Sunday, 27 November 2016

How to look at Cambridge architecture

Cambridge Architecture, by Nicholas Ray, 1994

Nicholas Ray makes some interesting and perceptive observations, but before you get started in this book with any individual buildings, you find yourself in a theoretical debate with the author. Mr Ray states: 
This book is designed so it can be read in preparation for a visit to Cambridge, as an introduction to the buildings of the University and colleges. But it is also intended to contribute to an understanding of architecture more generally.
This sounds good – an introduction to architectural history via a tour of Cambridge architecture. But the author’s true colours are revealed as early as page two. Under the heading “ways of seeing”, he tells us “there are many different ways of seeing Cambridge” - I can’t deny that. He states there are three, but I counted five, which I have numbered for convenience:

1.        “It is possible to appreciate the buildings as compositions of mass and line”
2.        “Another level of our understanding ... can be reached ... by understanding where these materials come from and how they were put together.”
3.        “We may admire the compositional skill of the architect.”

Notice that the first three of these are phrased as ways of admiring buildings - although in practice we may not choose to admire the buildings, but to complain about them. He then adds a further two:

4.        How much did the condition of patronage determine what it was possible to build?
5.        How does the building reflect ... the social conditions within which it was conceived?

 And these five ways of seeing may not be the only five. I would suggest three others, and I’m sure we could all add more:
  1.  Some buildings, but especially many in Oxford and Cambridge, were designed partly for show. They are buildings to show off the capabilities of the architect, the craftsman, and the builder. And sometimes the desire to show off has exceeded the attempt to provide pleasure or delight for the users.
  2. Most of the buildings exist in a historical context. Nobody could build a church without some reference to existing churches. Buildings at Oxford and Cambridge universities were built with reference to a tradition of what a university building should look like and how it should function. For example, it was traditional for older colleges to have a chapel and a dining hall. More recent colleges have a dining hall, but not necessarily a chapel (Murray Edwards College, for example, has no chapel). How do the buildings in Cambridge reflect this very specific requirement to relate to the college tradition?
  3. Finally, like most buildings, the University buildings have been modified over time by later architects in light of changed priorities and (presumably) by the experience of users trying to make some sense of the buildings as delivered. This aspect is typically ignored or only mentioned in passing. The changes might remove the original intentions, but then again they might improve the building aesthetically or for the users – or even both.

What is distinctive about Cambridge architecture? He has an answer for this as well. “Buildings for the colleges in Cambridge are specially pertinent ... because ... the way in which they are inhabited has changed so little over the centuries.” Hence, for the author, “the brief for a new college, such as Churchill or Robinson has not altered fundamentally since the middle ages.”

Is this true? If it has not changed, that may simply be the habit Oxford and Cambridge have of retaining outmoded practices that are no longer relevant, partly because of their unusual administrative structure that makes change less likely, and partly because most of the users (notably the undergraduates, but also many of the postgraduates) cannot complain in the way that most building purchasers can: you can decide not to buy a house; you can decide not to stay in a hotel; but you have little or no choice about your accommodation as an student. 

Here are a few examples of how college life has changed over the life of the University:
  1. College chapels are today no longer required. Even the names of the college imply a Christian tradition that is not relevant for many of the students and fellows.
  2. College dining is no longer relevant for the majority of academics. Since they typically have families, they will live outside the college and certainly not go to college dinners.
  3. Perhaps the idea of the single student in a single room is outmoded. There are plenty of examples of students living in separate bedrooms with shared catering and living spaces for each group.
In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for colleges to try to create a new paradigm for student living that is more appropriate to the 21st century. Don't ask me what these might be - that's for the architect, or the students, or both, to tell us.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Anna Karenina 

Can you remember what you were doing when you read Anna Karenina? With a novel as vast as this, probably every reader makes a note of when they start, or perhaps more likely when they finish, the book. It’s so overwhelmingly huge it is difficult to do anything else. For me, it was some 25 years after I had first started it. I remember listening to it read aloud to me in the car while I drove to work. I got as far as Anna and Vronsky travelling to Italy to a supposed life of bliss – that turned out to be anything but bliss.  I stopped reading (or listening) at that point because I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was downhill all the way from that point. 

