More stories

  • in

    From Buxton to the Barbican – the enduring appeal of the crescent

    This article was published in the November 2020 issue of Apollo. The Pump Room and visitor experience at Buxton Crescent are currently closed due to Covid-19; visitors are advised to check the venue website for further updates.
    The 5th Duke of Devonshire was a man with little self-doubt. His vast wealth from the local copper mines bankrolled the transformation of a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District with a source of mineral water into a fashionable spa destination. Buxton would vie with Bath, at least in architectural terms. Built in the 1780s, Buxton Crescent was at the heart of the duke’s grand plan. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, it has emerged as a luxury hotel, spa and heritage centre, allowing it to resume its role as one of the great Georgian architectural set pieces.
    Buxton’s sweeping crescent was designed by John Carr of York, who admired the classical urbanity that had been achieved in Bath. In that city the Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder and built in 1754–68, consists of three curved segments of townhouses – described by the writer Mark Girouard as ‘like the Colosseum turned inside out’. The Royal Crescent followed, designed by Wood’s son and built in 1767–75. Made of local millstone grit, Buxton Crescent originally accommodated two hotels and six lodging houses, lavish assembly rooms and, in the ground-floor arcade, specialist shops. Nearby was St Anne’s Well, where warm mineral water from a subterranean geothermal spring bubbled up. (In 1783 Carr designed an elegant drinking well.) Completed in 1789, the crescent proffered a muscular, expressive sweep of masonry – less refined than its golden counterparts in Bath but markedly confident.
    Royal York Crescent, Bristol, built in 1791–1820 (photographed in 1999). Photo: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

    A crescent – in which a number of houses are laid out in an arc to form a continuous facade – can refine and enclose an urban prospect or, inversely, embrace a wider landscape or view out to sea. Regency developments from Brighton to Bristol jostled to outdo one another; the Royal York Crescent in Clifton, Bristol – a terrace of 46 houses begun in 1791 – extends to 1,300 feet (Buxton is 360 feet). Yet with grand ambition came financial difficulties; few structures emerged as planned. In 1766, Robert Adam was commissioned by Sir James Lowther, later 1st Earl of Lonsdale, to create a new design for Lowther village on his Westmorland (now Cumbria) estate. Adam’s design on paper was a diminutive urbs in rure, featuring a number of cottages arranged into a Greek-cross shape with matching segments of a crescent forming the central circus. After revisions, a small part was built in the 1770s, including two curved sections, sitting prim but charming in their rural setting.
    John Nash made the circus a central element of his vast Regent Street development. Yet only Oxford Circus and two quarters of the intended Regent Circus were built – Park Crescent east and west (continually rebuilt after war damage) remain without their reflections to the north of the New Road. Even so, properly semi-circular rather than elliptical, set upon a ground-floor colonnade, the ensemble was described by Nash’s biographer Terence Davis as ‘perhaps Nash’s greatest single stroke of urban architecture’.
    Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, London, designed by Chamberlin, Powell Bon and built in the 1970s. Photo: Howard Morris; © Greyscape.com

