Thursday, June 27, 2019

From Berlin to Britain

Alan Powers, Bauhaus Goes West: Modern Art and Design in Britain and America
Published by Thames & Hudson

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, the influential German school of design that began in Weimar before moving to Dessau and finally to Berlin. The school nurtured so many artists, designers, and architects who were pivotal to the modern movement during the 20th century. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy were all at the Bauhaus: Gropius was its founder; Breuer was a student and then a teacher there; Moholy taught the famous foundation course, as well as heading the metal workshop. All three spent time in Britain after the institution closed under pressure from the Nazis in 1933. Other less well known Bauhäusler came to Britain too, a small host of people such as teacher and textile artist Margaret Leischner and Otto Neurath, an associate of many Bauhaus people, who created the important ‘picture-language’ system called Isotype. All these, and many more, appear in Alan Powers’ Bauhaus Goes West, a highly informative and readable study of the school’s influence on British art and design.

The British work of each of the ‘greats’ (Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy) merits its own chapter, and these chapters throw up fascinating insights. We see Gropius building in timber and brick, in contrast to his more famous works in concrete; we learn of Breuer’s insistence that modernism need not be ‘cold’ or ‘mechanistic’, we find Moholy at work on a model of a future city for the film Things to Come. And we learn about the networks sustaining the modernists. An example is the various ventures of Jack Pritchard who was behind a company manufacturing plywood furniture and the now-famous Isokon flats in Lawn Road, North London, designed by Wells Coates but also involving Breuer. Indded Pritchard was pivotal in the British careers of Gropius, Breuer, and Moholy.

All this is fascinating, but perhaps still more so are Powers’ general chapters. One of these, ‘Elective Affinities: England and Germany’ outlines the relationship between the two countries in terms of design. It shows how British interest in modernism and modernist ideas predates the Bauhaus émigrés, tracing links between Britain and such architects as Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, and noticing items with modernist elements being exhibited– carved reliefs by Eric Gill, textiles by Phyllis Baron, Dorothy Larcher, and Enid Marx, to name but a few. As businessman and social reformer Harry Peach (who himself visited the Bauhaus at Dessau) said of Britain in 1927, ‘we had a modern movement’.

So Britain was fertile soil for the Bauhaus designers when they arrived, a point shown in another general chapter, ‘The People With No Taste: English Modernism in the 1930s’. This chapter title is of course ironic. Powers shows that there was plenty of taste around, and much of it involved appreciating modern design. It was possible, as Paul Nash famously said, both to ‘Go modern’ and to ‘Be British’. A host of examples – some starting before the Bauhäusler arrived, some under the émigrés’ influence – shows British modernism alive and kicking. Powers covers both the endeavours that showed people ready to appreciate modernism – the efforts of Nikolaus Pevsner, the Council for Art and Industry, the magazine Circle – and the actual products of the designers – from innovative light fittings to revolutionary school buildings.

For anyone looking for an introduction to this aspect of British modernist architecture and design, this book is an excellent place to start. For someone keen to refresh and sharpen their knowledge of the Bauhaus and its influence in Britain, Bauhaus Goes West is likewise truly enlightening.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Carving out a life

Alex Woodcock, King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture
Published by Little Toller Books

When I’m wandering about looking at old buildings, I often get into conversations with people. One of the most frequent comments I hear when standing in front of a beautifully crafted bit of masonry or carving is: ‘Of course you couldn't find anyone with the skill to do that now.’ I usually respond by pointing out that, although skilled stone masons and carvers are hardly thick on the ground, they do exist, in the workshops attached to our great cathedrals, for example. A few cathedrals, like my local one, Gloucester, retain a full-time group of masons who work away at the conservation of their cathedral’s ancient and fragile fabric – replacing worn stones, carving new corbels or gargoyles, and so on.

Alex Woodcock – an archaeologist, expert on medieval sculpture, and poet, among other things – knows all about this. He took a mid-life career turn, perceiving that he might learn more about stone carving by actually doing it, and training to become a mason and carver. Coincidentally, he cites the writing of Richard Sennnett (whose recent book on cities I reviewed in my previous post), who said that when ‘the head and the hand are separate…it is the head that suffers’. By learning how to make the sort of sculpture produced by the builders of medieval churches one should come to a deeper understanding of the ancient work.  

