Saint-Petersburg As It Might Have Been

In 2014 a design by the Russian classical architect Maxim Atayants was selected for a new judicial quarter in Saint-Petersburg. The centerpiece of the project would be the home of the country’s supreme court which is being moved from Moscow.

Atayants submitted an austere Roman design nicely embellished with Beaux-Arts decoration. It would include a number of government buildings, a dance theater, and a pedestrian embankment along the River Neva. This would have been a splendid reaffirmation of traditional architecture in one of Europe’s most important cities. Unfortunately it was not to be.

For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow. A modernist design was selected to replace it. Renderings by Atayants can be found on the internet; many appear below.

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Building Better, Building Beautiful

The UK government has announced a “commission to champion beautiful buildings as an integral part of the drive to build the homes communities need,” according to a press release today. This can only be taken as good news for advocates of traditional architecture.

The commission “will develop a vision and practical measures to help ensure new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to be welcomed rather than resisted.”

The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission has a mandate:

l. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.

2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.

3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.

Perhaps most exiting is the news that Sir Roger Scruton has been appointed chairman of the commission. Sir Roger is a great advocate of classical and vernacular design. As Rev Marcus Walker writes on Twitter: “The government is finally doing something actually Conservative: appointing Sir Roger Scruton to chair a commission into the Built Environment.”

Under London Bridge

I dined with my Livery company this week in London. The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass occupies a hall on the Southwark side of London Bridge. It stands, in fact, on the site of an earlier bridge.

There have been three crossings at this location since the thirteenth century. “Old” London Bridge was built in 1209 during the reign of King Henry II. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence it was covered with buildings and shops. The Chapel of St Thomas on the Bridge marked the starting point of the popular pilgrimage route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

By the eighteenth century “Old” London Bridge was in a decrepit state, hence the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down.” In 1824 work began on “New” London Bridge. It was designed by the Scottish civil engineer Sir John Rennie, who had previously designed Waterloo Bridge and the East India Docks.

“New” London Bridge opened in 1831 during the reign of King William IV. It served the City throughout the Victorian period and the first half of the twentieth century. But the introduction of automotive traffic greatly reduced its lifespan. By the 1920s the foundations had begun to sink. “New” London Bridge was replaced in 1967. Bizarrely, it was sold to an American oil magnate, dismantled stone by stone, and transported to Arizona.

The southern foundation of Sir John Rennie’s London Bridge remains in situ and intact beneath Glazier’s Hall. A recent renovation opened it up for use. So we had our cocktail reception there, in an atmospheric space containing the late-Georgian brick arches and York stone floor of a lost London Bridge.

A Renaissance in Traditional Architecture

Architectural Digest reports an anecdotal but encouraging rise in neoclassical projects. “As modernism’s light threatens to wane,” writes Kathleen Quigley, “more top architects are being called on to look back—way back—in order to get ahead.”

I have blogged about the concerted efforts of various institutions to suppress, or at least discourage, traditional architectural styles. But of course clients can overcome this pressure by insisting on classical or vernacular designs. Quigley writes about an architectural team whose “client, a shipping magnate and ardent Anglophile, had dispatched them to England to study the work of Robert Adam, the great neoclassicist. Trained in modernism at Syracuse University, they found themselves sketching festoons—garlands and swags—and studying proportion and detailing as they immersed themselves in the language of classicism.”

Peter Lyden, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, tells Quigley, “We are making progress.” I am glad.

The article contains commentary by Robert A.M. Stern, the former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and probably the only “starchitect” who works regularly in traditional styles. He recently designed the two new colleges at Yale in Collegiate Gothic.

Germany Around 1900

I have been leafing through Taschen’s gorgeous photographic atlas, Germany Around 1900. The volume catalogues the architectural heritage of the Kaiserreich in a series of enchanting photochrom prints. Looking through them one is struck with wonder (that such a beautiful world existed) and heartache (that it was destroyed).

Of course, many of the great civic buildings depicted in the book are still standing. Below are a selection of surviving landmarks as they appeared at the turn of the last century: Wernigerode Town Hall; the inner courtyard of Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the Bible; Neuschwanstein Castle (King Ludwig’s esoteric architectural homage to Wagner); Butchers’ Guild Hall in Hildesheim; and the Evangelical Cathedral in Berlin.

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An X-Ray on the Landscape

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The heatwave throughout Britain this summer has brought a number of lost features of the landscape temporarily into view again. Last month the BBC reported on the reappearance of the Victorian formal garden at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. The “ghost garden” was designed in the 1850s by Sir Charles Barry (who also designed the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle). It was lost during World War II.

Sarah Lascow at Atlas Obscura explains the phenomenon:

Cropmarks make sense when you think about them. Years ago, the people who settled in these places dug furrows and moats to help protect their lands, built foundations into the earth, and constructed walls. Those features are now invisible on the surface of the land, but their remnants still lurk beneath. Where walls once stood, the soil might be shallower; a filled-in ditch can mean a deep pocket of rich soil.

Most years, these variations in the ground don’t make much of a difference to plants, especially if they’re hardy and shallow-rooted. But when resources are scarce, a filled-in ditch can be a source of much-needed water, allowing the lucky plants above to grow green and strong while their neighbors wilt. Conversely, plants growing above old walls might struggle while their neighbors thrive.