    There was little appetite for curves in modernist design. But the long arc of Jewin Crescent in the City of London, heavily bombed during the Second World War, inspired the curved Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon and built in the 1970s. Comprising nine levels, the building was originally intended to incorporate ground-floor shops, with flats above. In the end, it provided offices for local arts and educational institutions. Without shops the rhythmic half-circle of bush-hammered concrete columns became a brutalist feature in its own right. In 2009–10, the top three floors were turned into 69 flats, in line with its planned use.
    It is, however, the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill who has seized the crescent as a hallmark, applying it over the decades to sites in France, Sweden and Italy. In the 1980s, asked to redevelop the area behind the Montparnasse train station, he used prefabricated concrete to create a postmodern rendering. Recently, he has monopolised the waterfront in Salerno with a massive arc-shaped structure, drawing loud (and, it seems, justified) local criticism. In opposition to such monumentality is tiny Keystone Crescent, built in the 1840s for multiple occupation very close to King’s Cross in London. Its inner and outer circles lead to complicated geometry. The result is delightfully eccentric and, nowadays, highly desirable.
    View of Keystone Crescent in Kings Cross, London, built in the 1840s (photographed in 1971). Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    By 1992 Buxton Crescent had fallen into near dereliction. In 1970, Derbyshire County Council took over the eastern end of the building to use as offices, and a public library was housed in the assembly rooms. The hotel in the west pavilion had closed in 1989; High Peak Borough Council bought it in 1993 and from this point, for the first time, the whole building was in public ownership. Driven by Richard Tuffrey, the conservation officer on High Peak’s council, the tide began to turn over the next decade. In 2003, High Peak and Derbyshire County councils partnered with Trevor Osborne, a property developer with a local heritage background, and plans were made to turn the crescent into a luxury hotel and spa.
    The restoration proved complex, dogged by funding problems and delays. The plight of such a significant building persuaded key funders, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to grant aid for urgent work. In 2006, the fund awarded £12.5m to the project and another £11.3m in 2014. (The total figure from all public and private sources – including more than £600,000 from Historic England – is around £70 million.) Condition surveys by conservation architect Nicholas Jacob, completed in 2014, revealed a labyrinthine interior, resulting from multiple adaptations over two centuries. A lack of maintenance had led to severe water damage, from above and below, with significant incursions of dry rot. Finally, and inevitably, the building had suffered from vandalism.
    Planning permission was granted in 2010 following a seven-year legal battle over licencing of the spa water (involving Nestlé), and since then the project has faced further setbacks, including complex regulations within a Grade 1-listed building requiring public access and, now, the chaos caused by a pandemic. In June, the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust was awarded a ‘Lifeline’ emergency fund grant from HLF, allowing it to reopen the Pump Room and launch the new visitor experience, which had been delayed by Covid-19, and which takes place in eight of the historic rooms in the restored building. The newly opened five-star hotel and spa return the building to its original use and nod to the duke’s desire to put Buxton on the map. One of the most drawn out and expensive architectural conservation sagas is finally nearing its conclusion.

    From the November 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More

  • in

    Why are Berlin’s new buildings so intent on looking backwards?

    Berlin is a city in reverse, if its buildings are anything to go by: each year great swathes of it are transformed into an approximation of the imperial capital it once was. This process has come to a head with the resurrection of the Berlin Palace, which, after numerous setbacks, is due to open in December as a museum, but its effects can be seen throughout the capital, and indeed the country as a whole. Palaces are rebuilt, as are entire medieval quarters, and new development is prescribed a strict historic drag. Why is modern Germany, by some measures the most successful European state of the 21st century, so consumed by nostalgia for the city of the past?
    The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace is the most obtrusive instance of this tendency. The enormous baroque structure currently nearing completion at the capital’s centre stands on the site of the Palast der Republik, an equally vast modernist complex built between 1973–76 by the government of East Germany as a combined leisure centre and parliament. That structure stood in turn on the site of the imperial palace, which had been damaged during the Second World War and pulled down by the GDR; their own replacement for the building was demolished after reunification.
    Although the campaign to rebuild the old palace was first waged in the early 1990s, a lack of funds delayed this Cold War project until recently, and the intended function of the building was never clear. Finally, it was decided that it should host the Humboldt Forum, a museum and research institute displaying ethnographic collections largely assembled during the empire. Unsurprisingly, a new-build imperial palace has proven to be a provocative home for colonial booty, especially given the increasing momentum behind the campaign for restitution of such artefacts.
    In Germany, as the ongoing controversy over the palace demonstrates, the struggle of the present with the past is endless, and its implications for the city delicate; particularly so in Berlin, a city still tormented by its 20th-century wounds. Critics have observed that the erasure of East German traces such as the Palast der Republik is, like the filling of lots left vacant by the war, designed to produce a false historical unity: the expression of an urge to forget the unhappy episodes that have been the focus of much official Erinnerungskultur, or remembrance culture. Debate over this strategy has been fierce, with some residents of the former east (for example) feeling that their own pasts are being erased in the process.
    Furthermore, this smoothing of traumatic ruptures does not seem overly concerned with Nazi relics – the current German finance ministry occupies the erstwhile headquarters of Göring’s air force, for example. Indeed, quite the contrary could be asserted. While modernist structures are being demolished around the country, as in the case of Frankfurt’s brutalist town hall, new construction is bent not only on recovering the imperial city: it often looks disconcertingly like the architecture of the National Socialists. The water separating the architecture of these two eras is dangerously murky. Although its current advocates, such as Hans Kollhoff and David Chipperfield, may claim they are harking back to the great early 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, this turn to neoclassicism tends to evoke the 1930s, inevitably since the last turn away from modernism to columns in the city was undertaken at that time. In some cases, this ambiguity even seems intentionally cultivated.
    The new-old palace, for instance, is not a perfect simulacrum. The east facade is devoid of ornament, offering instead a bare grid that nonetheless suggests the proportions of classical architecture. This etiolated classicism, stripped of ornament except for the implication of columns, is not inherently fascistic – it can also be found in London and Washington – but it was the preferred mode of fascist regimes, and the monumental reappearance of this trope in the centre of Berlin can hardly fail to recall Speer and Hitler’s design for a new world capital. The palace is not the only instance of this tendency: the German intelligence service’s huge new headquarters which opened in 2019, the largest such facility in the world, meets the street with two severely classicising pavilions. These are reminiscent of the long-demolished Ehrentempel in Munich, twin monuments to the Nazis killed in the Beer Hall Putsch.
    The Gropiushaus in the Hansaviertel quarter, Berlin, which was reconstructed in the late 1950s and early ’60s and includes apartment blocks designed by Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. Panther Media GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

