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For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow.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.

The English Garden

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Victorian Garden, by Henry John Yeend King, undated

The Victorians inherited from the Georgians a glorious tradition of landscape gardening, both in the Neoclassical and the more naturalistic Romantic styles. The landscape gardens of the eighteenth century had been projects of the nobility, located on the great country estates. These projects were of course ongoing in the nineteenth century, but the Victorian period witnessed a blossoming of horticulture in the commons, characterized by the proliferation of public gardens and small-scale formal gardens in middle-class homes.

According to English Heritage, “An extraordinary number of innovations in the study, cultivation and display of plants were made during the Victorian period. At the same time there was an explosion of interest in gardening, which became a national obsession.” Most notably, “Advances in the way plants were transported and transplanted meant that botanists were able to raise specimens imported from all over the world.”

Early Victorian gardens were characterized by formalism and artifice. The influential garden designer, botanist, and writer John Claudius Loudon led fashion away from the Romantic style which had accentuated and imitated nature. Loudon believed that garden design should be asserted as an art with bold use of exotic plants and geometric design. He popularized the term “landscape architecture.”

Loudon was an advocate of public gardens and greenbelts. Like his American counterpart, Frederick Law Olmsted, later in the century, he believed that parks should be incorporated into cities through urban planning. Loudon designed what is often described as Britain’s first public park, the Derby Arboretum. According to English Heritage, “Urban parks” were “created in response to concern about overcrowding and the condition of the poor.” These public gardens were similar to their private counterparts in “layout and planting, but with amenities such as bandstands and tea houses.” Loudon coined the word arboretum for a botanic garden in which trees, both indigenous and exotic, were cultivated and studied.

The systematic cultivation of plants became a serious endeavor throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Botanic gardens were established in colonies throughout the world to meet agricultural, medicinal, and economic needs. The earliest of these had been established in the eighteenth century. Jim Endersby writes, in The Financial Times, that

St Vincent, in the West Indies, was the first colony to found such a garden (in 1765), and Britain’s East India Company decided it would be profitable to found one at Calcutta soon after (1787).

Eventually, there would be a network of gardens that spanned the globe, which would prove vital to the British Empire, allowing vital crops like rubber and cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was extracted) to be collected outside the empire and moved to colonies where they could be grown profitably. (Think about all those rubber trees that now form forests in southeast Asia; their scientific name is Hevea brasiliensis, meaning “from Brazil”.)

Back in England around the same time the royal pleasure gardens at Kew were being transformed into a center for scientific cultivation under King George III. That great monarch (much maligned by the wicked) appointed his horticultural advisor Sir Joseph Banks to the directorship of Kew Gardens in 1797. Banks envisioned Kew as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire.” To that end he coordinated ambitious programs of exchange between the many fledgling botanic gardens throughout the colonies.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne Kew Gardens had fallen on hard times. After King George III they had been neglected. The government was considering a plan to close Kew in order to save money. Endersby writes,

In 1838, the botanist John Lindley was asked to report on the plan, but instead of closure, he proposed the government should remove the garden from royal control and run it directly. His rationale was that there were already “many gardens in British Colonies and dependencies . . . in Calcutta, Bombay, Sahranpur, in the Isle of France [Mauritius], at Sydney, and in Trinidad, costing many thousands a year”. Yet, the value of these gardens “is very much diminished by the want of some system under which they can all be regulated and controlled”. Yet if proper co-ordination could be established, the empire’s gardens were “capable of conferring very important benefits upon commerce and . . . colonial prosperity”.

The government accepted Lindsey’s recommendations and in 1840 Kew was adopted as a national botanic garden. Under this arrangement it flourished as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire” first proposed by Banks. The scale and efficiency with which exotic plants were imported during the nineteenth century made them available to individual home gardeners as well as professionals.

The style and philosophy of landscape gardening changed subtly at the fin de siècle. The gardens of the Late Victorian period emphasized the vernacular and domestic. Designers eschewed the extreme artifice of both the Classical and faux-natural Romantic styles in favor of the homely, practical, and lovely. “Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture,” advised Henry Avray Tipping, the architectural editor of Country Life magazine, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden.” Tippering was speaking in 1928 but he was describing an ideal that had been established in the 1880s and 1890s. The primary influence was the Arts and Crafts movement associated with John Ruskin and William Morris.

Helena Gerrish in The English Garden writes, “Beyond the formal ‘outside rooms’ that were viewed from the house, the Arts & Crafts garden gave way to the landscape, with rock gardens leading to woodland glades, and wild areas with rustic paths and water gardens.” According to English Heritage, “The interest in vernacular architecture encouraged by the Arts and Crafts movement led designers to imitate cottage gardens by reviving long-neglected plants…It embodied the respect for the past which the Victorians maintained, even at their most innovative and experimental.”

