Sunday, April 28, 2024

Piccadilly, London: a reprise

Red face, red box

I want to reprise a post I did about nine years ago, because it provides some context for another post I intend to write shortly. So here is a brief account of the prototype red telephone box that stands at the entrance to the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London, a tiny building that stands at the beginning of the story of one of Britain’s best known, and best loved, bits of architectural design. Here’s what I wrote back then.

Having coffee in Notting Hill Gate before calling my son to arrange our visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, I take out my mobile…to discover that the battery is completely drained. As I search my memory (I did put the mobile on charge, didn’t I?) I’m sure that there’s a public telephone in the underground station…but I’m equally sure that I can’t remember my son’s number. Well, who needs to know phone numbers? They’re in the mobile’s memory, are’t they? The problem requires the ingestion of more caffeine….

As I stare into the coffee lees and try to turn over the compost heap of my memory I somehow uncover part of my son’s number. By the time I get down into the underground and a blast of fresh air and particulates has further invigorated my system, I have managed to recover all of it – I really don’t know how – and my problem is solved. Later, walking into the gateway of the Royal Academy I see the origin, as it were, of my salvation: the prototype red telephone box, the very first K2 box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott as an entry in a competition in 1924 and built, this experimental one, out of wood.

One or two of my steadfast readers will know that I am occasionally an advocate of kicking a building, but this one I tap, and yes, it gives off a woody sound. Looking at the prototype, it’s very similar to the final iron K2 design. Differences include the precise proportions of glazed to solid area in the door (the prototype has a slightly larger solid area at the bottom) and the pierced lettering of ‘TELEPHONE’, which was replaced by a glazed panel in the final version. The pierced lettering has the added advantage of providing ventilation – the old boxes could get rather stuffy inside. Both prototype and finished designs are again subtly different from the later and more common K6 box, which is slightly narrower and shorter and has a different glazing pattern. The K2, by comparison, is grander, larger, more imposing, truer perhaps to the origins of the design in the neo-classical architecture of that master of shallow domes and ingenious lighting effects, Sir John Soane. Dignified yet brashly coloured, classical yet practical in a modern world, the K2 is, quite simply, a lovely design.

I was grateful, the day I stopped and looked at Giles Gilbert Scott’s little masterpiece, that London still has some public telephones. They’re too often seen, in these days of the ubiquitous mobile, as useless ornaments fit only for tourists to pose in. But they’re still admired as elegant bits of ingenious design, and inventive souls, I’m pleased to say, are busy finding new uses for some of the redundant ones, from miniature art galleries to libraries. Whether used for its original purpose or not, hats off to the red box.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Totnes, Devon

Continuity and change

‘How old is that building?’ people ask. And the answer is often: ‘Various ages.’ Most buildings get altered over the years, as fashions, needs and uses change. So while one might be able to say that a structure was first built in a particular period, what we can actually see today is the result of many stages of alteration and renewal. Here are two neighbouring examples in the High Street at Totnes.

The building on the left with its black and white decoration bears a date, 1585, which no doubt marks its original construction. The N.B. whose initials also appear on the front was Nicholas Ball, a merchant, who was mayor of Totnes in 1585. Ball’s house rests on four stone columns at ground floor level. Originally these columns fronted an open loggia, with doors and windows set back – open colonnades are a feature of a number of buildings in this town. However, the open arches on this building were filled in with sash windows in the 19th century, when the door was also moved forward – although the wooden door itself, barely visible in the shadows in my photograph, is actually the original 16th-century one. Above the shallow arches of the ground floor are two further floors that were altered in the 18th century, when large sash windows fitted on both floors. The front was also heightened, probably at the time the upper windows were installed, as can be seen by the way the black uprights at either end stop far short of the cornice. So the building is a typical English mixture, showing alterations from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and is no worse for that.

Something similar can be said for the house on the right. This has an attractive pair of Georgian windows – a curvaceous bow window on the middle floor and a simple sash window on the top floor. The ground floor has what looks like a 20th-century shop window, although the black pilasters at either end and the panelled door to the left may well be older. The other striking thing about this front is that, in spite of the Georgian windows and quoins running up the sides, it’s jettied – in other words the upper floor sticks out. Jetties were a long-standing fashion from the late Middle Ages to the 17th century, and jettied buildings are timber-framed. So beneath the later plasterwork and fenestration is a wooden framework and a structure much older than it appears to the casual glance.

Thus do buildings trip us up when we make assumptions about their date, but also give us clues.