Friday, 30 April 2010

Two fine Georgian country houses - and a magnificent staircase


John Nash's Luscombe (top) and Sir Robert Taylor's Sharpham on the River Dart (middle and bottom); among the private houses visited by the Georgian Group today and yesterday as part of its members' visit to South Devon. Click on images for larger versions. (Photos: Robert Bargery).

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: IV

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.

Click on the images for larger versions.

Have planning controls over the London skyline worked? They focus almost exclusively on protecting views of St Paul's Cathedral, including from vanishingly distant points such as King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park, Surrey. All well and good, and it's for that reason that west London is so much less cluttered with tall buildings than east London. But the paradox is that having tightly-defined viewing corridors actually results in a skyline that looks very anarchic and random, because the logic and morphology of development only make sense from a distance - and then at a pinch. In today's view (top picture) from Primrose Hill, for example, St Paul's is just about visible after some searching, and in that narrow sense the tall buildings policy might be said to have worked. But it is not at all dominant, and in that sense the policy has failed badly. 

The classic Canaletto view of unchallenged Wren spires survived long beyond the eighteenth century. Even in 1960 (bottom picture) the architectural hierarchy was intact, with St Paul's dominant in views east past Parliament and Westminster Abbey. It may now be difficult to return to that, but the only sensible approach is to recognise that the existing tall buildings policy, though well-intentioned, has not delivered; and to adopt a Paris or St Petersburg-style prohibition on tall buildings within a defined central area. This would be easier if we could abandon the rather absurd and unnecessary competition between dual financial centres (The City and Canary Wharf), which has led to self-imposed pressure on the City to build big and tall in one of our key historic areas. Despite what developers say, it is not at all clear that provision of tall buildings has any beneficial impact on economic performance - we strongly suspect that the correlation barely registers - but if they are deemed necessary then there is ample scope for them in Canary Wharf, Croydon and elsewhere. And then we can begin to rescue the Cities of London and Westminster before the visual anarchy becomes irremediable.      

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: III

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.
















Click on the images for larger versions.

With the rash of Second War memorials appearing in central London, you could be forgiven for thinking the war happened seven rather than seventy years ago. Perhaps there is a rush to honour the combatants while they are still alive to appreciate the gesture. That is understandable, and it is also perhaps understandable that aesthetic criticism is muted; people admire the bravery and sacrifice of those involved in war and, in an over-sensitive age, questioning the design and siting of memorials might be misconstrued as questioning the heroism that inspired them. We should not be so meek. Part of the reason the Royal Fine Art Commission was set up in 1924 was to introduce a degree of aesthetic control over the welter of war memorials being erected after the Great War. And now, with Hyde Park Corner and Green Park beginning to resemble a graveyard, it is time once again to hone our critical faculties.

What has happened in Whitehall serves as a warning. For nearly ninety years, Lutyens's Cenotaph has served as a national focus for remembrance of sacrifice in war. And facing it from a respectful distance, in a way that is hugely poignant, is a fine equestrian statue of Earl Haig (left). But now, plonked between the two in front of Barry's Cabinet Office, there is an interloper: a memorial to The Women of World War Two (right). And what a clodhopper it is: a standing affront to the grace and eloquence of every memorial and building around it. It would look fine, perhaps, in Outer Minsk. But here?

You might question the need for the memorial at all. After all, the 'women of World War Two' were part of a collective human endeavour and it is more than a little patronising to treat them as a separate subspecies. But if we are to memorialise them separately, must we do so with something that resembles nothing so much as a lump of petrified excrement? They, and we, deserve better.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: II

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.







Click on the images for bigger versions.

Top pair: the great Arch at Euston Station in London, designed by Philip Hardwick in 1838 and an inspiring monument to the railway age. If, as seems possible, we are now entering a second railway age, there would be few better ways of announcing it than by rebuilding the arch. This now seems a realistic prospect as part of the planned redevelopment of the Euston Station forecourt (right), which is now cluttered with outlets selling fast food (ie food that induces a desire to fast). The Arch was, and could be again, uplifting; literally it raised the sights. The current experience is mean, pinched, oppressive and lowering. 