This book is Woodcock’s account of the route he took from fascinated student of medieval carving to fully trained carver working on the repair of the sculptures of Exeter cathedral. His narrative is absorbing, even moving, and full of insights into the way such a carver has to work. It is nourishingly rich with descriptions of different kinds of stone (Woodcock loves stone), knowingly alert to the qualities of tools such as mallets and chisels, and atmospherically thick with the dust and stone fragments of the mason’s yard. It is also full of descriptions and appreciations of the Romanesque carvings in parish churches in the English West Country. It’s hard to describe the appearance of these carvings briefly – Woodcock evokes it in a series of accounts of different churches, building to a picture of a style that, broadly, combines figures carved with a simple and powerful directness and ornamental patterns of sometimes great complexity but similar boldness. Anyone who doesn’t know these wonderful carvings – on doorways, crosses, baptismal fonts – will find the book an eye-opener.

Woodcock describes these carvings, which date from the 11th or 12th centuries, in a way that brings them alive in the imagination. He has a go at the scholars and writers who pigeonhole this sort of work as ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ with the implication that it’s far inferior to the more ‘finished’ and ‘naturalistic’ Gothic sculpture that came after it. By contrast, he sees in the simplicity and clarity of the Romanesque carver’s lines and forms something of the power of modernist sculpture, comparing it to Brancusi. I agree. Woodcock is with the artists in this – John Piper loved this sort of thing, for example, as did Henry Moore – and the descriptions in this book are persuasive and are worthy to stand beside Piper's photographs.*

There’s a clue in those references to past artists and fellow-appreciators of the Romanesque, a clue to what makes this book stand out. It’s raised above the level of another ‘mid-life journey from crisis to fulfilment’ narrative by its deep appreciation of the ancient sculptures and by its admiration for past advocates of these neglected works. Among the book’s heroes, along with Piper, are people like the historian Kate Marie Clarke, who learned to understand and appreciate Norman fonts by making line drawings of them, and architect Philip Mainwaring Johnston, who restored churches and whose talent for drawing informed his sensitive work on medieval churches. These are all people for whom hand and head worked effectively together.

By the end of this book I was ready to give a triumphant cheer for Woodcock when he found employment as a stone mason, and was ready to believe I understood the carvings a lot better for reading his informed accounts of them. I now have another list of churches to visit and sculptures to look at. I was also ready to applaud Little Toller Books for publishing the book and for commissioning the excellent artist Ed Kluz to do the jacket. I hope that face smiles out across Britain's bookshops and that it attracts many buyers. I don't think they'll be disappointed.

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* If you can get hold of the Shell Guide to Dorset, look at Piper’s photograph of the font at Toller Fratrum to see what I mean.

Friday, June 21, 2019


For a week or so, English Buildings turns into a book blog as I review some recent publications that have struck me. To begin with, a book about cities and the life lived in them...
Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling
Published by Allen Lane

There are lots of books about cities and how they should be shaped to meet our needs today. They range from academic studies and guides for planners to more general works, all of which can be peppered with obfuscating jargon (that can be variously weighted with politically biassed meaning, or vapid, or both). Richard Sennett is part academic sociologist, part city planner, and part generalist. His recent books have included studies of craftsmanship and cooperation. Building and Dwelling is the third in a trilogy that includes those two predecessors. Like them, it’s direct and clear in its language, rich with telling examples and engaging anecdotes, and full of good sense.

Sennett begins with a useful distinction between what he calls, borrowing the French distinction, ville (the architectural, physical reality of the city) and cité (the human life lived in it). His particular interest is in how these two interact – how people live in cities and alter them physically, and how the built environment influences the dwellers within it. A key point of the book is that city planners – like Cerda in Barcelona or Hausmann in Paris – can have a huge influence on the way cities look and develop, but that those living there after the planners are gone alter the buildings and neighbourhoods in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Cerda’s wonderful plan for Barcelona with its distinctive grid of octagons still gives the city its character – but not quite in the way the planner intended; we still walk along Hausmann’s boulevards in Paris, but in 1968 we were reminded that no plan could stop protests and riots as the baron of the boulevards had intended.

In the course of the book, which is dense with examples, Sennett covers as many kinds of diverse territories as a wide-awake urbanist or an exhausted traveller could imagine. At one end of the historical spectrum is classical Athens, with its agora (part marketplace, part law court, part eatery, part temple precinct) and pnyx (home of popular assemblies and political discussions). At the other end is the New York Googleplex, a ‘shell renovation’ of an old building, in which everything is available to Google’s employees – they don't have to step outside to get their clothes laundered, visit the gym, consult a doctor, eat, or even sleep.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that it is best to plan for cities to be adaptable or ‘open’. Sennett finds this admirable quality in unlikely places – in Nehru Place in Delhi, where there are businesses that form a kind of downmarket Silicon Valley, and a market where Sennett buys a dodgy smartphone. Or in parts of Shanghai, where people are faced with garish new capitalist office blocks, but react against their stridency by looking to the past.