Now, October 10th, 2016,  I have completed the book, was it all downhill from that point? Well the big surprise was that the novel did not end with Anna’s death. Her suicide, one of the best-known events in C19 fiction, is followed by a much less discussed and commented section that seems to be about nothing more than Levin’s family life. Levin, who seems increasingly to be Tolstoy’s alter ego, has deep thoughts about the meaning of life – and eventually reaches a cosmic acceptance of his state, a kind of religious feeling that requires the renunciation of reason, and that gives him a feeling of universal acceptance of all religions, and a harmony with other people. However, in a rare moment of understanding by Tolstoy, when Levin rejoins society after this mystic moment of harmony with the universe, he immediately realises he has no more patience than before. He shouts at his servant, he gets annoyed with his friends and with his wife. Has anything changed, therefore?  He realises it is a personal feeling, a sense of being, rather than anything he can communicate – even with his wife, and it is revealing how he pointedly refuses to try to explain his state of mind to Kitty. So at least Tolstoy has the magnanimity not to show his major character triumphant at the end of the novel. Levin has to take his place, as before, in the social scheme of things, where he will not impose his ideas on anyone else, but will have the satisfaction of a serene peace with the way things are.

Of course, it being Russia, things were not going to stay that way for long. Tolstoy would have hated the revolution, and would have hated the present state of affairs. Little cosmic acceptance in either world. But then again, we (or I) the readers are mighty pleased to be free of Tolstoy’s endless, boring asides while he tries to interest us in his concerns, which are of little interest to us. Such a major novelist wasting so many pages on trivia – the elections, Levin’s soul-searching, when his consummate skills meant he could have had us on the edge of our seats for four hundred pages, rather than alternating between frenzied admiration and boredom over eight hundred. Both inspired and boring, both infinitely aware of human feelings and ignoring them - that seems to be Tolstoy. I’m not inspired to read War and Peace

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The ten ugliest buildings in Cambridge

We all walk past buildings and sometimes say how awful they look.  (We might do the same when driving, although for some reason a car window makes the buildings outside look much less immediate.) But is our judgement of any value? Is it just that I disliked building X while you liked it, and that’s all there is to say? It’s just a matter of taste?

We tend to notice buildings when we see them for the first time; and even then, only when we observe them in a certain way. When you visit a place you tend to look at the buildings more carefully. When you live somewhere, as I now live in Cambridge, you rapidly forget all about buildings as buildings. You use them, you walk past them, but after a few days or perhaps weeks you usually forget that they had a designer and a purpose. So it takes a special effort to drag yourself out of the everyday, and to look at the buildings around you.

Why ten ugly buildings? Why not ten beautiful buildings? The answer to this is simple. By looking at a building that in some way fails – fails its users, fails its surroundings, for example -  it might be possible to come up with a set of criteria for what makes a building succeed. Heaven knows, we have enough buildings around us to draw some conclusions. So my goal is to determine if there is a set of criteria, of principles, by which it is possible to measure if a building is a success or a failure. And to some extent the comparison of buildings is both fun and also revealing.  

Another limitation of identifying an ugly building is that I may never have been inside the building concerned. This is certainly a failing, but gaining access to buildings is often so difficult I would never be able to comment about most of the buildings I see if I had to see inside them. I would love to, and I will try to enter them, but in many cases it cannot be done.

One specific reason for noticing buildings in Cambridge has been the book Hideous Cambridge, by David Jones (2013). I saw this book in the window of a bookshop on Hills Road, and I admit I was intrigued. A full review of this book would take up a full post, but suffice it to say that Mr Jones has very definite opinions about buildings that fail – often on aesthetic grounds, but sometimes others, and it has been very helpful to have another opinion on Cambridge buildings to measure against mine. If I quote many examples from Hideous Cambridge it should not be thought that the book is without merit. For example, Mr Jones rightly stresses the importance of buildings on the approach to Cambridge, whether via the train station or coming in by road. But he does have a list of worst buildings, including Botanic House and Parkside Piece.

