Brighton has several. Littlehampton has one. Margate sure has one. A shocker of a tower block. Designed by Philip Russell Diplock and built by Bernard Sunley in 1964, Arlington House is Marmite architecture. At 18 storeys it is the only building to scrape the sky along the low rise beach front. Margate Sands is north facing so the wider sun catching east and west elevations of the tower block have jagged profiles to capture sea views. Clever. The exterior is more or less ornament free. Each core of each floor of the cast concrete monolith serves just four apartments.
Although Clonalis in County Roscommon doesn’t feature in Desmond Guinness and William Ryan’s book, it has been associated with the same family for millennia rather than centuries. Clonalis is the ancestral home of the O’Conors, Kings of Connacht and erstwhile High Kings of Ireland. The most ancient royal family in Europe, no less. Just to be sure, their ancient limestone inauguration stone dating from 75 AD stands proud outside their front door. While the O’Conors’ possession of the land can be traced back over 1,500 years, the house is relatively recent. No surprise they call Clonalis the ‘New House’. In the very grand scheme of things it’s practically modern. Construction was completed in 1878, the year its English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell (yes, a descendant of the Clapham diarist and a friend of the O’Conor clients) died aged 45. Like most Victorian practitioners he was versatile, swapping and entering epochal stylistic dalliances with ease. Eclecticism ran in Fred’s blood: his grandfather Samuel Pepys Cockerell did design the batty and bonkers Indocolonial Sezincote in the Cotswolds. A rummage through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography one evening in the O+C Club reveals the architect’s Irish connection: he married Mary Mulock of King’s County (Offaly). “A genial, charming, and handsome man, knowledgeable in literature and the arts, his premature death was widely regretted,” records author David Watkins.
Tráthnóna maith daoibh. Fred’s 1 South Audley Street, 1870, the Embassy of Qatar for donkey’s years, is an eclectic Queen Anne-ish Mayfair house with just about every ornament imaginable thrown at its burnt red brick and terracotta façade. Arabesques, brackets, corbels, friezes, masks, niches, putti… he really did plunder the architectural glossary… augmenting the deeps and shallows of the metropolis. If, as architect and architectural theorist Robert Venturi pontificates, the communicating part of architecture is its ornamental surface, then the Embassy is shouting!
His country houses show more restraint. Predating Clonalis by a few years, his first Irish one was the neo Elizabethan Blessingbourne in County Fermanagh. Clonalis is loosely Italianate. Terribly civilised; a structure raised with an architectural competence, spare and chaste. Happens to be the first concrete house in Ireland, too. A few years earlier he’d a practice run in concrete construction at Down Hall in Essex. A strong presence amongst the gathering shades of the witching hour, a national light keeping watch. Every house has a symbolic function, full of premises, conclusions, emotions. Clonalis rests at the far end of the decorative spectrum from 1 South Audley Street. Venturing a Venturesque metaphor: it talks smoothly with a lilt. Symmetrically grouped plate glass windows, horizontal banding and vertical delineation are about all that relieve its grey exterior. An undemonstrative beauty. Rising out of the slate roof are high gabled dormers, balustraded parapets and tall chimney stacks. The central chimneys are linked by arches – whose identity lie somewhere between function, festivity and topography – creating a two dimensional Vanbrughian temple of smoke. Clonalis isn’t totally dissimilar albeit on a grander scale to another late 19th century Irish champion, Bel-Air in County Wicklow. Especially the three storey entrance towers (campaniles, really) attached to both buildings.
Pyers and Marguerite O’Conor Nash accept paying guests (heir b+b?) under the auspices of Hidden Ireland. Furnishings read like a chapter from Miller’s Guide to Antiques: Boulle | Limoges | Mason | Meissen | Minton | Sheraton. If painting and art measure the refinement of sensibility, as Isabel Archer believes in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, we’re in good company. Who needs money when you know your Monet from their Manet? Ding dong dinner gong. Variations of Valkyries veer toward Valhalla. Suavity bound by gravity. A patrician set of gilt framed ancestral portraits, provenance in oil, punctuate the oxblood walls of the dining room. Plus one (romantic dinner). Plus three (communal dining). Plus fours (we’re in the country). Plus size (decent portions). “Farm to fork,” announces our hostess. A whale of a time. Tableau vivant. Our visceral fear of dining on an axis is allayed by a table setting off centre. Phew. Triggers to the soul, spirit arising, the evening soon dissolves into an impossibly sublime conversation of hope and gloss in the library, while at arm’s length, Catherine wheels of a pyrotechnic display implode and disintegrate like embers in the fire. Beyond the tall windows, a flood of summer light had long waned, and the heavy cloak of dusk, to quote Henry James, “lay thick and rich upon the scene”.
