Sometimes you just gotta hunt a little harder, dig a little deeper, look a little longer, to see the wood and the trees. Beauty isn’t always served up on a plate, not even in glorious Blackheath. Its Georgian terraces and Regency villas facing the Heath are on full display for all to admire but, to employ a military analogy, the army that is architecture can’t be just about majors. Lieutenants are required too. Where is the hidden charm, the understated elegance, the stuff that scenery is made of? Ryculff Square.
But first, a race through literature celebrating the neoclassical, the Georgian, the neo Georgian and the hooley. Deputy Chief Architect to the Ministry of Health Housing Department Manning Robertson, who owned Huntington Castle in County Carlow, penned Everyday Architecture in 1924. He states in his preface, “The necessity for economy is forcing us into honest expression, and the new style, although based upon past tradition and especially upon Georgian work, is not a mere copy, but bears the stamp of the present day; we are in fact continuing the sequence of English architecture from the point where it was rudely interrupted by the industrial materialism of the last century. More and more we rely for our effects upon good plain brick and tile work, of pleasing texture and varied colour, and upon the elusive quality of proportion emphasised by the play of shadows.”
Ryculff Square once more. The scheme is about as streamlined neo Georgian as is possible. Sir Albert Richardson designed a series of apartment blocks placed around leafy green squares. Completed in 1954, plain brick elevations are subtly relieved by string courses and mildly projecting porches. Low pitched concrete tile roofs rest on deep eaves. Almost 65 years after its first brick was laid, Ryculff Square remains largely unspoiled. The plethora of plastic framed double glazing and galaxy of satellite dishes are both reversible. A few kilometres south of the Heath, Lourdes Close is the latest residential development in Blackheath. Designed by Thrive Architects, the nine townhouses are neo Georgian.
Sir Albert Richardson lived in the Georgian gem of Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. Gavin Stamp lamented the sale and dispersal of its contents in 2013 while extolling the architect’s virtues in Apollo Magazine. “Richardson may have adopted a pose in Ampthill – refusing to install electric light, dressing up in Georgian clothes and being carried through the streets in a sedan chair – but he was a seriously good modern architect,” Professor Stamp argued. “He began by promoting the Edwardian rediscovery of neoclassicism and the works of people like Soane and Cockerell. After the First World War he intelligently adapted the abstracted classical language of Schinkel and other neoclassicists…” Avenue House was bought by Tim Knox, Director of the Royal Collection, and garden designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who are restoring the house to its future glory.
Decisions, decisions. There may not be as many approaches to architectural criticism as there are to architectural style but there are still plenty around for sure. The formal approach championed by Huxtable. Historical by the likes of Goldberger. Experiential by Muschamp. Activist by Sorkin. So on and so forth. This essay relies on a combination of formal and historical as befits its subject. The Mumford (not & Sons) walkthrough is adopted with its emphasis on the visual. A sprinkling of the sustainable approach is added to the mix. It’s a tale of two architects two centuries apart anchored by continuing moments of beauty. Dr Roderick O’Donnell, one of London’s leading architectural historians, is on standby for sound bites.
But this essay isn’t about No.10. Although the neighbouring building may be significantly lower in scale, its dignified presence holds its own. Welcome to Trinity House, Trinity Square. Samuel Wyatt’s masterpiece, an authoritative assimilation of Greco Roman style. Over to Rory: “His younger and better known brother James is more flash. Samuel is a much more controlled architect – he’s not headline. He is best known for designing a series of sold satisfying small country houses.” Isabella Blow’s family seat Doddington is one example. Built in the 1790s, Trinity House displays the Wyatt dynasty’s love of the lateral. “Horizontal emphasis is a Wyatt trait,” confirms Rory.
The ground floor is presented as a channelled stone rusticated podium with the order raised above framing the principal floor. The central segmental arched doorway is set in a three bay reticent recess flanked on either side by single bay projections with segmental arched tripartite windows. These deferential round headed apertures act as a counterpoint to overall elevational orthogonality. Upstairs, paired unfluted Greek Ionic pilasters distinguish the outer bays. Just as François Mansart gave his name to a certain type of roof, James Wyatt popularised a window type. The Wyatt window is a tripartite arrangement resembling a Palladian window (another eponymous architectural term) with the arch omitted and the entablature carried over the wider central window. Samuel places Wyatt windows over the doorway and on the first floor of the outer bays. Matching unfluted Greek Ionic columns frame the central bay with single windows on either side. Balustraded aprons fill the space below the five windows. Above, relief panels display nautical emblems and together with a couple of busty mermen hint at the building’s use. A dentilled cornice over a plain entablature surmounts the façade.
The side elevation to the left is five bays wide but squeezes in an extra floor at entablature level, resulting in a more domestic scale and character. Wyatt continues the rustication of the ground floor. A string course is the only decoration on the upper two floors. There is no rear elevation. The building abuts others behind. To the right of Wyatt’s façade is a 1950s extension by Albert Richardson. Yikes! The era that taste forgot. Fear not. Richardson’s addition is a lesson in architectural good manners. Rory pronounces, “Richardson’s work prolongs the lines of the original but is kept subordinate by setting back the two bay link and differentiating the appearance through the very subtle use of light brick on the upper storey.” A three sided canted bay terminates the Tower Hill frontage. A full stop. Richardson repeats the ground floor rustication and introduces another Wyatt window in the middle of the canted projection. Look now: the two angled walls are slightly recessed. Look up: this seemingly minor detail magnifies to create an almost pagoda effect when the cornice is viewed from the forecourt.