To get the series underway I wanted to include one of the most noticeable ugly buildings, right in the corner of Parker’s Piece and adjacent to Regent Street. As I approached it last year, I noticed it had scaffolding around it, and to my surprise, I find that it has been demolished! This was the University Arms Hotel, or more precisely, the sixties extension to it facing Regent Street. This was designed by Feilden and Mawson, 1965-66, and Pevsner states “Not their best work”. But since I can’t illustrate because I didn’t get to it in time, any discussion of why or how it was not their best work is clearly not possible. I hope my selection of buildings will not always result in their immediate demolition, so we will have something to look at and to discuss, in future posts. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Cambridge college that didn’t opt for ostentation


Magdalen College, First Court (largely 16th century)
It is exceptional to discover an Oxford or Cambridge college that is an old foundation but that has not at some point indulged in a craze to display its wealth by building. Today I discovered one: Magdalen College, Cambridge. Of course there are poor colleges in Oxford and Cambridge (Somerville is an example), but as a rule they tend to be the more recent foundations. Magdalen has quite a simple building history, compared to that of most of the older foundations: just one complete quad, and one building (the Pepys Building) that might have formed part of a quad but never quite made it; one side was never built, and the side that was built faces the other way, towards the river.  Magdalen did have space on its original site to extend its building – the Fellows’ Garden is a lovely informal tree-lined walk alongside the River Cam – but, fortunately, never did. The rear side of the Pepys Building is a rather quiet brick range that blends well with the relaxed, almost unkempt style of the garden it faces.

Magdalen College, Fellows' Garden (by the river)

So where to build next? Magdalene College took over many of the buildings on other side of Magdalen Street. Here again, the policy was largely small-scale and unostentatious. Rather than demolishing the higgledy-piggledy set of old buildings they had bought up, the College had them restored, and the result is a marvellous informal collection of buildings. None of the buildings is major in its own right, but the impression overall is of a human-scale neighbourhood – perhaps unique in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, the story on that side of the street isn’t entirely a good one. It’s unfair to single out less than impressive newer buildings alongside an older foundation, but one or two of the 20th-century buildings are very poor. There is a huge block by Edwin Lutyens, Benson Court, 1931-32, which Pevsner praises for its details. The details may be fine, but the overall impression is on overbearing, inharmonious whole. Nice details, perhaps, but lacking any kind of overall statement. If you want proof, simply look towards Powell and Moya’s Cripps Building of 1963-67: bold, stark, but undeniably powerful, and a statement, which Benson Court is not.  Mercifully, the College prevented Lutyens continuing – what he completed was only one-third of his plan.
David Roberts, River Building

Unfortunately, Magdalen College has a building even less successful than Benson Court. It is by David Roberts, the very man who demonstrated such awareness of existing landscapes and interactions between buildings at one end of the site; but in his River Building (1956-57), he manages to build something at the same time ugly, out of touch with its surroundings – not linking to the river any more than it links to the existing buildings on the site - and looking more like retirement flats than student accommodation. It seems such a shame to build something so intrusive when the example of keeping a human-scale collection of buildings is just a few yards away.   

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Victory, by Joseph Conrad: more relief than victory

What was Conrad thinking when he wrote this novel? It feels as though he were not fully engaged, as if he were simply going through the motions of writing. There is nothing here of his best work, which appears to be either (a) a Western response to colonization, and (b) the response of humans to moral challenges, that force them to confront themselves. The two factors often appear together.

But in Victory, there is none of this. One rather feeble man, Heyst, does a good deed but is unfairly condemned for it. As a result, he runs away from society to live on an island by himself (although it turns out that is he not quite by himself – he has a Chinese servant, Wang). He is confronted by some very Western villains who are simply cardboard cut-outs of evilness; they don’t convince. He fails to defend himself or the woman staying with him (who he has rescued from a difficult situation).  That’s it! No great moral controversy; most of the book is about westerners against westerners. As a reader, I wasn’t very bothered about any of them.

