No.6 Dear Bloody England. ‘Aesthetic Snobs, Wayward Theories and Bonkers Banks’


GGTAs an aesthetic snob and wayward theorist himself John Betjeman claimed that he hated aesthetic snobs and their wayward theories. In 1937 a young Betjeman hoped for ‘friendly bombs [to] fall on Slough!’ adding ‘It isn’t fit for humans now’. The following year he wrote the cantankerous, candid and whimsical ‘Ghastly Good Taste’ or, to give it its full title ‘a depressing story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture’. When it was reprinted thirty-seven years later, he apologised. He apologised for writing the book in a ‘white-hot fury’. He apologised for his naïve arrogance. He apologised for his sweeping generalisations. He did not apologise however for his elitism and offbeat ideas.

With all its snooty connotations and ornery theories there is no doubt Betjeman would have hated ‘Dear Bloody England’. However, where we might have shared some common ground is on the topic of banks and banking architecture. Banks are public palaces. Traditionally they have been inviting and engaging buildings with open and decorative auditorium and clear spatial progress. Historically banks were designed as statements of commercial enterprise; they were built by architects for bankers and the act of banking – in that respect they were fit for purpose.

SoaneThe architecture of choice for many banks was Classicism, a style that portrayed the rigidity of the banking system with soaring Corinthian columns that imparted a firm trust with entablature and pediments that asserted a comfortable assurance of longevity. The architect George Sampson drew on this style for the earliest incarnation of the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street in the 1730s. Sir Robert Taylor extended this building before John Soane, architect to the Bank of England for 45 years from 1788, looked to French theorists and imperial Rome for his stimuluses of light and space (above). His building was a revelation, the domed roof a feature of the London skyline until Herbert Baker demolished it in the 1920s.

southampton24 banks in London in 1725 rose to nearly 70 by the end of the century. With the Victorians came a slow departure from the Classical ideal facilitated by the likes of Cockerell, Hardwick and Tite. However the classic style was not lost altogether as monoliths to commerce intimidated high streets up-and-down the country −Charles Cockerell’s splendid Palladian example (1846) in King Street, Manchester, John Gibson’s vain-glorious Portland stone bank situated at the dock end of the High Street in Southampton (1875) (left) and towering white imperial Martin’s Bank, Edge Hill (John Francis Doyle, 1905) in Liverpool are all sound examples.  Gothic, on the whole did not fit the ethos of trustworthy banking − far too austere, however the Queen Anne style was softer and more befitting. Today many modest banks of the twentieth-century reflect the resurgence the Renaissance or ‘Wrenaissance’, honest red brick affairs with Portland stone Corinthian orders and ornate door pediments. Thankfully many are retained on our high streets although not all for their intended purpose.

Today banking architecture is in tatters alongside the reputations of the bankers it represents. New modernist and post-modernist buildings embrace open plans, boutique-style and automation, with heart-space instead of banking floors and glass bullet-proof booths replacing ornate panelled church-like partitions. Where once there was engagement and service is now turbulence and conflict.

1778But perhaps all is not lost? The red brick, gabled, Queen Anne style, Cock’s and Biddulph Bank in Whitehall (Richard Coad, 1880) (right) is now a pub called ‘The Lord of the Half Moon’. Its wonderful banking hall with coffered ceiling above, influenced perhaps by the nearby banqueting House (Inigo Jones), now hosts the noise of drinkers and the clinking of glasses. Much has been retained, the stern and sober panelling, the mouldings and architectural fittings. To the rear is John Oldrich Scott’s extension, now an eatery. Its function changed but integrity not lost. As for banks, well last week I spent one hour in a God-forsaken sterile glass lined box hemmed in a makeshift cubicle with white light. The telephone was constantly emitting a loud electronic repetitive noise. The cash dispenser machine had its own unique tone as did the printer, the security door and the panic alarms. For one hour I sat as if in a Depeche Mode concert.

Betjeman would have visited his bank manager in a sober, serious building perhaps in an Adam inspired office befitting a Chaplinesque suited and booted black and white bank manager, perhaps even  Mr Mainwaring himself. If Betjeman walked into a bank today my guess is that he would declare them ‘… not fit for humans now’? Today there is no manager. No banking floor. No architecture. No connection. No engagement. Just machines that annoyingly bleep from the moment you walk in to the time you leave, bleepin’, ringing, pulsing, annoying, electronic bleeps −buzzers and bells, buzzers and bells.