    Berlin’s retrograde motion can be attributed in part to its post-reunification building codes. The enforced maintenance of pre-1945 rooflines, materials, and street patterns has resulted in the city’s relative coherence, which was the proclaimed intention of this strategy. Instead of the chaos of more liberally regulated cities such as London, and the supposedly dehumanising post-war towers at Berlin’s edges, the advocates of what is called ‘critical reconstruction’ – developed in the 1970s by architect Josef Paul Kleihues – argued for an architecture of modest regularity and continuity.
    However, one must ask why this search for lost order overlooked other, less tainted models, such as modernist estates of the 1920s by Bruno Taut, or projects of the 1950s such as the Hansaviertel, with blocks designed by architects including Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. These were hardly chaotic or ‘dehumanising’, whatever that means in the context of architecture. Despite objections from the planners of reunified Berlin that modernism had no concept of public space, these lushly wooded estates seem more suited to our own ecologically sensitive age than the ‘stony Berlin’ of Prussian militarism (or worse) that is favoured by its current architects.
    Instead we have Kollhoff’s Walter-Benjamin-Platz, a colonnaded square constructed in west Berlin at the turn of the millennium which echoes the severe, grey regularity of the fascist city – ironic, to say the least, given the fate of its namesake. To drive the point home, part of its paving was originally inscribed with a quotation from Ezra Pound’s ‘Usura’ Canto. Benjamin, of course, died fleeing the Nazis; the offending text was removed only this January.
    Walter-Benjamin-Platz, Charlottenburg, Berlin, designed by Hans Kollhoff and built in 2000. Arco Images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

    Kollhoff’s design is unusually frank in disclosing its precursors; most of Berlin’s recent classicising architecture is, like the Wilhelmine-esque villas of Petra and Paul Kahlfeldt, or the commercial nonentities around Leipziger Platz, more ambiguous. Yet all of them express a desire to turn back time. The association for the reconstruction of the palace, for instance, is open about the aims of the project: to ‘complete [Berlin’s] historic centre and heal the previously wounded cityscape’. But the desire to live in the past, taken to the extreme of rebuilding an earlier version of the city, can, in a place like Berlin, never be unproblematic. Furthermore, the money and the power to build in Berlin evidently lies in the hands of those who hanker after a very particular version of the city’s story. The reason for this preference is never explicitly stated. Perhaps that is because the implications are still – as yet – unspeakable in a country with Germany’s past.
    From the October 2020 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here. More