My complaints about this novel:
1.      The hero is a ditherer. When confronted by a challenge on his island he fails to take decisive action.
2.      The phrase “motiveless malignity” applies to Heyst’s enemy, Schomberg. He is the mechanism that leads to the denouement. But nobody would be convinced by his arguments.  Why would a gang of murderers chase a man for his money when the company he worked for has gone bust, and there is no indication that has ever had any money?
3.      The novel is written by an omniscient narrator, who takes it in turns to write as if from the standpoints of individual characters. Some of the narrative is written as if by the main female character, Lena, a member of a touring band. That narrative doesn’t ring true. On the basis of this novel, Conrad couldn’t write as a female character.
4.      Where is the moral choice, the quintessential component of a Conrad novel?
5.      Is there ever any questioning of why Heyst retreated to a desert island? After all, it’s a strange thing to do (even if it is matched in another Conrad story, ‘The Planter of Malata`, another rather indifferent Conrad tale, which, it seems was written at the same time as Victory.
6.      A few Shakespearean parallels (Schomberg as Iago, Pedro as Caliban, did not lift the novel above the commonplace.
7.      Is there any awareness of any humanity in the non-western characters? No, they are treated as inferior beings. The character of the Chinese servant, Wang, as described by the narrator, reveals a colonial attitude that does not reflect well on Conrad.  By contrast, Kipling has a respect for and a genuine interest in other civilizations; on the evidence of Victory, Conrad has neither.

Incidentally, where is the victory of the title? The novel ends in disaster for all the major characters. My feeling on completing the novel was more like relief at having finished it.  

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pembroke College, Cambridge: big clock tower, minor Wren, medieval scraps

Like most of the older Oxbridge colleges, Pembroke is a hotchpotch. It does contain the genuinely old, but the old (that is, medieval) is often interesting just because of its small scale. Unfortunately it can rarely compete with Victorian exuberance and egotism, making the original buildings look puny, and as if that wasn't enough, you often find with old colleges the Victorian extravaganza was followed by some modern enhancements that often decides to compete with either or both of the other two styles. In the case of Pembroke, the genuinely old quad, 14th century no less, remains (at least about one side of it) but it has been so tampered with that you need a guidebook to explain what is original and what has changed. If you try hard you can imagine a real medieval quad, but to be honest, you have to import your idea from seeing one of the very few original and still recognizable medieval Oxbridge quads, such as Merton College Oxford. Even the front to Trumpington Street (shown above) has the original scale, but later stone refacing and the addition of two oriel windows. The result is more Tudor than medieval. 

Typical of the Victorians is that they would seemingly change things for the sake of it. Pembroke is famous because it contains Wren’s first building, the college chapel. It’s not the world’s greatest building, nor the worst – an acceptable enough rectangular hall-church, with elegant wood panelling inside But the Victorians were not satisfied with that. They extended the chapel by one additional bay and then rebuilt much of the end wall a few feet to the east. The purpose of this was not to change the outside so much as to incorporate four enormous columns of marble to mark where the extension begins, thereby creating a kind of chancel. Vast expense, conspicuous ostentation, and not at all in keeping with the restrained classicism of the original building. Why did the architect (Sir G G Scott Junior) do it? It’s as if he was saying, I can change any building I like, right or wrong.  

Pevsner likes the quality of the carving on the west front of the chapel, but to be honest, it’s so high up on the street front that most people walking past will never notice if it’s good or not.
Most of the architectural history of Pembroke, like the other older colleges, is the switch from gothic to classical. It’s a bit like a parlour game, trying to spot a little bit of classicism, then pointing out inconsistencies, as in the case of “Hitcham’s Cloister”, a bit of infill joining the original quad with Wren’s chapel, which is classical inside, but which remains gothic on the outside. Nobody is going to notice this inconsistency, except Pevsner.

What all visitors will notice is the amazing clock tower on the library, by Waterhouse, which Pevsner wonderfully describes as “municipal”, imposing a feeling on all the surrounding space that this is a public square. Intimate it is not. The clock is big enough for the whole of Cambridge, not just for one small college.

The other part that I liked was that for once, the modern buildings did not impose themselves on the rest of the college; nor were they apologetic. This is Foundress Court, by Eric Parry, 1995-97. It’s a lovely understated half quad (just two sides) of student accommodation, that simply displays to good effect the lovely white stone of which it is build, with a simple but effective asymmetrical pattern of windows and recesses.