Apologies for writing this in a ‘white-hot fury’, for my naïve arrogance and for my sweeping generalisations however if there is any conclusion to be drawn from this, then ‘love pubs, hate banks’ might fit the bill.

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Eulogy to Captain, the Honourable Thomas Agar-Robartes M.P. (1880-1915)


Lanhydrock Church, 27 September 2015

 A sequence of events, one century ago, changed the future of this parish forever.

Tommy Agar-Robartes M.P.On 13 September 1915 the Honourable Thomas Charles Reginald Agar-Robartes, Captain in the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was recalled from the trenches for Parliamentary duties. After two days at Westminster he returned to his Cambridgeshire seat, Wimpole Hall, where, on the 17 September he spent the day at the races. The following day he wrote a note to a friend, it read

I shall return to London after Newmarket for noon – when I hope I may find you – like you to dine with me on Friday?

Tommy never made this lunch appointment. Instead he was immediately recalled to the Western Front to help plan a military assault on the industrial mining town of Lens in north-east France. He led his men to within 20 miles of the village of Loos, where a letter from Major General, the earl of Cavan awaited their arrival, it read

We are on the eve of the greatest battle in history, the future generations depend on the result…great things are expected from the Guards division.

On the 25th Tommy’s men captured and moved into an enemy trench which, it was reported, was littered with dead bodies. From here there were further orders to advance, this time towards a wooded area and then to a chalk pit beyond. Both objectives were fulfilled but with heavy casualties.

On the 28th, during fierce fighting and with a strong smell of noxious gas in the air, Sergeant Hopkins of the 5th Reserve Battalion was shot by a German sniper. Tommy could not abandon his comrade so, in Hopkins words ‘[Tommy] came 80 to 100 yards right across the open in broad daylight and within 200 yards of the enemy and dragged me into safety’. This unselfish, spur of the moment, action cost Tommy his life. After being hit by a German sniper Tommy died in a casualty clearing station on the 30 September.          

TAfter his death many tributes were paid yet nowhere was Tommy’s loss felt more than in Cornwall. Joseph Broad, addressing Viscount Clifden as Chair of the St Hydroc’s Church Tower Committee, summed up the nation’s feeling when he proposed a vote of condolence ‘…to Viscount Clifden and family on the lamented death of Captain Agar-Robartes who had laid down his life for his King and country after performing a gallant and self-sacrificing act’.

Six days after that missed lunch appointment in London the son and heir to the Lanhydrock estate, the future 7th Viscount Clifden, was dead.  My tribute to Tommy is to recreate his missed lunch appointment. Most likely held at either Claridges or the Ritz, two of his favourite restaurants, I will invite five contemporaries, all of which had an impact on his professional and private life.

At the head of the table would be Tommy himself   ̶  a convivial host, educated, fun, debonair, a spirit unto himself. A man the media portrayed as an Edwardian playboy, often seen sailing around the Mediterranean or walking the Monte Carlo or Paris boulevards, described by some as the best dressed man in Parliament and by others as the most reckless horseman in Cornwall.

Alongside Tommy at the table I would sit his political idol and mentor, the 5th Lord Rosebery, short-lived Leader of the Liberal Party and one-time Prime Minister. Together they shared a common passion for horse racing, cricket, yachting, society life and politics. I would hope that they would look back fondly on a political rally held in the Bodmin Public Rooms in 1905 when Rosebery, fully supported by Tommy in the Chair, made a heated and heartfelt speech in which he appeared to betray the leader of the party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The sitting Tory government immediately saw a treacherous split in their rival party and called a General Election. The Tory’s completely misjudged the situation and the Liberals won a landslide victory with Tommy gaining his first seat in Parliament. As member for South-East Cornwall and later St Austell, he was a popular, engaging and confident politician, a great champion of Cornwall, the Cornish and advocate of the working man.

His sense of fairness undoubtedly came from his devoted mother Mary, Viscountess Clifden, my next dinner guest. She raised all nine of her children to observe Christian values and follow strict moral codes. War split families, and with four sons in military service no-one was more aware of this than the Viscountess. She might recall her sadness of Tommy’s last Christmas, spent in Norfolk, away from his family, serving on the home-front with Royal Bucks Hussars.  On Boxing Day 1914 from Sennowe Park, the Norfolk home of the holiday magnate Thomas Cook, he wrote of his request to transfer to the Coldstream Guards, which he did on 5 January. What drove him was an eagerness to serve on the front line and a conviction that his life was of no more importance that any other Englishman, no doubt a consequence of the values of benevolence, duty, loyalty and unselfishness installed by his mother. His loss to the family was immeasurable.  In a letter, dated October 1915, two weeks Tommy’s death, she wrote ‘we do not know how to bear our grief’, in February 1916 Tommy’s brother, Gerald, wrote ‘my mother and sister are anxious to have some flowers planted on the grave’.