The closest thing to an artistic manifesto of Victorian horticulture can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden. Written at the end of the Edwardian era, it tells the story of a young English girl, Mary, who is sent to live with her uncle at his estate, Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire, after her parents die in India. Her uncle, Mr Craven, is frequently absent and Mary is left to her own devises. Exploring the grounds of the house she discovers a walled garden that has been locked. She learns that her aunt died in an accident in the garden years before and her uncle had it closed off in his grief. With the help of a local boy named Dickon, she opens the garden and begins to tend it. Meanwhile at night Mary hears mysterious cries coming from somewhere in the manor. She searches the halls by candlelight and discovers her cousin Colin, a sickly boy confined to his bed, and treated as a hopeless invalid by the servants.

What thus begins as a Gothic novel with all the classic elements of the genre soon blossoms into something entirely different. In her essay, “Re-Reading The Secret Garden,” Madelon Gohlke writes, “The conversations between Mary and the uncanny Colin in which she systematically opposes his conviction that he is going to die parallel the coming of spring and the awakening of life in the garden.” Mary and Dickon draw Colin out of his sick bed and into the garden where the three children spend an idyllic season and nature works to restore them body and soul together with the vegetation. Mr Craven returns to find his son healthy and the garden in bloom. Gohlke write, “At the center of this image, of course, is the garden, the place where the secrets of life, growth, and all the richness of feeling are located and then revealed.” The garden “is both the scene of a tragedy, resulting in the near destruction of a family, and the place of regeneration and restoration of a family.”

These were the ideas associated with gardening, then as now: the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, its cycles, and its latent spirituality.

Sources:

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1911) The Secret Garden. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Endersby, Jim. (July 25, 2014) “How botanical gardens helped to establish the British Empire.” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0

Gerrish, Helena. (September 1, 2016) “Edwardian Garden Style.” The English Garden, http://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/expert-advice/design-solutions/design-edwardian-garden-style/

Gohlke, Madelon S. (April, 1980) “Re-Reading the Secret Garden.” College English. Vol. 41, No. 8.

Various. (2017) “Victorians: Landscape.” English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/landscape/

On Holywell and Wych Streets

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Wych Street in the nineteenth century (photo: Bishopsgate Institute, via Spitalfields Life)

A maze of Medieval streets was razed in 1901 to build the modern thoroughfares of Kingsway and Aldwych in London. Australia House now stands on the footprint of Holywell and Wych Streets and the many tiny lanes that connected them. The ancient buildings along these streets had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. By the time they were torn down they had been allowed to deteriorate into a sort of picturesque shambles.

Holywell and Wych Streets ran parallel to the Strand between St Clement Dane’s and Drury Lane. Victorian photographs of Wych Street show a narrow road—made more narrow when the sidewalks were widened around the turn of the century—lined with half-timbered buildings, three to five stories in height, which appear to lean across the street toward each other. (Builders maximized square footage on crowded streets with narrow foundations and upper floors that extended out over the street.) In his 1878 book, Old and New London, Walter Thornbury wrote of the “curious old wooden-fronted and gabled houses” on Wych Street “which are equally picturesque and inconvenient.”

The image is perfectly Dickensian—and Dickens certainly knew the street. While travelling in Italy in 1844, he wrote “a very pretty description of the vineyards between Piacenza and Parma” in a letter to his friend John Forster. He qualified the charming picture as follows: “If you want an antidote to this, I may observe that I got up, this moment, to fasten the window; and the street looked like some byeway in Whitechapel—or—I look again—like Wych Street, down by the little barber’s shop on the same side of the way as Holywell Street.” Dickens located his fictional slum, Tom-All-Alone’s, in Bleak House, somewhere in the network of streets around Wych and Holywell. He described it as “a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people.”

The real area was not a slum, per se. But it did have a reputation for indecency. Beginning in the eighteenth century both Holywell and Wych Streets became tenanted by booksellers. In the nineteenth century many of them were dealing in radical and pornographic literature. Holywell Street in particular was associated with the distribution of pornography. The decision to destroy the streets was likely encouraged by the prospect of clearing out those vile businesses. If so it was a pyrrhic victory. The evil of pornography is still with us, hundreds of priceless historic buildings are not.

At a Livery dinner in London not long ago I dined with a gentleman who works for the Australian High Commission to the United Kingdom. I brought up the subject of the lost streets near the embassy where he works and he told me that in the basement of Australia House they discovered the ancient holy well that gave the old street its name. The well is nearly a thousand years old, fed by water from the same aquifers that feed the River Fleet. The water was tested and found to be pure. He showed me a photograph and told me that at least one of his colleagues had drunk from it.

Sources:

Dickens, Charles. (1853) Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans.

Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.

Howse, Christopher. (March 8, 2010) “Give us streets that are narrow and crooked,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherhowse/7400098/Give-us-streets-that-are-narrow-and-crooked.html

Shlicke, Paul (ed). (2011) The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.