  • in

    In defence of Coventry’s post-war architecture

    The architectural historian Mark Girouard had equivocal feelings about researching his book The English Town: A History of Urban Life (1990). He appreciated that it had given him the opportunity to make the case that the Victorian cityscape, long denigrated as an unforgivable hodgepodge of pestilent slums, gloomy factories and pompous town halls, was in fact as worthy of celebration as the medieval and Georgian townscapes that had preceded it. The pain of writing the book came when visiting the towns as they now were, and he could see nothing but catastrophe in the changes that had befallen city centres during the post-war period:
    I came to know too well the boa-constrictor hug of the ring road; the cracked concrete, puddles and pornographic scribbles of the subways; the light standards rising out of tasteful landscaping on the roundabouts; the new telephone exchange pushing up its ugly head, with such inspired accuracy, exactly where it could do the most damage; the claustrophobic arcades, streaked surfaces and tattering glitziness of once-new shopping centres.
    This is a punchy paragraph, but there is something about the litany of derisory epithets that should alert us to similarities with the language that has always been used to malign the architecture of the recent past. Its fervour certainly recalls that of the master of the architectural take-down, John Ruskin, who directed his ire against such now-loved things as Edinburgh New Town or St Martin-in-the-Fields. Such linguistic echoes reveal that architectural taste is generationally cyclical, and suggest that blanket condemnations of ‘concrete monstrosities’ will eventually give way to a recognition of what was good in post-war architecture.
    A change of heart is inevitable, but it will come too late for many of the finest buildings and civic set pieces of the period. In the UK, an assault is taking place on the post-war built environment as far reaching and devastating as that of the post-war period’s erasure of the Victorian city. We will come to regard the demolition of buildings such as Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens and John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library with the same bewildered regret as we do the loss of the Euston Arch. Although it is the demolition of individual monuments by famous architects that makes the news, perhaps a more insidious loss is the steady chipping away at the urban fabric of the planned architectural set pieces of the period. Chief among these is the city centre of Coventry in the West Midlands. Sheffield, Glasgow or Liverpool may have more individual modern masterpieces, but Coventry is one of the few places outside the new towns where the post-war architectural imagination was given full reign to create a total urban ensemble.
    The freedom to remake Coventry on pioneering modern lines was forged in the aftermath of the events of the night of 14 November 1940, when much of the centre was reduced to rubble by German bombers. Coventry’s response to this catastrophe is central to why I find its post-war built environment so moving. It is sometimes asked why the Second World War did not give rise to monuments to compete with the powerful, sombre classicism of Edwin Lutyens’s Thiepval Memorial, but Coventry, spreading out from the cathedral rebuilt by Basil Spence, is in many ways a city-wide memorial: the whole place is imbued with the values of internationalism, reconciliation and rebirth. I often lead visitors around central Coventry, including people who expected not to like it, and they are always charmed by its combination of picturesque vistas, its superb collection of integrated public murals and sculpture, and its exceptionally considered townscape – created through a strict design code, good materials and street furniture, and quality architectural lettering. Above all visitors are struck by the vestiges of post-war optimism that suffuse the place, even if it is now eroded and neglected.
    The central baths, Coventry, built by the city’s Architect’s Department in 1962–66 (photographed in 1966). Photo: Bill Toomey/Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections

    In its day Coventry’s replanned centre was internationally lauded. Coventry was the archetypal post-war boom town, largely based on a flourishing automotive and engineering industry. Sociologists flocked there in order to study its newly affluent workforce. As Britain’s Detroit, it was inevitable that the city’s replanning would be dominated by the car, albeit with an infrastructure that ingeniously segregated pedestrians and vehicles. The reversal of Coventry’s economic fortunes, as deindustrialisation began to bite, was subsequently experienced with particular harshness. Released in 1981, the song ‘Ghost Town’ (1981), by the Coventry-based band The Specials, expressed the sense of urban crisis in Thatcher’s Britain, which they juxtaposed with a romanticised past of the ‘good old days […] inna de boomtown’. This fraught history helps to explain why the dashed optimism expressed in Coventry’s rebuilding became so difficult to stomach, and why the city has become embarrassed to the point of self-loathing by its post-war heritage, trying to force its humane and civic city centre into the mould of a mundane retail park. The nadir came with the building of the postmodern Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre in 1990, which wantonly destroys the carefully modulated vista set up between the pedestrian shopping precinct and the cathedral.
    Those of us who love Coventry had hoped that this drawn-out architectural hara-kiri was coming to an end: the city now has impassioned champions, among them the writers Owen Hatherley and Jones the Planner, while in 2016 Historic England released an impressive report, Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73, which was followed by a number of significant listings. Then Coventry was made UK City of Culture for 2021. Here was a tremendous opportunity to embrace the city’s unique identity, making a tourist asset of its internationally significant urban planning and the moving story of its re-emergence from war.
    Depressingly the city seems intent on continuing to rely on an outmoded retail-led regeneration strategy, although it is difficult to imagine Coventry ever being able to compete with neighbouring Birmingham as an ersatz shopping destination, especially in the current climate. It is grotesque that a city supposedly gearing up to celebrate its culture on an international stage is simultaneously pushing through plans to mutilate listed buildings, including the train station, civic centre, and central baths and leisure centre, all superb instances of the refined and elegant modernism practised by the city’s Architect’s Department after the war. Huge chunks of the south of the city are set to be cleared for yet more banal retail space. The Bull Yard, an urbane square in the tougher idiom of the 1960s, is one thing set to go, despite its being elegantly detailed and home to a wonderful Aztec-inspired frieze, in seemingly kinetic concrete, by the late William Mitchell. For its year of culture Coventry should work with the grain of what it has. Taste will change. With a more sympathetic approach, Coventry might aspire in a few decades to become a World Heritage Site, emulating places such as Bath or Ironbridge – because it too is a supremely eloquent exemplar of a particular moment in urban history. The city will regret the carelessness with which it is trashing what makes it unique.
    From the September 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More

  • in

    Redeeming features – how Palladio marked the end of the plague in Venice

    On the weekend of the third Sunday of every July, a pontoon bridge is constructed between St Mark’s Square in Venice and the church of Il Redentore (‘The Redeemer’) on the island of Giudecca. Called the Festa del Redentore, the weekend-long ceremony is known for its spectacular display of fireworks towards midnight and nocturnal revelry thereafter. But when the ceremony takes place this year – on 18 and 19 July – the social-distancing measures that are doubtless to remain in force will provide historically minded Venetians with a reminder of the genesis of this ceremony and of the church that sits at its heart: the city’s deliverance from the plague of 1575–77.
    The plague was devastating for Venice. With some 400 dying a day at its peak, by the time it had ended approximately a third of the city’s population had fallen victim to the pestilence, including the elderly Titian. Innovative measures were adopted to tackle its spread. These included a policy of curfew with which we would be familiar today, with residents of three of the city’s six sestieri banned from leaving their homes for eight days and dependent on the city authorities for the provision of necessary supplies.
    Procession before Il Redentore (c. 1648), Joseph Heintz the Younger. Museo Civico Correr, Venice. Photo: akg-images/Erich Lessing