150px-PrmrsNext at the table would be Lord Rosebery’s youngest son and Tommy’s best friend Neil Primrose, Liberal M.P. for Wisbech. Together they were known as the ‘inseparables’. It is a fair assumption that Tommy’s choice of London address in Great Stanhope Street was to be close to Primrose who lived just a few doors down. They travelled America together and were constant companions at the races. Tommy joined Captain Primrose in the Royal Bucks Hussars in 1914, the same year they joined fellow Liberal back-benchers in a revolt against Lloyd George’s budget. The conversation at dinner would, I hope, not dwell extensively on politics but on happier times when on 7 April 1915 Tommy returned from the Western Front to perform best man duties at Primrose’s wedding. Tragically, Primrose was killed in action not long after Tommy however their friendship remains marked in the House of Commons where their armorial crests are positioned side-by-side above the Speaker’s chair.

Through Primrose, Tommy was a regular house guest of the de Rothschild family at Mentmore and Waddesdon. During this time he struck up a close friendship with my next dinner guest, Dorothy de Rothschild who was regular correspondent. In August 1914 he wrote of his optimism for a quick resolution to hostilities ‘we move from Reading in a few days to the East Coast probably and then I hope we shall lunch at Ostend a week or so later and dine some months afterwards in Berlin’. In May 1915 his outlook was less positive; he wrote ‘I now command a Company. I was hit three times in one day on May 9th but only slightly- I found my own iodine sufficient to deal with the wounds! I am rather depressed today as I have just heard that Ferdy and Denny two of my closest friends have been killed –also Francis…and John…’ In July 1915 we get a glimpse of irony when he wrote ‘We are in the trenches at Cambrai which is rather a lively spot as the Germans are only about 15 yards away in one part of my line – we have great bombing spats every night in the crater of a mine which is called Etna…we have just had a heavy thunderstorm which has soaked everything’.

With only one space left at the table I am struggling to make the last selection. His twin Everilda would give us an insight into Tommy as a caring and attentive brother. Sergeant Hopkins, the man Tommy saved from no-mans-land at Loos, would tell us of his heroism and sacrifice. And then there is the author and Tommy’s political agent Arthur Quiller Couch who would attest to Tommy’s love of the turf as well as all things Cornish. It would be fitting to invite any of the men listed on the war memorial above the church door ̶  all would have known Tommy, all would have shared his heroic values, his commitment and sense of duty to his country. Likewise any member of the Lanhydrock or Wimpole staff would have been welcomed to the table and been fully engaged into the conversation despite their more modest backgrounds. Maybe we should all imagine ourselves in that last space, listening intently to the conversation and thinking on what might have been.

TommyRobartes-1And this, for me, remains the most enduring accolade to Tommy ̶ he was an English gentleman who mixed freely with people regardless of class. As eldest son and heir he not only measured up but exceeded all of the expectations placed upon him.

As a son he was equipped the take the family forward. As a future landlord he was benevolent and dynamic.  As a brother he was a loyal and dedicated. As a scholar he was cultured and well-informed. As a sportsman he was a leader and a captain. As a politician he was popular, a man who followed his convictions. As a soldier he displayed great leadership skills and earned the respect of those who served beneath him.

I will finish with two contemporary tributes. The first is an unsigned card sent to the family presumably in 1915 with a hand painted bunch of violets on the cover (below) which reads

He was the soul of honour and of fearless chivalry. No braver or skilful officer has led the Coldstream Guards into action.

The second quotes Arthur Quiller Couch who said at Tommy’s memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster,

..he had in him, and he carried it eminently, that which I think, if men could be judged like thorough-breds in a show, would make a man an English gentleman, recognisable from every gentleman in the world. And the mark of it is that he, the English gentleman, treats life under God, as the finest, the gallantest, and the most glorious of all sports…that was Mr Robartes.

card  card2

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No.5 Dear Bloody England. ‘Half Spam Half Biscuit’ or ‘A Builder formerly known as Prince’


John Betjeman loved Cornwall. His impassioned lyric ‘Cornish Cliffs’ runs

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles, With, as the everlasting ocean rolls, Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Today, 25-strong congregations have more than halved. The once bustling, cold, drafty, splendidly galleried chapels have thankfully been saved, converted for domestic use. Small fields too are being lost as piecemeal development has pushed the towns into the surrounding, poorly protected, green belts. Predictably the ocean stills rolls in but now laps against a changing coastal landscape where the ‘…wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills’ are at risk to scattered developments looking out onto horizons of wind turbines.

