bases are apparently from Roman farm buildings, the columns themselves from Wroxeter's baths, and the capitals from some other unknown Roman building in the locality. The walls of the church itself, which was first built in the Saxon period, though it has been much altered since, are also partly of stone blocks cut originally by the Romans. The Roman builders and masons did more for us than we sometimes realise.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shrewsbury, Shropshire

The daily round

Many people know about the abbey at Shrewsbury because it features in the Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, and is the home of the eponymous monk. But apart from the church, itself much truncated after the dissolution, little remains of the buildings of Cadfael’s monastery. The church is surrounded by roads, one of which slices its way through the site of the cloister, where the domestic buildings of the monks would have been sited.

This is one tantalizing fragment that has survived. It is a pulpit, and was originally part of the monks’ dining hall or refectory. Monks were expected to eat in silence, the only sound in the refectory being the voice of one brother, who would climb the stairs to the pulpit and read to the others as they ate. The lives of the saints were favoured for mealtime readings.

The ornate pulpit was built in the early-14th century. It is vaulted inside and carefully designed with broad openings, so that the reader could be heard, and small carvings to inspire those who looked up towards it. Cadfael, however, had he really existed, would not have known this delicate piece of stonework – he was a monk of the 12th century. He would probably have known a much plainer, round-arched pulpit, but the regular ritual of readings, like the continuous round of liturgy in the church, would have been the same.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whitecross Street, London

Peabody's buildings

In the last four decades of the 19th century, London faced a housing crisis. The working poor were tied to central London because that was where the jobs were. But even a room or small flat in a central area cost a large proportion of the weekly wage – perhaps more than one third of the income of a family trying to manage on a pound a week. And such a room provided often cramped, ill-maintained, and unsanitary accommodation. Landlords were more interested in the bottom line than in helping tenants, and there were sometimes middlemen, leaseholders who had to make a profit for themselves before passing on the remainder of the rent to the ground landlord. Slums abounded, disease was rife, discomfort the norm.

Before the Cheap Trains Act of 1883 brought down fares, moving to the suburbs, where rents were lower, was out of the question for most whose sole chance of employment was in central London. A few managed by renting a house slightly bigger than they needed and subletting one or two rooms to help pay the rent (some of my own ancestors got by in this way). But even this solution required an income somewhat higher than rock-bottom. So the poor mostly clung on in rookeries of rooms and flats, subdivided houses, and depressing back-to-backs.

A few visionaries looked for ways to improve things. Some started ethical property companies, promising investors a lower return than a slum landlord would expect, and providing decent, modern housing. Still more radical was the British-resident American banker and philanthropist George Peabody, who founded the Peabody Trust in the early 1860s to build and manage housing for the poor.

The Peabody Trust built apartments in multi-storey blocks, designed to offer clean, decent accommodation mostly in one- two- and three-roomed units. They had built just over 5,000 dwellings by 1887, including this block in the Whitecross Street area, one of a number of such buildings south of Old Street and north of the Barbican.

Peabody’s flats were much needed and much appreciated. With their multiple bedrooms, not to mention WCs and laundry rooms, they were much better than the usual rented dwellings of the time. There were plenty of takers, who probably found more space, better hygiene, and lighter rooms than they had had before. It wasn’t all good news, though. Not everyone could afford the rents and many of the poor who were displaced to build the blocks did not find accommodation there. But the flats fulfilled a need, offering decent housing at high density in the centre of town.

From today’s perspective, the flats, with their austere rows of windows and high walls relieved only with a little striped brickwork look somewhat forbidding. Inside, the one example I’ve been in seemed very cramped by modern standards. They compare well with many a 1960s or 1970s flat, though, and they are still fulfilling a need. Today Peabody manages around 20,000 homes in London, making it possible for some 50,000 people to live near the centre of the capital.