But Sennett is not after some nostalgic hankering for an ideal past. At the end, after a traversal of many cities and accounts of many reactions to them (including outright escape from the city altogether), he comes down in favour of adaptability, of reconfiguring or repurposing parts of the city rather than either restoration on the one hand or sweeping everything away on the other. It's a humane kind of conclusion, based on the recognition that grand plans never turn out as they were intended and that modern pieties like ‘public consultation’ are often ineffective. And it's based on an obvious love of the world’s cities. Any other lover of cities with an interest in their history and their future should read this book. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire

A strong support

The House on Crutches is next to the Town Hall in Bishop’s Castle. It’s a 16th-century house with stout oak frame filled in between with wattle and daub and covered by a 19th-century slate roof. The upper floor is a few feet larger than the ground flood and projects beyond it, supported over the pavement beneath with two very solid-looking posts. Many timber-framed houses have a projecting upper floor, its timbered cantilevered out a bit in a feature called a jetty. Among other advantages, the jetty arrangement provides a little more room upstairs. But this house is different: the overhang is enormous and in an altogether different league: no wonder it has been noticed in the building’s name.

Like many an old building, the House on Crutches has seen various uses. Originally presumably a house, it shows signs of commercial use, and is now a museum, so people can learn not only about the town’s history but also marvel at the crooked stairs, fine oak beams, and the rest, within. It surveys the history of Bishop’s Castle – it has been in its time a border settlement with a castle, market town, ‘rotten borough’ with two MPs representing a place with just a few hundred people, and staging post on the route between England and Wales. Now it is supporting the variety of activities (cattle market, two micro breweries, shops, coffee shops) that a town, even a tiny town, needs in order to thrive. The House on Crutches seems to be playing a vital part.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Eardisland, Herefordshire

Fit for new purposes

Looking for something to post at a time when I'd not seen anything new recently, I made a virtual visit to Eardisland by browsing through my photo library. I was reminded that, have diverted to this Herefordshire place when en route to somewhere else, I'd found not only the preserved AA telephone box that I posted some years ago, but also a wonderful brick-built dovecote. They say it's 18th century, although at least one source dates the building to the 17th. The most recent edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England Herefordshire volume sums it up: c. 1700.

Whatever its exact age, it's impressive, even though it shows signs of repair and alteration in the 20th century. The louvre at the top where the doves came in and out, at the junction of the four-gabled roof, is still there, and there are still large stretches of original brickwork, albeit punctuated by a large section of presumably later bricks in a different colour on the flank wall. The square, four-gable shape is not an unusual one for a dovecote. I suppose it has the twin benefits of allowing the birds to fly up into the louvre exit from whichever side they're nesting on, while also producing a pleasing shape that can often act as a focal point in a yard, garden, or, as here, a village street. This dovecote is quite tall, and unusually has ground and upper floors: the ground floor was originally a garden room while the doves occupied the upper space.

The dovecote looks well as you approach it over the bridge, and it's good to see it has found new uses – changes of use are often vital if ancient buildings are to be preserved, and can enable a building to become not just a heritage asset but also useful, and so more likely to last. The dovecote now houses a museum on the upper floor and a small shop downstairs. As I was passing quickly through when I took this photograph, I didn't call in at the the shop, but I see online that it's run by volunteers for the benefit of the community. Such an enterprise can be an asset to a village, especially if it has has lost an earlier village store or Post Office. Small shops become community hubs, centres where people not only buy provisions but also exchange news and information, and pass the time of day. Next time I'm passing, I'll make a point of stopping, saying 'hello', and, I hope, making a purchase or two.

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* There is a reference to a dovecote here in 1469, but that would have been a different structure.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Redcross Way, London

Five per cent philanthropy

The second half of the 19th century saw those in power taking belated but welcome interest in the health and wellbeing of the English working classes, and a major issue was providing poor people with adequate housing. This was a particularly pressing issue in big cities, where slums abounded, rents were often high, and tenancies were precarious. The need was publicised not only by works of the likes of Friedrich Engels, but also by the efforts of various high-ranking advocates and philanthropists, not least Prince Albert himself, who was president of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes. An example of a ‘model cottage’ (actually four flats on two floors) was built in Hyde Park for the 1851 Great Exhibition – it was rebuilt in Kennington Park the following year.