Split pediment with en-suite garage

Split pediment with en-suite garage

Close to the north Cornish coast, at Newquay, is Tregunnel Hill, a new eco-spam-development being built in phases by the Duchy of Cornwall. It is a cut-and-paste version of Poundbury near Dorchester, alien to the surrounding landscapes and unconvincing in its conception and design. It is in fact the polar opposite of Betjeman’s idyllic, calm, green, ‘Cornish lanes [that] lead inland to a usual Cornish scene, Slate cottages with sycamore between’.

And this is the main problem, there is nothing ‘usual’ about Tregunnel Hill. There are no slate cottages, no Cornish lanes, in fact nothing indigenous to Cornwall other than some locally sourced materials, mostly slate, that weatherproofs buildings like the bizarre Deco inspired, part rusticated, commercial style, mid-European office block.  Alongside this piece of retro-modernism (and dwarfed by comparison) is a Spamadian town house, shamelessly cribbed from the Palladio inspired early 18th-century Enys house in Truro (below).

5.1       5.4

There is more than a hint of Dorset cookie in this Duchy Original, indeed the builders C.G. Fry & Son and Morrish Builders have worked on Poundbury − the very antidote to the Hardyesque − for many years now. Within seconds of arrival at Tregunnel the Dorset comparisons shout loud. The council house model  with poor stone to glass ratios and beach hut style porches, house’s so cramped in plan that ‘bolt on’ chimneys are needed for articulation, the playschool house, the slate hung house, the ever-so-slightly-but-no-so-you-would-notice Georgian pastiche house and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Classic Colonial. Throughout the development we get glimpses of the same Chamberesque or Adamesque details that Captain Poldark (if we were passing through to see his cousins at Trenwith. Or should that be Chevanage!) would do a double take at.

5.3Amongst these styles there is no hint of the locality, no touches of Cornish vernacular, no place for a take on the Cornish engine house. Sad that. Clive Aslet in the Daily Telegraph (15 July 2008) wrote

‘Then there is the vexed question of architecture. Hugh Petter of Robert Adam Architects has drawn up a detailed pattern book of the Cornish vernacular, showing the type of house features that builders might adopt’.

What happened there then? Were they stolen? Sold by those ruthless bastards, the Warleggan’s no doubt, to raise money for their failing mines? Whatever happened, these invaluable designs were clearly never used, to the detriment of the overall design.

Of course, in the spirit of balance, it’s not all bad. The masterplan for the site works well. Hatched by the Prince’s Foundation and the wild-haired architectural theorist and urban planner Leon Krier, well over a decade ago, the scheme was produced by Adam Urbanism and endorsed by Cornwall Council in 2011. The vistas are good at times and when fully landscaped will, I am sure, become more sympathetic in its surroundings. The houses look onto the busy road into the town which adds some much needed character to Newquay’s approach.

5.2Experiencing Tregunnel Hill has prompted me to publish my first (and possibly last) ever poem entitled ‘The Song of the Cornish Vernacular’ which has been inspired by heroic Arthurian legend and the inappropriate use of heroic characters as non-heroic names of houses that inhabit the development.

Camelot, Carlion and Pellam, King of Listeneise.

Galahad, Normandy, Merlin and Morgause.

Saracen, a Pagan ripe to convert.

Good Knight Dinadan, with garage and forecourt.

Princely New Urbanism near the coast it doth sit.

This Duchy Original sure takes the biscuit.

Clearly I am no poet. My poem hardly rhymes, nor does it have good metre or alliteration. It has no emotion, conveys little meaning and relies on repetition to achieve incantatory effect. Nonetheless, it is a poem in the same way that Tregunnel is a mixed use estate.

My poem’s purpose is not to say that everything in is past was great nor to decry everything since is crap. It is not to hark back on some utopian Betjemanic state that only existed on the words of a page. Nor is it to gracefully and respectively suggest that some ducal architectural critic and theorist has turned poacher. Rather I am conveying a real concern that good architecture now appears less important to people than it did in the past. Such developments trivialises good design and by merely mimics the past but not in a good way. My questions include − what identity does Tregunnel Hill bring to Cornwall? Arguably little, as this development could be in Dorchester, Ayrshire, Herefordshire or Gloustershire. Is Tregunnel for the many? No Tregunnel is for the few. It is a product of those who perceive that good architecture is no more important than any other commodity.

