Perched on a precipice overlooking the sublime Surrey countryside, Betchworth Castle is romantic in both senses of the word. In 1379, Sir John Fitzalan created a deer park in the Manor of West Betchworth and built a strategically sited castle. Half a millennium later, landowner Henry Hope bought the estate to expand his neighbouring property, Deepdene. He reshaped the rambling building into a ruin. In Ireland, ruins are shrouded in a darker layer of meaning; in England, they can simply be eyecatchers. A golf club and fishing lake keep up the sporting tradition of the estate. The 1790s Sir John Soane designed stable block has fared rather better than the castle: this pretty flint faced building has been fully restored and converted to cottages overlooking the 9th hole.
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.
To be frank, it wasn’t the hardest decision in the world to while away a wintry Saturday afternoon, yes, the perfected world of a Saturday afternoon, wistfully tucked up in a swanky five star Knightsbridge hotel. Add Anouska Hempel (Lady Weinberg to you) to the mix, and it’s a given. The Franklin Hotel, retrieving the definite article, belongs to the family of London terraced houses turned boutique hotels by the New Zealand born designer, from the (very open) maximalist Blakes to the (now closed) minimalist Hempel. From the outside, it’s terribly similar to No.11 Cadogan Gardens. A Pont Street precursor perhaps? All candid brick elevations with canted bay windows. A cute crow stepped gable above a petite portico marks the entrance.
Anouska Hempel waxes lyrical on her latest creation, “The English love the Italians. The romance of Rome and Venice. All combined, opposite the Brompton Oratory, have become The Combination. Dark brooding greys and bright sparkling whites: floors of Carrara marble and slate. Garden windows abound onto a row of umbrella shaped pear trees. The glorious couture tables make the ground garden floor a sensation. I have had these made specifically to follow the floorplate. Venetian wells, piazzas, squares, dark greys with white punctuations. Mysterious.” Such moods, such moods and modulations.
Digging deeper, Loretto alumna Lady Weinberg, fresh from a stay at Abbey Leix, dwells on creation at large, “I hope that I have something more important to give the world than just what you see on the level of where I’m living at the moment. I think my mission is to bring peace and harmony and a sense of enjoyment, and also to bring something special into ordinary everyday life. I really have been very fortunate to have a little talent, and also incredibly fortunate to have had so many great opportunities. But I strongly feel that I am not the source of my own creativity, which must come from somewhere else.” Painterly, scholarly, otherworldly.
Bowing to mannerism, call it architectural etiquette, the palazzo look certainly isn’t by chance. This is the latest addition to Starhotels, an Italian family owned group. The bedlinen in each of the 35 bedrooms may be 400 thread count Italian Frette linen but the wrought iron balustrades of the enfilade were inspired by English conservatories. A mutual attraction | a binational lock-in love-in | a European commission. Anglophile Elisabetta Fabri, President and CEO of Starhotels, tipped off the designer about her passion. Anouska took it to fruition – with rigour. Hers is a symmetrical staging of sculpture: discovered, framed, mounted, foreground, background, grounded, released. Walls fading to trompe l’oeil, a mirage of Venetian eglomisée mirrors in the restaurant reflect the wonders of Alfredo Russo’s culinary capability. The Piedmont born chef snapped up his first Michelin star aged 24. Expect tiptop modern Italian cuisine. Disappointment is not, no never, on the menu. Exhilaration is. There are more highlights than a National Theatre performance of Amadeus.
Bed is a reinvented fourposter rising to a spidery crown, apropos to a rococo reverie or a baroque dream or a contemporary vision. It’s impossible not to be hyperbolic about this parabolic scrawl in the perfumed air. The entry to an arcane deserted world. And so late Saturday afternoon, yes, luscious late Saturday afternoon, descends into an undeclared denouement: a happy convergence of atavism with hymn charms. Shadow puppets at play. Unfurling the hours spent, later, so much later, upon reflection, through a glass, darkly; frankly it’s all about Franklin scents and mirrors.
The hypothesis of this essay is that the genre of architecture that has become known as the Soane Style is the product of not just one man’s thinking but two. Both architects had commissions built in Northern Ireland. In a reflection of their work at Pitzhanger Manor, Sir John Soane’s effort is a showpiece still in existence while George Dance’s building has been considerably altered. Soane will be forever remembered for the main block of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution which starred as a police station in TV series The Fall. Although the executed plan was greatly simplified from original grandiose proposals it nevertheless exhibits his trademark blind arches and pilaster strips.
