Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Mall, London

Kicked a building lately?

That’s the title of a collection of writings by redoubtable American architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, and straight away we know what she means. Architecture can be exasperating and many a building seems to demand to be kicked, punched, or otherwise assaulted. It’s pointless, of course: the thing will still be standing and we’ll have a sore toe. But it’s still hard to resist.

Regular readers of this blog will know, though, that I mostly write about buildings I like – there’s quite enough spleen online without additions here. So I’d like to propose another reason for kicking – or at least slapping or tapping – a building: it can help you find out what it’s made of.

Hence the picture above of this plump fluted tapering three-quarter Doric column in The Mall. It’s part of the lower, supporting storey on which rests Nash’s Carlton House Terrace (1827–33), one of the grandest London terraces of them all. Up above, it’s all ornate Corinthian columns, balconies, and fancy decoration. Down here, at what was seen as a lower-status level, we have the plain Doric columns and panels of vermiculation – walls moulded, in other words, so that they look as if they’ve been eaten away by worms. (Yes, by worms. Some of the artists who exhibit at the ICA, which is located in this building, would no doubt have a thing or two to say about that.)

The columns, though, are not quite what they seem. Give one a smack, and you hear, not the dull thud of stone, but a hint of a ring. They are made of cast iron. A surprise, of course, but not so inappropriate as you might think. The ancient Greeks used iron in their architecture – not in this way, but by joining together stone blocks with invisible iron clamps. Nash just took things a step further and made the whole column out of metal. As more than one architectural historian has noticed, Nash was after all interested mainly in large effects and sweeping gestures. And you never quite know where you are with him. What looks at first like a Greek revival building by Nash often turns out to be a kind of souped-up fantasy Classical. What looks like stone is usually stucco – or cast iron. He didn’t much mind whether his effects were achieved by traditional craftsmanship or modern technology.

So don’t forget the senses of touch and hearing when you ‘look’ at a building. I’m always tapping away at bits of old shop fronts to find out whether they’re made of wood, stone, or metal, touching columns to discover whether they’re cool marble or some warmer imitation, knocking on surfaces that might conceal hidden hollows and voids. Kicked a building lately? You bet.


flipsockgrrl said...

Corio Villa in Geelong, Victoria (Australia), is another surprising piece of architecture. Most houses of its vintage and style in this area are constructed of wood, sometimes with stone foundations. Corio Villa was prefabricated in iron and arrived from Edinburgh in 1855 as a ready-to-assemble kit.

Philip Wilkinson said...

It seems amazing that something as ornate as Corio Villa should have been prefabricated, but there was a growing trend for prefabricated houses in the 19th century, especially after the 1851 Great Exhibition, housed in London's Crystal Palace. Houses of all sizes, workshops, and even churches were prefabricated, often by British firms, and shipped around the world.

bazza said...

Ha ha Philp! I have a vision of you kicking some Victorian shopfront only to have an irate shopkeeper berate you as a vandal.
My wife works for Barnados and they have use of that building on days when the London Marathon is run. All their runners return there for a free massage and some refreshments.
It certainly looks beautiful.
Thanks for the fascinating information, as usual.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh, I'm very careful!

Anonymous said...

I have always been intrigued by the smooth, neat aspect of those columns, on the occasions when I passed by on my way to events at the nearby British Academy headquarters. I thought they were plastered brickwork rather than stone; now thanks to your wonderful article the mystery is solved!
The metal prefabricated buildings became an European-wide industry after the British pioneered it the first part of the c19th. One of the best such examples which I came across is Istanbul's Bulgarian Church of St Stephen (, which I understand is one of the few remaining iron prefabricated churches, a true architectural marvel, produced in Vienna and shipped to the the capital of the Ottoman Empire via the Danube and the Black Sea waterways.

P.S. Your book "50 Architecture Ideas You Really Need To Know" is for sale in a few Bucharest bookshops- I have been very pleased to be able to consult and buy it in this corner of Europe.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Historo: Thanks for the link to the Church of St Stephen. I've heard about this building, but after my most recent visit to Istanbul. Another reason to revisit that fascinating city.

Glad to hear the book is finding its way around the world!