It is therefore sentimentalist spam, mock-heroic Arthurian sentimentalist spam, but sentimentalist spam nonetheless.

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No.4 Dear Bloody England. ‘Heritage in the Rail Age II’


DBE2 Architecture is consumable −as with any used and abused everyday product decay is inevitable and authenticity fated. John Betjeman was wise to such philosophy when, in 1960, he wrote ‘Heritage of the Rail Age’ in the Daily Telegraph. Apparent in his writing was his blind-passion for the Euston Arch, Philip Hardwick’s 1837 granite monolith that became a symbol, for many, of the railway’s magnitude. The futility of his campaign to save the arch however became evident in December 1961 when the arch was demolished.

Of course the Euston arch was more symbolic than useful, in reality it was a monstrous exaggeration, a sculptural form even, of what was practically needed. Betjeman was acutely aware of the many thousands of utilitarian buildings that served as foot soldiers to the ever expanding railway infrastructure, indeed these signal boxes, waiting rooms and ticket offices can still be seen from any window of any train as it races between station to station.

As I write I am travelling along the Great Western Railway, passing over Brunel’s awe-inspiring Royal Albert Bridge across the river Tamar (1859) from Plymouth, Devon, into Saltash, Cornwall (above).  As the rail tracks touch Cornish soil for the first time so the train adopts more pedestrian pace, the guard dons his Bermuda shorts and flip-flops and begins to hum ‘Happy days are here again’. The increased volume of animated conversation in the carriage is palpable. Yet, the euphoria is short lived. Excitement gives way to anxiety. Hushed tones, sombre even, are assumed as the train pulls into Saltash. Commuters that only two minutes prior where gazing in wonder up- and down-stream of the river Tamar devoid of all discontent thoughts, now fretfully overt their eyes away from the carriage window towards fellow commuters, the roof, the ceiling, anything to avoid the embarrassment of connecting with the shameful sight on land.

DBE3

Adjoining the grade 1 listed bridge, Saltash ticket office and waiting room (c.1860) was once a handsome, modest, almost toll-like, building that once facilitated travellers to purchase an onward ticket towards Paddington or Penzance (above). Today, the building is on its knees, derelict, a blemish on the picturesque scenery that surrounds it. Then a comforting lodge-gate into Cornwall today a neglected and unloved ruin. Horticulture grows through the roof, slates have fallen, windows smashed or bricked-up, Harris fencing surrounds the site as it has for the last decade. A sense of relief is felt as the train pulls out of the station.

DBE1The mood lifts at St Germans, where a beautifully restored station graces the platform (left); alongside, stranded, redundant and recycled rail carriages now function as holiday lets. From the mainline we get all too fleeting glimpses of Port Eliot, the magnificent home of the Eliot family, where John Soane, Henry Harrison and Robert Lenkiewicz all applied their respective trades and William Moyle’s mid-16th century almshouses.

From Liskeard the train follows the magnificent Glynn Valley, densely wooded at times, constantly dotted with the remnants of Cornwall’s agricultural past, buildings built around need, incidental to the landscape. To the right we cheat glimpses of Lord Vivian’s mansion house of Glynn, an early 19th century pile rebuilt after a fire before, pulling into Bodmin Parkway where the old signal box now feeds and water weary travellers and the neglected, over scaled, bridge looms overhead.

DBE5Onwards, the Fowey Valley flows seamlessly on from the Glynn. Its beauty is incomprehensible. At Restormel −look up and you see the Black Prince’s spectacular medieval castle ruins, look down to see the charming Gothic Duchy house. At St Austell something is amiss. The character of the station has been ripped apart with the removal of the Victorian Ruskinian bridge (above) and the installation of a space-age ‘off the shelf’ bridge from ‘Bridges R Us’ (below).  It is a real shame. On the left, the ancient church spire and town, to the right well-to-do Victorian merchant and banker houses, handy for the train station, yet, dominating the skyline is a flimsy, soulless, characterless, bridge which does nothing to enhance the heritage of the of the rail age.