Soon, other campaigners took up the challenge of building better homes for the poor, and a number of organisations were set up. The usual idea was to attract investment in companies that would provide decent homes for poor people. The investors would get a reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investment, foregoing big profits for the satisfaction of helping those in need – hence such schemes were sometimes referred to as ‘five per cent philanthropy’. A number of housing organisations started in this way. Perhaps the most famous was the Peabody Trust, founded with a large donation from the banker George Peabody. The flats in my picture were built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, started by Sir Sydney Waterlow, printer, banker, and Liberal politician. Waterlow set the company up in 1863 with capital of £50,000 and by 1900 it was said to be housing some 30,000 people in London.
Cromwell Buildings, in Southwark, a stone’s throw from the one of the railway lines that snake their way above this part of South London, was one block of flats built by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. This five-storey block now has ten flats. Originally the block housed 24 units: 10 flats with four rooms, 12 with 3 rooms, and 2 shops. The flats were said to be modelled along the lines of the prince’s model cottage, and each had its own proper cooking facilities and WC. The balconies are a common feature of this type of workers’ housing, intended to provide fresh air. Good ventilation and adequate space were priorities in communities in which people had been forced to live in cramped accommodation with few windows. So was adequate sanitation – apparently the rooms containing the lavatories jut out at the back, promoting good air flow.

Housing like this benefitted the working classes hugely in late-Victorian and Edwardian London. However, even the flats were out of reach of the very poor. Most of the tenants of the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company seem to have been skilled artisans, together with people who worked in services such as the police, plus a handful of labourers. Even so, their impact was huge. It has been estimated that in Southwark alone, about ten per cent of the population lived in blocks built and run by companies and trusts like the IIDC and Peabody. Most of the dwellings are still dong good service today.

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For earlier pieces on model dwellings, see my post on the ornate examples in Pimlico here and the plainer but admirable Peabody flats here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Clink Street, London

In the Clink: bishops, actors, geese

Medieval architecture is not thick on the ground in central London, and it’s a rare pleasure to come across this fragment in a back street not far from Borough Market. When I first saw it, in the 1980s, this area was usually deserted and run down. I only knew about it because I worked nearby for a couple of years, and because, before that, studying English literature, I’d come across references to the area when reading about Shakespeare and Dickens. This is the part of London that housed the original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were put on, and is now home to the reconstructed Globe – as well as to Borough Market, with its cornucopia of food stalls. So this part of Southwark is a magnet for anyone who likes good food and good drama. But many of those people probably miss this building.

It’s a wall of the great hall of Winchester Palace, the town house of the bishops of Winchester in the Middle Ages. The palace was built mostly by Henry of Blois, who was bishop in the 12th century, although the beautiful tracery of the rose window at the top of the wall is a later addition – possibly in the time of William of Wykeham, bishop in the late-14th century. Why did these men have a palace in London? Because in the Middle Ages, bishops were powerful men with strong connections to the capital: most had a residence in London. After Canterbury, Winchester was one of the most powerful bishoprics of all. The diocese had a lot of property in this part of London, and Winchester was a town with strong royal connections – it was once the capital. Its bishops were usually well connected men from the upper aristocracy: Henry of Blois was a brother of King Stephen; William of Wykeham was not born into the nobility, but rose to a high level in the administration of England under Edward III; he was, famously, the founder of Winchester College and of New College, Oxford.

These important people had a big London home, a palace built around two courtyards, of which this hall would have been the heart. The land controlled by the bishops, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London or the adjoining Southwark parishes, even contained its own prison, known as the the Clink, to which the bishop’s courts could send wrongdoers. The area became known as the Liberty of the Clink.† By Shakespeare’s time, because the Liberty of the Clink lay outside of London’s legal sway, it attracted all kinds of activities frowned upon in the City. One of these was the theatre, hence the presence of the Globe (and the Rose) nearby. Prostitution was also tolerated more here than in the City, and the local members of the oldest profession were known, bizarrely, as ‘Winchester geese’.

So this quaint looking wall harks back to a time when high churchmen played a very different role in society from the one they adopt now. A time when they wielded considerable worldly power, and tolerated activities that would earn them condemnation today.§ They also played host to Britain’s greatest dramatist and were patrons of great artists and craftsmen. We’re most used to seeing the results of that patronage in the great cathedrals. This tantalizing wall is a reminder that they could extend their patronage into the worldly sphere too.

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† A ‘liberty’ was a manorial jurisdiction; nobody knows where the name ‘Clink’ came from, but its similarity to the metallic sound of chains or barred doors is suggestive.

§ As indeed many of us do condemn church authorities for tolerating moral misdemeanours today, when such things come to light.