The other thing you notice is the lovely gardening. The stark lawns of the quads are contrasted by a couple of lavish herbaceous borders, and most impressive of all, some completely over-the-top planting to try to compete with some completely over-the-top Victorian building by Waterhouse (Pevsner calls it “fiercely assertive”, and you need something like a banana palm to complete with it).

The feature of Pembroke that is perhaps most noticeable to passers-by is a completely unrelated bit of connecting wall in Pembroke Street, an entrance screen that is not used as an entrance (doesn’t look as though it was ever used thus, and so has a minimal relationship with the rest of the college) but which is astonishingly eye-catching. It is, like so many of the features in Oxbridge that catch your eye, Victorian – actually just beyond Victorian, 1907 by W D Caröe. It’s a great gateway to nothing, but lovely to walk past. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The rise, fall, rise and rise again of Stamford

When you visit a town with a large number of old buildings, there are typically two questions you ask yourself about it:

1.      What made it grow? Where did the money come from to build these no doubt expensive constructions?
2.      Why did the town decline, or at least, why hasn’t there been more recent money around to knock down all the old buildings that can still be seen (which is what happens in most towns)?

Most towns will have experienced one or the other; some have been through both. When you visit a town (as opposed to a village) there is usually some reason for its growth.  The reason we go to visit some towns for their architecture is often because both the first and the second factors took place: Bruges is the classic example; a town that became fabulously wealthy because of the cloth trade, and then declined as Antwerp became more dominant. This doesn’t of course answer all the questions you might have about a town, but it’s a good start.

Today was a visit to Stamford, and in preparation I tried to answer the above two questions. Stamford is a very attractive town, with over 300 listed buildings. When were they built? As far as can be seen from the built environment today, they were built in two periods. During the medieval period, Stamford had several parish churches, and some at least of them were grand (one account states there were 14 parish churches in Stamford in 1400). Clearly the town was wealthy during this period. But much of what you can see today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.  So why did the town decline, and why the number of buildings dating from a period after its presumed decline?

The explanation in the guidebooks for the decline is usually that the wool trade moved to East Anglia (in Pevsner it is baldly stated as “in the 15th-century, when the wool and cloth trade deserted Stamford for East Anglia”, without stating why). A possible reason for this is that the river Welland, on which Stamford was originally founded, and which was navigable up to Stamford, enabling trade across the North Sea, became silted up. So that explains the decline of the wool trade; but why did Stamford grow again? Reasons for this seem to be less clear. Possible explanations are:

-         The town’s situation on the Great North Road as a coaching inn location
-         The river Welland was made navigable again for a time (I haven’t found any authority for this statement)

The first of these sounds plausible. There are indeed several inns on the main N-S road through the town. This would also explain the town’s decline, since when the railways arrived Stamford showed little enthusiasm for having a station, which meant that the main N-S railway was routed through nearby Peterborough. But there are plenty of examples of coaching towns that grew moderately during the 18th century, but which are nowhere near as grand as Stamford – Benson in Oxfordshire is an example. In fact, Pevsner states the population of the town was just 4,000 in 1801, and only 9,000 in 1851 – this is not very spectacular growth. So I am at a loss to understand where these 300 listed buildings originated. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, some church monuments are powerful indicators of wealth. Whoever paid for it (and it is ridiculously out of scale compared to the chapel in which it is placed) was demonstrating their money. 

As for the way the present-day authorities deal with this marvellous town, I was disappointed. Not one of the old churches seems to have been adapted for a civic purpose. One church, St Michael’s, has been converted to shops – but only using the ground floor space. The main part of the church remains disused. That seems a great waste. Browne’s Hospital, “one of the best medieval hospitals in England”, according to Pevsner, cannot be visited, although it has a chapel and dormitory that I would guess could be visited without disturbing the elderly residents who live in separate accommodation.