DBE4

Regardless the train rolls on. The Gothic cathedral of St Mary dominates the Truro vista from the viaduct before the train docks into the handsome Victorian station. We depart simultaneously with the branch line to Falmouth, behind us a patchwork of agricultural and pasture lands, ahead the patina of a mineral rich landscape. Here engine houses stand as ‘memorials to Trevithick and Hornblower’, church towers punctuate a landscape dotted with small killas rubble and granite cottages. The line hugs the fringes of large landed estates as it weaves and rises through the countryside, a landscape that  Betjeman described as ‘undeveloped’ −but for how long? We can only wonder as the Cornish planners work hand-in-glove with national developers to scar and build over this unspoilt land in an attempt to add 50,000 new homes to the county.

This journey has made me realise that rail heritage is still being diluted., as it was when Betjeman wrote 55 years ago. The architecture, the infrastructure, the views, all eroding before our eyes, a casualty of changing needs and opinions. At St Erth station Network Rail plan to rid themselves of the antiquated historic bridge in favour of a sleek, anonymous, affair with lifts in the towers, identical to the one we saw at St Austell. Along the route we have witnessed tangible neglect and inappropriate interventions, but now the few of us left in the carriage marvel at St Michael’s Mount honing into view, a glorious scene, undoubtedly one of the best in England. With a quickening pulse the train reaches the western terminus, Brunel’s sheds at Penzance, 305 miles from Paddington, London.

 

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No.3 Dear Bloody England. ‘Carry on Poundbury’.


There are 28,000 architects on the Royal Institute of British Architects database – 8,000 more than in 1960 when John Betjeman wrote ‘Contemporary without Conscience’ in the Daily Telegraph.  His article discussed the state of the architectural profession as it was then, he concluded with the statement ‘…it’s about time people thought of building as architecture and not simply as style’. However, such a notion was far from new. Mutterings along the same lines had been heard a century earlier when the ongoing fragmentation of the arts was the backdrop that prompted E.W. Godwin, and later Richard Norman Shaw and T.G. Jackson, to defend architecture as a professed art. Betjeman merely re-energised the same discussion for a whole new generation and today the topic warrants further prodding, particularly in light of the demand for new homes and supporting infrastructures.

P1080841Poundbury, a New Urbanist extension on the edge of Dorchester, is a good barometer to gauge this thorny relationship between architecture and style. It is a lexicon of random architectural flavours that holistically form an eclectic museum of chocolate box Hardyesque, red brick and limestone Romanesque, Dorset Dutch, Pimlico pub, mercantile 2nd French Empire, Gin Lane Georgian and east coast Richardson American Gothic. Sadly early-English Gothic, middle pointed and perpendicular are not represented however historical continuity has not been overlooked, as faux blind windows have been installed to suggest the development was once a victim of David Cameron’s harsh window tax. With such a disorderly confection of historic building types Poundbury resembles a film set worthy of the Prisoner however unlike Portmeirion no entry fee is demanded. Some might argue that this is a missed opportunity.

P1080839But it’s not fooling anyone. This is car crash architecture. A compendium of methodological fancy, an Alice-in-Hardy Country theme park where 1,000 years of architectural terms have been put into a black velvet bag, mixed furiously and drawn at random – ‘No.65 Flemish roof, No.43 late Georgian P1080836glazing bars, No.6 off the shelf Ionic columns, No.12 Colonial balcony’ – and then feverishly built. The consequence slaps the face with the wet haddock of poor architecture pastiche.  Symptoms follow; first overwhelming dizziness leading to confusion; then acute happiness followed by devastating sadness and finally a sense of fearfulness and disappointment, all within sight of the A35 Dorchester by-pass.

But stop. Wait. Surely this is better than the impersonal pattern-book developments that we see endless examples of up- and down-the-country? Yes, those mass produced developments that draw on half-baked local architectural influences such as half-timbering, slate-hangings and fibreglass chimneys with bolt on pots. Poundbury is, up to a point, better than this. It is three-dimensional at least. The vistas can, at times, pull you in. Momentarily, at least, pedestrians can imagine being in leafy Georgian London, or in New England, Amsterdam, Bruges.  Yet, this is short lived as the attractive vistas are soon compromised by mews of local authority wheelie bins, untreated plastic drainpipes, shocking -pink front doors, cheap brass hardware and economy balconies that you wouldn’t allow your aged grandmother to set foot upon for fear of collapse.

P1080848Poundbury therefore bears some similarities to Poundland. Both have vast variety, are piled high but lack quality, they have humour and just a hint of appeal – yet, you leave with nothing other than being slightly embarrassed and a touch disturbed. But that’s New Urbanism for you – surprising but inconsistent.

