Monday, August 8, 2016

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

New light on old streets

In the late-19th century, many towns were starting to turn on the electricity for the first time. Where gas light had been, electric lighting became increasingly common, and soon, as we known, electricity was powering much more than lighting. With electricity came special buildings: power stations and small urban utility buildings. In the 1890s, with virtually every style available to the designer, architects had to decide what these new buildings were going to look like. They tried all sorts: arched polychrome brickwork, grand neo-classicism…you name it.

The Borough Surveyor in Cheltenham, Joseph Hall, chose something completely different for the Central Electricity Lighting Station of 1894–5: a brickwork design evoking a Renaissance palace, with a big arched central doorway, small windows above, and an upper storey (added later) with a row of terracotta columns and a patterned brick cornice. It’s a striking little building, sticking out alike from the town’s stucco-covered houses and the Victorian Jacobean revival stonework of the nearby library. But looking closely at the upper brickwork (photograph below), the effect is achieved quite simply, with a few different standard pieces used to create the patterns of dentil courses and arches.

The building lost its original role some time ago and is now part of a hotel, the Strozzi Palace, whose name pays tribute to its architecture. In truth the Lighting Station is only slightly like the 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, which has a large arched central doorway and a dominating cornice, combined with a very different stone facade and rows of windows. In spite of the differences though, it does share something of the same spirit, as if throwing a different light on Cheltenham’s architecture, as its bright electric lamps would throw a new light of a different kind on the town.
Detail of upper arches and brickwork


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Seeing some brick building, I feel there seems to be an assumption that the material requires large plain surfaces and no decoration. This example shows that brick can be used with imagination and flair. Are the terracotta columns mass-produced from the same mould(s)?

Unknown said...

One either likes the door - or one doesn't...

Joe Treasure said...

Introduced to Renaissance architecture as an A-level student at Cheltenham Grammar School, I remember seeing this building, which I must have walked past hundreds of times, in a new light, with its rusticated stonework (for which I had not previously had a word) and its blind arcade (ditto). Of course at that stage I was dependent for my education on slides and illustrated books, and had no idea how small it was compared with your average Florentine palace.

Philip Wilkinson said...

How interesting, Joe. Working out scale can be a problem, especially with photographs. And, back in history, with drawings, too, that weren't always done to scale (though they sometimes included some people, to give one an idea). It was a really important turning point when British architects in the 18th century went to Athens and did MEASURED drawings of the classical buildings and remains.
Back at school, I did not do A-level Art, so had to pick all this stuff up on my own. Which I just about managed to do by the time I did my A-levels, being able to answer a question about Gothic architecture on my medieval history paper.