All in all, Stamford is an impressive town - and all the more impressive for a town that lost its biggest industry before around 1500.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Finding the traces of old main roads: the A10

Coming back from Hatfield to Cambridge, we discovered there is one road, the A10, that goes all the way. Today that road is broken into stretches of dual carriageway, and sometimes diverges from the older road, but it was possible to retrace the course of the original A10 during an hour or two. Our perspective was not to go anywhere very fast but to see the towns on the old road. Clearly towns such as Ware, Buntingford were old coaching stations.

That led to a further thought: the A10 was clearly a major route as far back as the 16th-17th centuries, to judge from the buildings beside the road that looked like they had been inns. So when were the road numbers introduced? And what were they based on?

Buntingford, a town of just a few thousand people, has coaching inns; it makes you remember the lovely big coaching inns at Benson, Oxfordshire, a town completely bypassed, but which (presumably) was an important stop between London and Oxford. I have a photo of a coaching inn from Godalming, Surrey (shown below), though sadly nothing from the old A10 road as yet. 

Wikipedia tells us road numbers were introduced from 1913 - but these were obviously based on the main routes existing at the time. Why then is there an Old North Road, as well as a Great North Road? When did it change from one to the other?

What about the A10?
This was the London to Kings Lynn main road, while the A11 was London to Norwich, and the A12 London to Great Yarmouth.

There is a Wikipedia entry for A10, which follows the former Ermine Street to Royston. However, this simply lists the history of bypasses and improvements. It appears largely to be derived from a website called SABRE (Society for All British Road Enthusiasts), written from the point of view of the motorist (“Ware is bypassed by a nice fast bit of new road”).

So is there any study of a particular road, going back before the numbered road system, and identifying what kind of travellers there were? One limitation of the Pevsner view of the world is that it is sliced up into places, with little consideration of how people would be travelling through those places. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Places of the Soul (Christopher Day)

Perhaps if I had thought about the title a little more, I might have been more reluctant to buy this book. I bought it for the ravishing photographs. Who could resist an image of a pathway, with random stones forming it, and a tree forming a canopy over the path? Yes, architecture should create magic spaces! And yes, let's have a book that tells us how to work this magic! 

But when I started reading Christopher Day's book, I realised it is full of contradictions. The biggest contradiction is that the book’s message is so good, but its details are so wrong. At a macro level, the book argues for the emotional effects of architecture, and of course the author is correct. At a micro level, Mr Day is prey to the most unlikely and uncorroborated fads, so much so that I am embarrassed for him to reveal some of the unsubstantiated statements he makes. Where he makes claims, he is often derivative (the Ruskinian idea that the craftsman's involvement in the work gives the building soul, although there is no credit for Ruskin in the index). Not only that, he is wildly inconsistent, as I will show below.

 In principle these details should eliminate his entire case, but he is redeemed by the overall case, which is a good one, and by some of the photos, at least.

For examples of unsubstantiated claims, try chapter two, which contains a lot about colour. The emotional effects of colour are described as if absolute, and even at times given a source that provides a spurious credibility, almost a parody of the academic citation:

Blue is calming, peaceful. Green is a colour of balance: in Steiner schools, green is the balance colour for classrooms at the midpoint of childhood.

Teenagers need an environment that … internalizes the outer activity of earlier childhood … for this the appropriate colour lies in the cooler blue-green, blue-grey range.

Restaurateurs know that warm tints, oranges and reds, stimulate appetite: blues do the reverse [source: National Geographic magazine]

I’d like to know if the teenagers whose rooms were to be blue-green and blue-grey were consulted over this choice.

He then goes on to consider shapes, and in a similar way, he extends a subjective view to a crass doctrine. After describing the curve of a mother’s breast, he infers that we like curves in childhood, and then continues:

As adults, we don’t cry in planar surroundings, nor gurgle in curved ones, but such echoes remain: softly curved – welcoming; flat and hard – unfriendly (but so normal, we don’t notice it).

This last statement is accompanied by a child-like drawing equating a sharp line in a building with a man pointing a gun, as if we didn't get the message from the text alone. 

What is all this? A mishmash of opinions invalidating a very welcome plea to make use of some of the best features of much vernacular architecture -  its irregularity, its human scale, its unexpected spaces and use of light. Why mix all this up together? Someone should extract the magic from this book and present it unencumbered by assertions stated as facts. And drawings of men with guns.