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” complains Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.” We’re happy to embrace boredom in that case. Like the other three guest bedrooms, ours is light and airy thanks to a cream carpet, summery colour scheme and deep penetrations of natural light. Touches of 19th century grandeur (a marble chimneypiece reassures us this was definitely never a servants’ wing) blend with 21st century luxury. Our bedroom would meet with Lord Warburton’s chagrin: carefully curated completely accomplished comfort. Actually, the niches for turf set into the marble fireplaces of the dining and drawing rooms suggest the O’Conors always had one eye on grandeur, the other on comfort. “Blessingbourne has similar fireplaces,” shares Marguerite. “This season is opulence and comfort,” Kris Manalo, Heal’s Upholstery Buyer, informs us at a party in 19 Greek Street, Soho. Clonalis is bang on trend, then. “And £140 Fornasetti candles to depocket premium customers.” They do smell lovely. We’re digressing.
“The scheme is in two parts: the upper element adopts the vertical proportions of the golden section. A cube shaped residential building is delicately positioned over a 15 metre high base with a large glazed section, providing both prominence onto the street and glimpses into the music college. This purity of form is reflected in the simplicity of the external surfaces. The strong base is faced with a white ceramic brick interrupted by a textured three dimensional band representing rhythm which accords with the positioning of the rectilinear punched apertures. But it is the erosion of this cubic form that truly defines the building. A ‘missing’ street corner acknowledges the strong horizontality of the adjacent railway line, in parallel creating a longitudinal distinction between the music college and apartments. The upper residential storeys are distinguished by a hierarchical layer of vertical solar spines intersecting glazed fabric. The top of The Music Box is a continuous glazed kerb regularly punctuated by the extension of the solar spines: a profile reminiscent of a hammer and piano keys.”
Next stop Ham Yard. We haven’t strayed too far from the closeness of riches, sticking firmly to the Regent Street edge of Soho. More than a mere hotel, this Woods Bagot designed piece of new townscape is stitched into the tight urban fabric. All the key town planning buzzwords are ticked: accessibility, flexibility, legibility, permeability. Stylistically too it’s a fit, displaying a kickass warehouse meets townhouse typology. Dotted around the perimeter of the courtyard are 13 boutique shops. In the hotel itself, as well as the Dive Bar there are 91 bedrooms and suites, a ground floor restaurant, orangery sunken halfway below street level and a theatre two floors down. Ah, the theatre. Our raison d’être at the Kemps’ latest development. Alex Beard (Chief Exec), Kevin O’Hare (Director of the Royal Ballet) and Kasper Holten (Director of Opera) have invited us to celebrate the opening of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season. “We’ve an audience to die for!” exclaims Alex. “We’ve got with us more than a smattering of Royal Ballet artists. Friends and rellies, you can catch me in the cinema! We’re going from strength to strength.”
Kicking off (although there’s probably a more genteel term for it) the season is Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed Manon performed by The Royal Ballet starring Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli. Madness, materialism, mayhem, mistresses, mystery, misery, Monsieur GM… they’re all in the gripping three acts of Manon. Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece may be 40 years old, first performed in 1974, but it remains thematically bang up-to-date. His Views of the Word are not defunct. Tonight’s performance is being simultaneously broadcast across 40 countries. Federico’s family are watching it in Genoa. But first for some revolutionary devolutionary evolutionary canapés. There’s the opening reception plus two intervals then the after party to navigate our way through. Phew. Thank goodness for avocado and lime on dried cracker; grilled goats’ cheese on mini toasted brioche; prawns marinated in basil pesto; grilled asparagus with garlic mayo; mini pulled pork and beetroot burgers; and pan fried cubes of chicken fillet. Not forgetting white chocolate caramel lollipops – they’ve got kick. Survival of the fattest.
Kenneth MacMillan’s source was the 18th century French novel by Abbé Prévost. It had already been adapted for opera by Massenet and Puccini. But he drew new sympathy for the capricious Manon using his customary psychological insight and memories of his own impoverished upbringing. He described his heroine as “not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor”. It’s a heart wrenching drama accentuated by Jules Massent’s score. The great choreographer’s widow, Lady MacMillan personally introduces Manon at Ham Yard. “Kenneth loved cinema and would be delighted by this performance. I warn you – there’s no happy ending!” And the best bed flip award (presumably there’s a technical term for it) goes to Marianela Nunez.