But is this architecture art?  And does the artist here create style? No, because it is all so misplaced.  Betjeman wrote ‘Great architecture is timeless’. Poundbury is still being built but it is already dated, tired, dazed and confused. It does not sit together as a whole. Pastiche and mimicry is one thing, but Poundbury simply has no style, its’s rude and tasteless, an architectural double entendre, it’s ‘Carry on Architecture’.

Another Duchy of Cornwall production albeit on a much smaller scale is currently being built on the east side of Truro in Cornwall, its centrepiece is a new Waitrose store (no surprise there) disguised as a Georgian mansion with the Classical orders and wooshy doors. Perhaps a Batty Langley inspired unit will house the recycling skips? Or a Soanian pavilion the trolleys. The trouble is that if this was the case it would not come as a surprise.

Today the RIBA campaigns to #Build a Better Britain. The new question is whether new developments like Poundbury or Truro East are building a better Britain or are they just creating a stage set that mimics the past? Here architects are building a Utopian world where sentimentalism is king. For many, me included, such a lost world should not be resurrected. Image Charlton Heston galloping across Chesil Beach in the last scene of Planet to the Apes. He arrives at a desolate and derelict Poundbury. How on earth will he know what country he is in? Or what age it’s from? This is the problem with Sentimentalism. It is neither architecture nor style; it is not the product of our age.

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No.2 Dear Bloody England. ‘Bridges’


© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Betjeman was indifferent towards bridges. Whether cast iron or post-war concrete, or from the first Elizabethan age or the second, he was always happy to proffer an astute observation or informed opinion. One such remark opened his 1960 Daily Telegraph article ‘Bridges Elegant or Ugly’ when he wrote ‘It is difficult to make a bridge look ugly, though this rare feat has been achieved in the viaducts over the M1’.

Although principals of bridge construction have changed little over the past millennium, since the Industrial Revolution the aesthetics of connecting railways and roads across rivers and valleys has progressed enormously. Nowhere is the relationship between design and function more profound than in the bridge and nowhere is this better explored than in Andrew Saint’s book ‘Architect and Engineer: a sibling rivalry’ (Yale, 2007).

Public bridge building flourished in the 18th century, examples such as Westminster Bridge (Charles Lebelye, 1739) and Pulteney Bridge in Bath (Robert Adam, 1769) connected people with commerce and village with town. But Betjeman took a greater interest in private bridges, manmade structures that complimented nature and landscape, he wrote ‘What is more natural than that an English nobleman should want a round-arched bridge…over the river or lake in his park’. For grace and poise there is no better example of how architecture and civil engineering hit head-on than the nobleman’s Palladian bridge, for many the high water mark of English bridge building. Perhaps the finest is Blenheim’s ornamental parkland bridge (Vanburgh and Hawksmoor, 1708), an early-Enlightenment wonder that encased a dining room and water engines making its purpose far more functional than just a crossing point. And then there are examples at Wilton (Roger Morris, 1736) near Salisbury, Prior Park (built by Richard Jones, 1755) in Bath and at Hagley (Thomas Pitt, c.1764) near Birmingham.

With the exception of the original Westminster Bridge these structures can still be seen in their natural habitats. Hagley however has undergone a transformation. Lost, most likely in the 19th century, beneath a century or more of undergrowth − found by Joe Hawkins, Head of Landscape at Hagley Park, who subsequently excavated it, researched it and painstakingly rebuilt the lost timber pavilion on top of its original stone base. It is a remarkable example of what can be achieved when the enthusiasm of an individual is harnessed and supported by the owner.

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Hagley is not an isolated example of admirable conservation and restoration. The National Lottery has supported recent work at Llangollen, a chain bridge (1929) than spans the river Dee, and thanks to the local authority and grant funders Victoria Bridge (James Dredge, 1836) in Bath has now been removed from English Heritage’s risk register. Betjeman, a man who loved the work of John Rennie, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir James Fowler, would have applauded such restorations and no doubt would have been a great champion of the Historic Bridge and Infrastructure Awards which are handed out annually by the Institute of Civil Engineers.