    When these measures failed, the thoughts of the city turned to God. On 4 September 1576 – at the height of the epidemic – the Senate vowed in the presence of the Doge to make amends to the Almighty by way of acts of public supplication and devotion. The principal offering of thanks was to be the construction of a votive church dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, which was intended as the focal point of an annual ceremony of thanksgiving.
    Over the course of debates in the Senate that were held on 17 and 22 November, a frontrunner as architect for the church swiftly emerged in the person of Andrea Palladio (1508–80). Already an old man by this point – he died more than a decade before the church’s consecration in 1592 – Palladio had his whole architectural career behind him. Having established himself in Vicenza as an architect of palazzi and villas for local noblemen, he had found his greatest success in Venice as an ecclesiastical architect, with his facade for the church of San Francesco della Vigna and the church and cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore establishing a new language of ecclesiastical architecture for the city.
    With the site and architect chosen, the only matter that remained to be decided was the form that the church should take. In one further discussion in the Senate on 9 February 1577 a question over which the architects of the High Renaissance had long agonised again became a point of contention: namely, whether the church should take a forma rotonda, i.e. a centralised plan, or a forma quadrangolare – a more traditional, longitudinal design. It is likely that Palladio’s sympathies were with the former scheme, the most eloquent proponent of which in the Senate was his patron Marc’Antonio Barbaro, whose advocacy for the form, the art historian Deborah Howard has shown, was in part derived from his first-hand experience of the recent mosques of the Ottoman architect Sinan. The Senate sided with tradition, however, voting in favour of the longitudinal scheme by a majority of almost two to one, with Palladio’s design officially approved on 17 February.
    The procession across the pontoon bridge would have been at the forefront of Palladio’s mind as he worked up the accepted design. With the church to be approached centrally on processional days, the facade needed to provide a magnificent statement of the pietistic aims of the city and of its government. As a result, Palladio returned to a solution that he had explored in his earlier Venetian churches. For these, he had created a facade that was a wholly original deployment of antique motifs to suit the requirements of Roman Catholic liturgy. Memorably described by Rudolf Wittkower as comprising interlocking temple fronts, this solution – derived from the architect’s reconstruction of the Basilica of Maxentius (the Temple of Peace, as he called it) in Rome – creates a central pediment of four half-columns flanked on either side by lower half-pediments of a subsidiary order.  Simultaneously monumental and harmonious, it was perfectly suited to the glorification both of God and of the city.
    The interior of the Chiesa del Redentore. Photo: Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

    The Redentore is perhaps Palladio’s most successful variation on this theme. The grand flight of stairs by which the church is approached disguises the inherent conflict residing in the fact that the major and minor orders – Composite and Corinthian respectively – cannot share the same pedestal without it being disproportionate to one of them. Furthermore, the introduction of an attic storey flanked by additional half-pediments (disguising the buttressing behind) lends a more imposing character to the facade, while continuing to express the division of the interior.
    As in the exterior, internally Palladio continued to develop ideas that he had first explored in his earlier ecclesiastical architecture, most notably at the nearby San Giorgio Maggiore. Here, however, his solutions are determined by the requirements of the annual votive processions. As at San Giorgio, the church is divided into three zones: nave, crossing and retrochoir, but at the Redentore they have been modified to express certain processional requirements.
    The nave, through which the Venetian people would have moved in procession, has been expanded to achieve a spaciousness redolent of the Roman baths. Instead of aisles, the barrel-vaulted side chapels contain openings along the east-west axis that allow them to act as ambulatories when needed. In the approach to the area beneath the dome, where the city’s officials were intended to sit on processional days, the walls of the nave turn inwards, allowing Palladio to provide the most important space of the church – both ceremonially and liturgically – with a monumental arched entrance. At its easternmost end, behind the altar, a semicircular screen of columns emphasises the centralising impetus of the dome and connects the church with the retrochoir housing the monks (kept plain in a concession to the austere Capuchins, who were the church’s caretakers).
    With the Redentore and the annual procession, the Venetian republic was able to provide a monument to its experience of plague of such grandeur that even today this experience has not been forgotten. More than four hundred years later, as lockdown is cautiously eased across Europe, what monument will be appropriate for a secular age and who will be our Palladio?

    From the July/August 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
    Lead image: Longs Peak/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); original image cropped. More

  • in

    Down to earth – the revival of building with mud

    Earth as a building material is, simply, as old as the hills. As a small child I remember modelling a ‘Saxon’ village in clay, an exercise which might not have met modern curriculum standards but combined a light-touch history lesson with the satisfaction of kneading wet mud. Jean Dethier’s immense, collaborative and globally inclusive new […] More

  • in

    ‘Living in it would be delectable but exhausting’ – at the Villa Majorelle

    Before modernists such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier staked their claim to being the true stylists of industrial society, a generation of designers all over Europe had made their own attempts to reconcile art and the machine age. Decades before white-painted concrete walls and tubular steel furniture were the rage, art nouveau turned new […] More