It’s 1854. The booming city of Lille is declared a diocese, independent of the declining capital of FrenchFlanders, Arras. Time for a church dedicated to a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary protected by an iron trellis. Time for an international architectural competition. A diktat declares it must be Gothic Revival. What can possibly go wrong? English Protestant architects winning? In the words of one assessor, “L’Angleterre qui a triomphé!” And so William Burges and his sidekick Henry Clutton take first prize.
The church was indeed later upgraded to a cathedral with the establishment of the seat of the Bishop of Lille in 1913. But the dosh ran out in 1947 and Monsieur Lassus’ twin peaked entrance was never executed. Fast forward to the 1990s and the front was finally completed to the design of Lille architect Pierre-Louis Carlier. The style is Minimalist Gothic. A vast arch dominating the façade is filled with 28 millimetre thick white marble which appears opaque outside but allows orangey light to flood the interior. A rose window by Ladislaus Kijno is set into the top of the arch. Shadows crisscross as candles flicker against 21st century artworks. Overhead, a hanging reads: “Revenez à Dieu: Il vous appelle à la Vie en Jésus Christ!”
“Architectural fashion is often a reaction to what went immediately before. There’s even a perceptible difference between Pugin the father and Pugin the son’s work. The second generation architect’s designs are more rationalised,” observes artist and architectural publisher Anne Davey Orr. “The use of concrete in the 20th century would issue in a much more open expression of materials and structure.” In between trying not to butcher quotations (it was a late night chat) it’s worth noting the penultimate decades of the last two centuries both stuck to something of a “more is more mantra”, a sort of turn of the century syndrome. Eclecticism gone wild. Competent chaos. Not without honour and slightly mad. Pont Street for the 1880s and 90s; postmodernism for the 1980s and 90s. Out went conformity and goodbye to context; in came variety and hello to contrast. Many a dazed and disorientated architectural historian has spent sleepless nights defining and redefining the late 19th century style or rather style hybrid. North German Revival? Queen Anne? Flemish Renaissance? Hans Town? Or simply Cadogan? Osbert Lancaster, never short of a catchy phrase, opted for Pont Street Dutch. John Betjeman shortened it to Pont Street which if nothing else is certainly geographically specific. He calls it the “new built red as hard as the morning gaslight” in his poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel. These days the arresting SW postcodes are as golden as they’re terracotta.
Equally contentious is who invented it? John James Stevenson claimed “Queen Anne” as his baby; the 21st century artists sounding George and Peto produced some of the most overblown examples in Harrington Gardens SW7 but the style was to become synonymous with the domineering work of Norman Shaw. Whoever dreamt up Pont Street, and in reality it was the usual hotchpotch of talent and self publicity, the style spelt the death knell, the writing on the rendered wall, of regular terraces, issuing in an asymmetric age of individualism. “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” screams each and every house as the roofline tipsily whooshes and swooshes along more Dutch gables than Keizersgracht. Against the navy blue canvas of a sun drenched winter’s morning, the red brick and terracotta dressed with whitish stone renders Pont Street a patriotic tricolour. If walls could speak: “We may look Dutch or German or kinda Belgian (although certainly not anaemic Italian) but We Are Proud To Be British!” Its strength of character allows 20th century blips such as the picture window spanning the penthouse of 41 Lennox Gardens to be immersed into the wider picture of Pont Street. The houses (age unconsciously) celebrate their birthdays. “1884” shouts 25 Lennox Gardens in two foot tall letters from its third floor. A few doors up 43 Lennox Gardens tells the world it’s a year younger.
While unsettling for minimalists or purists, a wander in wonder along the wonderful streets of SW1 and SW3, the blessed boulevards of the hallowed Cadogan Estate, throws up a maximalist and impure visual feast, an aesthetic eyeful, for the devil and angels are in the detail. At a glance, here are just some of the hyperactive highlights. Keyhole silhouette broken pediment copper dormers in Sloane Gardens. Double decker dormers in Culford Gardens. Witch’s hat copper turrets where Draycott Place meets Blacklands Terrace. Quoined porthole windows peering out of 54 to 58 Draycott Place. A neo Elizabethan fretwork loggia hugging 3 Cadogan Gardens. Pierless Brighton balconies clinging on to 85 to 87 Cadogan Gardens. A French château mansard atop 89 Cadogan Gardens. Twin Queen Anne fanlights surmounting the doorcase of 105 Cadogan Gardens. Stumpy Ionic pilasters with egg and dart capitals framing the porch of 60 Cadogan Square. A pair of ballsy busty bulbous oriel windows bursting out from 84 Cadogan Square. A crowd of Georgian, gothic, plate glass, lead paned, stained glass, dormer and gabled windows on the side elevation of 63 Cadogan Square. Oh, and a lonely half oriel window for good measure. Pont Street itself bisects Cadogan Place Gardens under the watchful eyes of Jumeirah Carlton Tower. But the great swathe of red is mostly found between Sloane Street and Lennox Gardens. The extremities of Pont Street dive back into stuccoland.
A morning of architectural investigation deserves an afternoon of pure indulgence. Historically, afternoon tea was the outcome of dinner hour slipping to after 7pm in the early 19th century. Hiccupping ladies at first surreptitiously downed tea and gobbled cakes in their boudoirs after midday. Certainly, trailblazing trendsetting taboo busting zeitgeisty gal-about-castle Duchess of Rutland was bolshily dispensing tea in her boudoir by 1842. By Pont Street times, both sexes were merrily letting rip into scones and clotted cream in the drawing room or on the lawn. Where better then to indulge than No.11 Cadogan Gardens, the hotel bought by the synonymous Estate in 2012? It’s a thoroughly sophisticated member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
A maze of lacquered cloistered sequestered panelled hallways and passageways leads into the consciously picturesque opalescent drawing room. Linen at the ready, afternoon tea awaits, designed to instil a divine inertia into the remainder of a blurred and stimulating day. Decked and bedecked, trellised and jardinièred, the terrace is tucked between the townhouses and the mews to the rear. A flashback in paradise, evanescent and alive with remote anticipation, it’s a place to dwell on the meaningfulness of life. Another surprising space, full of heavenly glamour, is the Versailles inspired mirrored hall. Oil paintings of aristos line the ascending staircase to the 54 bedrooms. Monochromatic photos of models Christie, Linda and Kate line the descending staircase to the basement. Souls of different ages, the universe in process of consummation. No.11 has a distinct and dynamic personality, warm and sensuous, functioning outward from within.
Over to the father of town planning Manning Robertson for some contrariness: “Definitions of architecture are as unsatisfactory as any other expositions of the aim and meaning of the arts; but if architecture is to be alive at all it must clearly involve the erection of buildings to suit the demands of the period, and the embellishment of those buildings according to the dictates of the materials in use, the treatment being a direct reflection of the outlook of the epoch, based of course upon past work, insofar as it is applicable. We cannot say that the 19th century, which produced principally a dead copying of the past, did not reflect itself truly; it was, on the contrary, amazingly accurate in illustrating that the worship of material prosperity is not consistent with a high level of art. Public attention was absorbed elsewhere; architecture had to look after itself; what more natural than that men living in such a period should turn round and, as a sop to the aesthetic, attempt to reconstruct periods long since dead? The Victorian era was an age of immense scientific achievements, but it was also unique as an age that produced no living and typical architecture, unless one calls an indiscriminate repetition of past styles ‘typical’.”