Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Threat to Charles Barry hospital building

Probable redevelopment of the Royal County Sussex Hospital in Brighton would almost certainly entail the loss of the imposing 1828 Barry building shown above. It certainly has no place in the indicative model of the replacement hospital, also shown (below). The Barry building occupies the space taken up in the model by the low-rise, grass-roofed building on the left. Barry is often thought of as a Victorian architect but his career straddled the transitional period between Georgian and Victorian and much of his early work prefigures his later accomplishments. He could do iconic of course, as in the Houses of Parliament, but he could also do contextual, as at the Royal Sussex (just north of the Georgian quarter of Kemp Town), where the cream stucco echoes the Regency terraces of Brighton and Hove.

Clinical needs do change and hospitals are prone to continuous accretive development, so Barry's building has its fair share of haphazard, ad hoc additions, but the pedimented central bay and the rusticated projecting wings are still clearly legible behind the mess. While it is virtually impossible for health buildings to escape alteration altogether, there is scope for rationalisation of accommodation within the context of a wider masterplan for the hospital site. Provision of efficient services and high-quality facilities should be compatible with retention of the beacon Barry building. We await developments.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Hubris in the City

Among the finest buildings of any period in the City of London are those by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a Mannerist master who knew how to refresh classicism, having developed an implicit understanding of its rules. On his Midland Bank building at Poultry, for example, pilasters are reduced to attenuated bases and capitals, something that might look illiterate on a Po-Mo building but which in Lutyens' hands simply looks like the fluent manipulation of a complex language.

Several Lutyens buildings survive, but in one or two instances it has been a close-run thing. The picture here, showing another Midland Bank building but this time in Leadenhall, opposite Rogers's Lloyd's building, is most interesting not for what it shows of Lutyens' art but for what it shows of attempts to get rid of it.

The thin dark band on the side of the building, at the back just above ground floor level, is all that is left of an aerial pedway, or elevated pedestrian walkway, that jutted out from the next door building.

When this adjoining building was put up in the 1960s, a network of elevated walkways was planned across the City of London and planners required developers to include them in new buildings. Naturally, the result was a lot of dead-end walkways in mid-air, where adjoining sites had yet to be redeveloped.

In a way you have to admire the confidence behind this policy, and the chutzpah that sees a fine building like Lutyens' as something that interrupts a social experiment - but only a temporary interruption of course, until the march of progress sweeps it away. Nowadays, with aerial pedways seeming as dated as men on the moon and a new set of urban management cliches in place, it is of course the Lutyens building that has survived and the neighbouring building, with its presumptuous projecting pedway, that has gone.      

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Stripping off in Fitzroy Square

One thing you can't help noticing as you walk round historic neighbourhoods is how many front steps are covered up, usually by cement or asphalt, sometimes by another layer of reconstituted stone or perhaps by tiles. In some cases the depth of the covering is such that the railings either side are shortened by three or four inches.

The good news is that the original stone is usually still there, underneath, and it can be a real revelation to uncover it - suddenly the proportions all work again and the appearance of the property as a whole is improved.

The picture shows the steps down to the basement at 6 Fitzroy Square in London, home of The Georgian Group. The basement here was radically altered by the bank that owned the building for the greater part of the twentieth century, and one change was to cover the steps with a thick layer of cement, reaching four inches in places. We are now removing the cement, and you can see the beautiful original stone reemerging into the light of day for the first time in well over half a century.  The worn treads that are being uncovered give a real sense of connection with the history of the house.

Do let us know if you've also brought stone steps back to life - or if you plan to do so. It can be tempting to rush into it, and some loose coverings that have failed can be prised off easily enough, but best to seek expert advice first. The removal methodology differs for different coverings and the original stone may need repairs. Remember too that listed building consent is likely to be needed and that some later coverings, such as Victorian or Edwardian tiles, may well add to the historic interest and attractiveness of a property. But common-or-garden cement or asphalt is no enhancement and the effort of removal is well worth it. The results can be spectacular.

King Street, Blackburn - roadbuilding or preservation?

Update on the threat to 53 King Street, Blackburn. Huw Thomas RIBA has kindly produced this image of what the building could look like if restored, and what its immediate surroundings (currently vacant and blighted after recent demolition) could look like with sensitive new infill development. 

This is a watershed moment for Georgian Blackburn - do we opt for demolition and roadbuilding or, on the other hand, for restoration and the filling in of gaps with human-scale development? 

Click on the image for a bigger version.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Imminent threat to Welsh country house

The toll of dereliction, decay and demolition affecting Welsh country houses is grimly laid bare in compendia such as Lost Houses of Wales by Tom Lloyd and Forgotten Welsh Houses by Michael Tree and Mark Baker. The problems are very definitely still with us, as evidenced by a current application to demolish this small country house in Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire and replace it with a block of flats. The building dates from 1810, incorporating earlier fabric, and surprisingly is unlisted. It has been badly neglected and mucked about (for example by the insertion of plastic windows in the front elevation) and so, yes, it looks a mess, but that is hardly the fault of the building.  In fact it makes a strong contribution to the character of the conservation area, it retains charming interior features (as shown here) and it occupies a delightful seafront site. As at Hamlet Court on the Isle of Wight, this latter point adds to its vulnerability, as developers scent value in greater housing density. But there is a big difference between picturesquely commanding a scenic site, and thus adding to it, and exploiting the site parasitically.