Country Houses

Eltham Palace London + English Heritage

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Some buildings are so ugly they are just asking to be covered by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the artists who wrapped the Reichstag a while back). With others, it’s down to a matter of personal taste. Take Tate Modern‘s plans for an extension designed by Herzog + de Meuron, the team that conjured up the original gallery from a former power station. The gallery’s monumental success wasn’t planned for and the new extension would offer much needed space to breathe.

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But the 11 storey ‘ziggurat’ as everyone’s calling it, would apparently ruin views that no one gave a toss about until the Tate Modern came along. It may be that some of the sniping is part of the backlash against the grandiose projects of the ‘starchitects’. The furore is enough to make the 1960s controversy over Francis Pym’s bold and brilliant Brutalist extension to the Ulster Museum look mild. Recently, plans to enlarge this 20th century modernist wing caused a stir. Not to mention painting the concrete ground floor wall white. Sacrilege.

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When it comes to houses, things get even worse. They are not so much castles as minefields. We left the caves for our first built homes about 11,000 years ago yet there still is no general consensus on domestic architecture. Flaubert said all architects are imbeciles because they are always putting stairs in the wrong place.

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In the 1930s Eltham Palace attracted lots of architectural criticism. Initially, Seely + Paget’s proposal for resurrecting the ruinous medieval royal palace was welcomed as a means of halting the creeping suburbanisation of southeast London. There was, of course, inevitable debate surrounding the propriety of building on an ancient monument. But it was the design of the Courtaulds’ new house that polarised opinion.

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A leading article in Architect and Building News was headed ‘Romance dies at Eltham’. The architect Herbert Baker was critical; the artist Gilbert Ledward countered, pointing out that at Soane’s Bank of England building Baker had destroyed ‘really beautiful work, while at Eltham everything of historic interest and beauty had been saved’.

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More criticism came from the historian G Young who moaned in The Times, “In order to provide the tenant with a modern mansion, three distinguished architects [Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments Charles Peers acted as a consultant for Seely + Paget] united their talents and intelligence to destroy one of the most beautiful things remaining in the neighbourhood of London… The other day I found myself confronted with what at first I took to be an admirably designed but unfortunately sited cigarette factory.”

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We chatted to Jon Wight, caseworker for The Twentieth Century Society, about changing taste in architecture and how to sway it. “The Society was founded in 1979 as The Thirties Society and indeed Art Deco buildings were one of its first major concerns, alongside other buildings from the Modern Movement. In many ways that battle has been won. We became The Twentieth Century out of necessity to try and give weight to buildings from later periods.”

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“We strive to inform, educate and promote 20th century architecture to the public wherever possible,” says Jon. “There are other reasons why the Society has registered as shift in public perception. Most obviously, the older a building or style is, the easier it is to assess. We’re now reaching a stage where post war buildings are being looked at and considered in a way they’ve not been before.”

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“There are many styles of architecture that are not seen as important at the time of construction, but which subsequently become revered,” he continues. “The Society strives to judge buildings on merit, through the medium of casework. We are concerned as much with the re-appropriation and re-use of buildings as with the straightforward conservation of them.” As a result, some structures are now getting the plaudits they deserve.

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“Eltham Palace is an interesting example of two seemingly disparate styles in some degree of harmony with one another,” enthuses Jon. “Seely + Paget were well known for their mastery of styles. Indeed, they designed many ecclesiastical buildings which melded modern styles with more traditional church architecture. It’s a building that illustrates that if we are to judge architecture as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it shouldn’t be a stylistic decision. ElthamPalace is a hybrid. It proves how careful consideration of existing fabrics and sympathetic planning can result in noteworthy architecture, whatever the style.” Screw G Young, then.

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London has no Hamptons or Punta del Este. Instead, the Courtauld family created their own slice of upscale nirvana, a totemic presence in a sensitive setting. It’s a landlocked Queen Mary liner. But from the Louise Brooks bowl haircut-dome in the entrance hall onwards, the cutting edge design and bespoke craftsmanship of Eltham Palace has enough wit to charm. Much of the décor was by Rolf Engstromer, the David Collins of his day. This fertile profusion of Art Deco, Moderne and vintage Venetian draws a parallel with the mélange of styles around today.

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‘Good & Bad Manners in Architecture’ by Trystan Edwards was a pocket-sized book published in 1924, a decade before Eltham Palace was completed. The author writes, “This book asks the novel question, how do buildings behave towards one another? It contrasts the selfish building, the presumptuous building and the rude building with the polite and sociable building; and it invites the public to act as arbiter upon their conflicting claims.” But taste evolves. While yesterday, Eltham Palace was viewed as an unwelcome aberration, today it’s a respected poster child for the Jazz Age.”

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