The combination of the architects’ talents climaxes at Pitzhanger Manor. This erection was Soane’s country home in then rural Ealing and is now a council owned museum and art gallery. When the Soane Style peaked to maturity circa 1800 it proved to be a progressive form of architecture free in proportion and liberated in structural adventurousness, unconstrained by complete classical correctness. The 15 year period centred on the turn of the 19th century found Soane’s creative juices overflowing and coincides with the time he enjoyed his full blown friendship with Dance.
Pitzhanger Manor illustrates the overlap between their development of ideas and innovations. The three elements under scrutiny in this essay are the cross vault ceiling as in the library; the pendentive dome as in the breakfast room; and the top lit lantern such as that in the staircase hall. Here goes.
In Soane’s work the cross vault ceiling first appears in the ground floor rear sitting room of his townhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, built in 1792 and also now a museum. Dance uses a similar ceiling type at Cranbury Park in Northamptonshire a decade earlier. Its geometry is complex: a cross vault with the interpenetrations cut back to produce triangular chamfers which widen towards the apex of the ceiling where the ends meet to form four sides of a square.
They likely both saw in this pattern a touch of gothic romance. The flying lines radiating from the corners of the room to the centre represent a reinterpretation of a ribbed vault. Soane developed this idea in his design for the Privy Council Chamber completed in 1824, where the motif is introduced as a canopy detached from the sides of the walls to allow natural light to filter from above.
The innovative design of Dance’s Guildhall Common Council Chamber of 1777 provides an aesthetic forerunner of what is often considered peculiar to the Soane Style. This square hall, demolished in 1906, boasted a pendentive dome. It consisted of a continuous spherical surface rather than one rising from separate pendentives like more conventional neoclassical domes. In the Guildhall the continuity of surface is not explicitly obvious because Dance introduced decorative spandrils which produced a scalloped effect resembling the inside of an umbrella.
Fourteen years later, Soane adopted the pendentive dome for his own use in the drawing room of Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, where he repeated the Guildhall’s scalloped effect, and a year later at the Bank of England’s Stock Office. Just when an impression is forming that the pendentive dome was a one way inspirational mode Soane snatched from Dance, it becomes apparent that the two architects assumed unity of views since Dance designed a pendentive dome for Lansdowne House which was contemporaneous with the Bank Stock Office. The design of the junction between the hall and the domed space in Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, is exactly comparable with Dance’s initial scheme for the Bank Stock Office which also incorporates semicircular windows over segmental arches.
Picturesque top lit lanterns which originated for practical reasons at the Bank Stock Office became an integral component of the Soane Style. Soane was faced with the problem of how to produce effective top lighting and there is evidence that he consulted his confidante because the initial sketches are in Dance’s hand. The first study is inspired by the Basilica of Constantine and the Diocletian Baths, appropriate sources of inspiration for any neoclassical architect. But Dance chose to modify the Roman prototype. Instead of the heavily mullioned windows of the originals he introduced fully glazed half moons which Soane incorporated into his final proposals for the Bank Stock Office.
Top lit lanterns appear in buildings throughout the remainder of Soane’s career including his Dulwich Picture Gallery. He continued to use and interpret these three motifs, the cross vault ceiling, the pendentive dome and the top lit lantern, after his initial efforts with Dance. Combined with his prolific output, this cemented the association of the style with his name rather than Dance’s.
It is not suggested in this essay that any of Soane’s architecture is interchangeable with Dance’s but rather that the Soane Style was developed through their exchange of design concepts. Soane’s main contribution is a novel handling of proportion coupled with highly idiosyncratic applied decoration while many of the basic constituents of the style may be credited to Dance. In his lifetime Soane never ceased to acknowledge indebtedness to his “revered master” while Dance wrote to his pupil “you would do me a great favour and a great service if you would let me look at your plan… I want to steal from it”.
The ongoing restoration of Pitzhanger Manor not only highlights Soane at his most individualistic but also reveals the more conventional neoclassicism of the south wing which was Dance’s first attempt at a country house, before he aided the younger architect in the development of what was to become known as the Soane Style.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
‘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.”