Other reappearances include “Roman forts, Iron Age farms and Medieval castles” in Wales. Clumber House, one of the great English country houses lost in the twentieth century, resurfaced in Clumber Park. The house was built in the 1760s and torn down in 1938. Rachael Hall, an archaeologist for National Trust Midlands, tells iNews: “The parch marks at Clumber House have been fantastic. You can see the entire mansion laid out in front of you, so you know which room you’re in. And you can walk down the corridors into the grand hall, or the yellow drawing room, or the kitchen or the dining room and clearly know where you are.”

Prince Charles on the London Skyline

“All around me is what used to be one of the architectural wonders of the world: London.”

In this short excerpt from the 1988 BBC documentary HRH Prince Of Wales: A Vision Of Britain, Prince Charles discusses the transformation of the London skyline and the redevelopment of Birmingham in the post-war period.  The Prince is a passionate advocate for traditional architecture and city planning. His critique of modernism is blunt, eloquent, and entirely correct.

This video has been little seen since it originally aired on Newsnight. I am delighted to have unearthed it.

Photographs of a Disappearing London

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The Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, demolished 1876

Atlas Obscura examines The Society for Photographing the Relics of Old London. This group was founded in the late nineteenth century to make a record of the coaching inns and other old buildings that were fast being demolished. I write about the inns here. Cara Giaimo offers the following history:

In 1875, Alfred Marks learned he was about to lose an old friend. The Oxford Arms, north of St. Paul’s Cathedral, had spent centuries as a coaching inn, a place for travelers to stay while heading into or out of London. Then it had become a tenement house. It was, as Marks later wrote, “an excellent example of the galleried Inns”—rooming houses with interior balconies, so that visitors could take in stage shows and other entertainment—“now becoming every year more scarce.” Now, it was to be knocked down in order to make room for the expanding grounds of the Old Bailey courts next door.

It’s a feeling familiar to contemporary city-dwellers: a beloved building bites the dust. Who hasn’t walked past a nearby edifice, learned that it’s doomed by construction, and mourned their changing environs? The next step is often to snap a photo, for whenever that shiny new condo takes its place…

Over the next 11 years, as the founder and secretary of the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, Marks orchestrated the photographic preservation of dozens of buildings, including churches, inns, schools, hospitals, and houses. The choices he made help tell the story of preservation in London, and throw our own practices into relief.

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Old Houses in Aldgate, demolished 1883

Read the whole article here. The Gentle Author has more of the Society’s photograph at Spitalfields Life, here and here.

Renovations at the Frick

Renzo Piano’s 2006 addition to the Morgan Library in New York has to be one of the most egregious examples of inappropriate parasitic architecture in the world. The modernist steel-and-glass box that forms the new entrance and atrium to the complex is a jarring contrast to the original building, designed in 1906 by McKim, Mead, and White.

The Frick, which houses the collection of another Gilded Age financier, is preparing to renovate and expand its gallery space over the next two years. So how do the two approaches compare?

The Morgan and the Frick are both among my five favorite museums in America (the Met, the Morgan, and the Frick in New York; the MFA and the Gardner in Boston) so like all regular visitors I feel a sort of protective instinct toward them.

The Frick has selected Annabelle Selldorf to design the new work, a 160 million dollar project that will open up the second floor (once the private living quarters of the Frick family), renovate the entrance hall, add an auditorium, education center, and new galleries.

A few days ago renderings of the design were published in The New York Times and Curbed. My feelings are mixed. The façade of the seven-story addition is a little too stark in its modernism, though it is tempered by cornices and stone matching the rest of the building. Steel-and-glass boxes have been snuck in unnecessarily. But the interiors appear remarkably sensitive to the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the mansion. The spaces are open and spare but the details are in harmony with the original Carrère and Hastings design of 1912.

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Temple Bar at Paternoster Square

While I am on the subject of Paternoster Square, a few words about the historic structure that dominates it.

Temple Bar was the only one of the ancient gateways to the City of London to survive the demolition of the Roman wall in the eighteenth century. It stood where Fleet Street meets the Strand and served as the principle entrance to the City of London from Westminster. Several gatehouses occupied this spot over the centuries. The Medieval bar, built of timber, was destroyed in the Great Fire and replaced with a new structure designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672. This featured a massive arch of Portland stone decorated with statues of James I and Anne of Denmark on one side, Charles I and Charles II on the other.

Throughout the eighteenth century the heads of traitors were displayed from iron spikes on the main arch, as Dickens described in A Tale of Two Cities. The Wren bar was still standing in Dickens’s lifetime, though the keystones had sunk and the arches were propped up with supports. He complained of it as a “leaden-headed old obstruction” in Bleak House. It was increasingly a bottleneck for traffic. In 1878 the Bar was finally dismantled and replaced by the current Temple Bar Marker. The Wren bar was purchased by Sir Henry Meux, a wealthy brewer, who erected it at his country home in Hertfordshire. Lady Meux entertained her guests, including King Edward VII and Winston Churchill, in the upper room of the gatehouse.

In 1984 the Meux estate returned the Bar to the City of London for the nominal sum of £1 and it was rebuilt at Paternoster Square in 2004.

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Temple Bar in situ on Fleet Street, circa 1870

Temple Bar at Paternoster Square today