Six years after writing his Telegraph article the Severn Bridge (Freeman Fox and Partners, 1966) was opened. First proposed in 1824 by Thomas Telford (who had just built the Menai Bridge linking Wales with Anglesey) the M48 road bridge was effectively 142 years late, but was befitting a nation that had just won the football World Cup. Betjeman’s appears to have remained silent on its sleek aesthetic and technical excellence, perhaps in submission to, or recognition of, human advancement or, more likely, because the railway held more fascination that the road, the steam locomotive boiler more than the internal combustion engibridgene

Judging by his comments on the ugliness of the M1 bridges it is fair to say that modern bridges may well have incurred his wrath. But what, we wonder, would he have made of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Thames? This was a testament of true partnerships where the architects Norman Foster and Partners worked alongside the engineers Ove Arup and Partners and the sculptor Anthony Caro. However, this was no ordinary pedestrian bridge; this was a bridge that wobbled. In fact it wobbled so much that accusing fingers pointed each and every way after the bridge was first opened and subsequently closed for remedial works. Betjeman would have seen the funny side of this and perhaps would have put pen to paper reminding us of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s sentiment that there must be ‘No shuddering’ in bridge construction. However, beyond the humour he would have seen it as many do today, a masterpiece of minimalist design where all elements flow seamlessly into the next.

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‘Dear Bloody England’: Betjeman’s Britain Revisited.


bet

What irked John Betjeman more than anything was a lack of respect for the mundane. Roads are a good example. In his ‘Men and Buildings’ feature that ran in the Telegraph between 1958 and 1964 he discussed topics as diverse as signage and quality of lighting to planners and their ineptitude in allowing new roadside buildings to be constructed that lacked sensitivity to their surroundings.

Signs and lighting perhaps, will always be a contentious issue. Indeed today there are so many signs that a scholarly journal on the subject is wanting. Meanwhile roadside lights are either being turned off to save energy or upgraded with hyper-efficient LED bulbs – both options seem to create annoyance amongst local residents. Another provocative topic is the ever increasing amount of infrastructure that supports the road network.  Fixed amongst rotting road-kill and widowed hub-caps are bollards, barriers, speed cameras, electronic signs, weather stations and a whole catalogue of painted markings. Where dominant power lines and telegraph poles used to incur the purists wrath, now its wind turbines, some still seeking retrospective planning permission, many towering over listed heritage assets, most spoiling England’s natural beauty.

To be fair all these intrusions require elements of skill in their design but few of us really connect with the fact during our daily commutes. Buildings however are different, they are more tangible objects that we can learn to love or hate −some have understandably become statutory listed assets.

esso

The parasol canopies of Esso filling station (right) on the A6 at Birstall, Leicestershire, for example, by Eliot Noyes who worked alongside Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer no less, remains an inspirational futuristic piece of 1960s industrial design. Preston Bus Station, built in 1969 by Building Design Partnership to rival the glamour of less affordable air travel, has recently been listed thanks to a gargantuan effort from campaigners. Its listed status transforms our acceptance of this Brutalist structure from a useless concrete folly worthy of demolition to an aesthetic masterpiece whose vertical rows of sculptural fins rebound the light the like flames around a heat exchanger. Perhaps the most unthinkable listing is the former Forton Service Station on the M6 near Lancaster, built in 1964 by T.P Bennett and Son, with a novelty hexagonal tower that once housed a restaurant.

TricornYet, the survival of concrete buildings is a game of two halves. Gone are the striking, multi-levelled, angular Brutalist car park and shopping centre combo’s the Tricorn Centre (1966-2004) in Portsmouth and the Trinity Square (1967-2010), so-called Get Carter car park (below), in Gateshead.  The architect of both buildings, Owen Luder, once said that such structures gave ‘you a feeling from your balls to your throat’. That they do. At their best they are inspiring and engaging, shocking and threatening. At their worse they are a muggers and vandals delight, with copious hiding places emanating from the cold, dark, twisting, spittle and gum soiled unforgiving corridors.

get carter

There is no doubt that these iconic buildings were evocative of an age. They were the fruits of short, authoritative, black and white men in highly-coloured bow-ties; a Betjemanic class of gentleman architect and ruthless planner, lyrical advocates of backfilling dear old England with tons of concrete. Ironically their enduring legacy was to separate man from machine, thereby creating a safe-haven from traffic, a freedom to roam unfettered by congestion and pollution. Soon the car was banished from post-war reconstructed city centres like Southampton and Plymouth. At last the towns and cities were being liberated from traffic, drifting slowly towards a new era of pedal and pedestrian power.

Fortunately our national heritage list has not overlooked the mundane. The Abbey Road zebra crossing, a shrine for ‘mop tops’ of all shapes and sizes, is now listed, as are many post-boxes and classic K2 telephone boxes, a reminder, for our children at least, of low-tech, hard-wired, technology. What, I wonder, would the ashen faced, space suited, Ziggy Stardust think today if he ever found his way back into a K2 box? Rather than a vandalised analogue telephone covered in vomit he might have a use for a defibrillator or community library.

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