“The roof usually isn’t visible in classical architecture,” explains Rory, “so Richardson correctly treats it as a separate architectural entity. He clad it in copper. Richardson enjoyed and was adept at working with metals. His Financial Times building near St Paul’s, the first post war building in England to be listed, incorporates bronze framed casements and cornices trimmed with copper.” The wrought iron weathervane of a 16th century ship jauntily perched on a copper ball provides the finial. An exclamation mark! The side elevation to the right of the frontage appears as one large canted bay with three central openings. A flying first floor wing links this elevation to the building behind. Again Richardson uses metal: an expanse of glass on either side is framed in bronze with rosettes crowning the joins.
Back to Rory: “Richardson was a very competent Georgian revival architect. He was a neo Georgian in every sense – he lit his house with candles and wore 18th century costume. Richardson wasn’t interested in Soane – he would have considered him too radical, not Georgian enough. He wanted to revive Georgian architecture and wasn’t interested in developing a big commercial practice. Unlike the boring hackneyed neo Palladian architects of today, Richardson was his own man. “
Ding-a-ling-ling. Time to go indoors. What’s the relationship of container to contents? That’s a question for the Nazis to answer. A World War II bomb landed on the, er, landing on a Saturday evening in 1940. The ensuing fire gutted the building. Although the furniture was destroyed, the paintings, silver and records were fortuitously in storage. Richardson reconstituted a slightly streamlined version of Wyatt’s interiors relying on 1919 Country Life photographs. “Most of the rooms, certainly in the original block, look like convincing 18th century interiors,” Rory reckons. Richardson excels at imbuing space with meaning. A sense of scale and proportion is achieved through carefully controlled containment, boundaries and direction. The low ceiling of the entrance hall accentuates the dramatic sequence of what lies beyond – and above. Applied decoration in the entrance hall takes the form of incised panels and niches holding lighthouses. A further clue to the building’s use. Walking past the ground floor timber panelled cloakroom, Rory observes, “So much of Richardson’s detailing is implied, reticent, recessed rather than extruded.”
A pair of Roman Doric columns with gilded capitals, sea green scagliola shafts and black bases heralds the approach to the staircase hall. This tripartite opening is an unglazed variation of the Wyatt window and is a recurring motif throughout the building. Just as the stairway is one of the great architectural problems, so Wyatt’s is one of the great solutions. On axis of the entrance door the staircase is both complexly configured and perfectly, restfully modulated. The upper two treads of the first flight bow inwards as if in anticipation of the bowed flights to come. Such rhythm of compression and vertical expansion of space stretching heavenward to a clerestory and trompe l’oeil ceiling. The stone treads cantilevering out from the great semicircular apse. The fine wrought iron balustrade with anthemion panels. Sometimes they do it right. Wyatt and Richardson making waves. A tongue shaped secondary staircase slips in behind the main event. Entablatures of Ionic columns facing the landing carry mini galleries with balustrades and pairs of caryatids. Rory spots a sea change in design direction. “The introduction of the Ionic order gives a different flavour to this floor. It suggests thinking, something more intellectual.”
Off the landing is the Court Room. It’s the same size as the three bay entrance hall below but has a high ceiling above a deep cove. A trompe l’oeil sky by Glyn Jones adds to the feeling of latitude. “Jones was a very ambitious figurative painter of the mid 20th century,” notes Rory. This room has the character of a country house saloon. A gilt framed mirror stands over the while marble with ormolu detail fireplace. Six full length majestic regal portraits grace the walls: George III and Queen Charlotte by Gainsborough Dupont; William IV and Queen Adelaide by Wills Beechey; Edward VII by Frank Holl and George V by John Collier. A hemicycle shaped wine table sits on the Killybegs woollen carpet. Tall double mahogany doors with ormolu escutcheons open into the Luncheon Room. Oyster sea shell pink wallpaper awaits.
The first floor of Richardson’s wing contains three main interconnecting rooms. The intimate Reading Room, the large Library and an annex called the Pepys Room which is lit by the metal framed windows. At first the Library’s function is not apparent as the books are concealed behind doors in the panelling. The two ends are treated as ellipses with the south end accommodated in the projecting canted bay. Stained glass dating from the 16th century is placed in the sashes. “I think one would know this is a 20th century room. It’s very pretty with beautiful detailing based in the vernacular,” observes Rory. “In using the term ‘vernacular’ I am of course referring to domestic Georgian architecture. ‘High street Georgian’ to coin a phrase.” He’s on a roll. “There are extensive drawings in his seminal publication Regional Architecture of the West of England. For example, Richardson meticulously studies traditional shop fronts. The inventiveness and attention to detail – look again at the Library panelling, the Pepys Room fenestration – are clearly derived from his studies.”
Complements, compliments. Time to reflect on the architecture once more. This is a building by two designers or engineers or engineer designers working at the height of their powers, a complete work of substance. Future proofing, to use the latest dire planning jargon, was probably not top of Wyatt’s agenda. But his architecture remains aesthetically pleasing to the modern eye and with Richardson’s help has adapted well to contemporary requirements. That’s what’s called… eek more planningease… sustainable development. Stop. In a final Huxtablesque moment, the scale of the building, the subtlety and seriousness of the architectural style and material, of sculpted stone and smooth brick; the visible and tangible continuity of London’s Georgian tradition; the accent and nuance – colour, size, style, massing, space, light, dark, solids, voids, highs and lows – all are just right.