Bottom pair: Welcome to Waterloo? That is hardly the message given by this bewildering assemblage of no entry signs, which along with barriers and underpasses contribute to a sense of complete disorientation as the pedestrian approaches the main entrance of Waterloo. The chaos outside seems to foreshadow chaos within - not a good first impression for a major railway station. Originally this was 'a great home railway terminus', as the right hand picture proudly says, but what seems terminal now is the decline. Inside, the former Eurostar terminal lies empty and the carefully-sited statue of Sir Terence Cuneo is cheapened by the jostling food outlets that now hem it in. As with Euston, the potential for improvement is huge.    

Monday, 19 April 2010

Pugin's 'Contrasts' Revisited: I

A. W. N. Pugin's highly influential Contrasts, published at the tail end of the Georgian era in 1836, uses paired illustrations to demonstrate what he saw as a descent into degenerate design. It was also a manifesto for a return to proper, honest design, rooted in moral principles. In the run-up to the General Election on 6 May, we offer our own series of paired illustrations to show how design quality in the public realm has fallen off alarmingly; it is an indictment of recent practice, but also shows the huge opportunities for improvement. Civic space has been badly degraded, with a whole range of negative consequences that go far beyond aesthetics. The second decade of the twenty-first century should be a time when, individually and collectively, we get a grip on the design, management and maintenance of shared urban space.


Left: Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's K2 telephone kiosk for the GPO, 1920s. Every detail carefully considered. Note the fluted door surround, the Crown perforated for ventilation and the domed roof based on the tomb of Sir John Soane.  


Right: No known designer. The modern telephone kiosk is essentially a pre-vandalised product, but graffiti artists and flyposters can still leave their mark. These models have been made largely redundant by the widespread use of mobiles; newer versions are actually advertising hoardings with a token handset attached and should not be classified as permitted development, under which utility companies can circumvent normal planning rules.                                                          

Friday, 2 April 2010

Outrage on Cheapside

When The Prince of Wales criticised the proposed design of a new building by Jean Nouvel in Cheapside, which runs between St Paul's and the Bank of England in London, he himself faced the usual storm of criticism from vested interests in the architectural profession.  But looking at this picture of the new building, with its unrelenting smoked glass facade stretching towards Wren's Church of St Mary-le-Bow like a 1970s coffee table set on its side, who would say that the Prince's judgement has been other than vindicated?




The same view in 1890 (left) and five years ago. Click on images for a larger version.

As Gavin Stamp said in The Guardian in August last year, 'the scandal is not that the Prince of Wales suggested that an overrated posturing French modernist was the wrong person to design a close neighbour to St Paul's. The scandal is that the preceding building on the site was allowed to be demolished. New Change Buildings by Victor Heal, built on blitzed land in 1953-60, was a stodgy but well-made classical design which made no attempt to upstage Wren. It was faced in fine red brick and Portland stone, enriched with high-quality sculpture, and deserved listing. It could easily have been modernised by an intelligent architect. Instead, at the height of the City's boom, when its neophiliac planners said yes to anything, New Change was razed – a colossal waste of resources. Nouvel's arrogant, irrational, vulgar replacement will be seen as the perfect expression of the greed and profligacy of the City'.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Church extensions

There is sometimes tension between the missionary and pastoral function of a church, on the one hand, and on the other its status as an historic building worthy of preservation. More and more, those who run churches want flexible space, community facilities, kitchens and loos. Installed in reaction to dwindling congregations, these are effectively secular spaces, functionally akin to village halls. Movable chairs are preferred to fixed pews and aisles and galleries are screened off to allow different activities to go on at the same time. Where internal space constraints cannot be overcome, or the building is too historically sensitive to be altered, the solution is sometimes an external extension. 


None of these changes is beneficial from the historic buildings perspective and where possible we try to steer parishes towards reversible, low-impact interventions. It is often a fine line. Extensions may well minimise damage to historic fabric (although there's generally a physical join to the host church somewhere) but the price is often a visually jarring and intrusive intervention. A classic recent example is this brick extension to St Mary and St Luke in Shareshill, Staffordshire, built to provide 'an accessible meeting place', a disabled loo and a lift to the church gallery. The upper storey serves as a vestry room and further meeting space. We fought the scheme all the way up to Consistory Court, but regrettably permission was given, with the results evident from the photograph, which shows the overpowering effect of the extension on the 1742 church with its sixteenth century tower. In a secular age churches do need to adapt, and parishes have an awesome (and unsought) responsibility as guardians of historic fabric, but the design of major alterations, where they are proved to be necessary, needs to be significantly higher than that shown here. (On the plus side, a full set of eighteenth century box pews, with waist-high wainscotting, survives inside the church itself).