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    The true test of a building is the passing of time

    The warring Florentine families of the Renaissance included a curious civic gesture as part of the fortress-palaces they erected along the city’s streets and squares. It became customary to include a stone bench at the base of the heavily rusticated exterior walls – initially, it is said, as a reference to the tiered benches around the Piazza della Signoria that served as the theatre for civic assemblies and political wrangling. These benches became an essential part of the palazzo type, where retainers, tradesmen, hangers-on and beggars would wait below the massive sills of windows deliberately placed too high for an outsider to see in. Centuries after the warring families have faded from view, along with the motivations for their metre-thick walls, their benches let hot tourists sit gratefully in the shade of the cold stone.
    At the beginning of a new film by the architectural photographer Jim Stephenson, the camera watches a long bench along a massive wall, punctuated by shallow pilasters, as people – mainly women and children – wait, look at their phones, talk and watch – for a bus, for a child, for a friend; it is for the viewer to guess. The building is a new one, and this is the first generation of people to use this bench; the pilasters are still crisp and the wall has not yet had its first graffiti.
    Still from The Architect has Left the Building (2023) by Jim Stephenson, showing Kingston Town House designed by Grafton Architects. Courtesy RIBA Gallery; © Jim Stephenson
    Photographing architecture for its own sake – and using architecture as a setting for fashion shoots, music videos or primetime dramas – involves careful staging that asks the viewer to read meaning into brick, concrete, metal and glass. Stephenson’s film – currently showing at the RIBA Gallery – elongates that single moment of a photograph, or the scene-setting second of film footage, into a meditation on time. The bench is the first location in a sequence of frames, shown in pairs across a split screen, where the still camera waits and watches as people move across its field of vision. The stationary point of view merges the identity of the camera with that of the building itself, patiently watching and waiting, accommodating movement and use that will gradually wear away at its fabric over the coming years. This building-as-camera projection is amplified by the sounds layered over the footage: vibrations to the fabric of the building in the form of footsteps, bangs and knocks, rain and wind, captured by sound artist Simon James using contact mics, like sound through a stethoscope. The buildings start to seem alive, just on a life cycle far slower than that of the people that crawl in and around them. Like the mountains that folklore claims to be sleeping giants, the buildings patiently await the transfiguration that comes with time.
    Sometimes the view is that of surveillance, the camera perched high above a slender bridge or in the corner of an art gallery. In some frames, a real security camera looks back at the viewer, doubling and redoubling the capture of time and movement like repeating mirrors. One camera adopts the perspective of the security guard, unseen behind a bank of screens, observing the lucky few who enjoy these carefully honed pieces of architecture. How fortunate are the young dancers stretching out their legs on the clean timber steps of a Stirling Prize-winning university building; the neat children whispering in the beautiful miniature theatre at their private school; the residents who won the jackpot in the form of a beautiful community centre or swimming pool, somehow escaping the banality of cost-cutting project managers. More pointedly, a gardener in stained shorts and headphones pushes a lawnmower back and forth below a perfectly formed college library, inside which students enjoy the luxury of contemplation.
    Still from The Architect has Left the Building (2023) by Jim Stephenson, showing Kingston Town House designed by Grafton Architects. Courtesy RIBA Gallery; © Jim Stephenson
    The buildings in Stephenson’s film – all well-designed, acclaimed pieces of architecture – are made of solid, substantial material put together with care. They are captured at the beginning of their lives – as part of a ritual of promotion and press tours – when they are at their most perfect and unsullied. The rain of the Lake District has not yet worn down the timber cladding of a new museum; footsteps have not worn a shine into the centre of a footbridge; only occasionally are the mundane interventions that cause architects to curse – the laminated sign Blu-Tacked to a glazed door – visible to the camera’s eye. Over time there will be repairs, dirt, straggly pot plants, plastic litter bins.
    Buildings are said to be ‘finished’ when construction ends, but this is really their moment of birth. After a decade or two of love and appreciation, they go through a protracted and usually problematic mid-life, before – if time is kind and public opinion held at bay – emerging as heritage, their histories smoothed over by the adaptation to new uses for new times. Their flaws and fragilities are exposed in the ugly phase and, if serious enough, condemn the building to demolition or major surgery. In Stephenson’s observations we don’t see the ageing of insulation, the gnawing away of wiring by mice or the slow dripping and cracking of pipes. The creaking of air handling units, the filters clogging up; faults in the software of the building management systems. The seals in double-glazing units failing. Black mould creeping up plasterboard. Lurking behind the optimism of dappled light falling across a perfect wall, the unmoving eye of the camera poses a nagging question: how many of these buildings will survive for future generations, or is their seeming solidity concealing frailties that will lead to the wrecking ball? How quickly, or slowly, will all that investment – of money, of carbon, of labour – turn to dust?
    ‘The Architect has left the Building’ is at the RIBA Gallery, London, until 12 August. More

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    The saving of St Mary-le-Strand

    From the May 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.
    The Church of St Mary-le-Strand was once known to London bus drivers as ‘St Mary’s in the Way’. Standing in the middle of the Strand, a congested artery between Westminster and the City of London, the church was long seen by motorists and urban planners alike as little more than an obstruction. Over the three centuries since its consecration in 1724, the road surrounding the church was gradually widened, taking great bites out of the churchyard and threatening to devour the church itself. Threats to the church only seemed to grow. John Betjeman’s last poem was written as part of a campaign to protect it. In 2017, it seemed its luck had finally run out. With the congregation in single digits, the Church of England prepared to sell it off to become a UK outpost of the Museum of the Bible (in Washington, D.C.). Stripped of furniture and fittings, it would have been little more than an empty shell.
    This would have been a travesty. For the church, particularly its interior, is one of London’s architectural glories. It was designed by the Scottish-born architect James Gibbs (1682–1754), his first public commission after his return from Rome, where he had trained in the studio of Carlo Fontana. For an untested young architect, the prominently sited church provided an unrivalled opportunity. He was awarded it as part of his work as Surveyor for the Commission for Fifty New Churches, a body established in 1710 as a monument both to Queen Anne and to the High Church, High Tory ascendancy of her final years. Beginning as the queen’s health deteriorated, the Commissioners knew that they had only limited time to execute their plans. Indeed, when Anne died in 1714, the incoming Hanoverian royal family and its sober Whig ministry quickly wound down the Commission. Only 12 of 50 projected churches were built.
    Those that were built, however – the others were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Thomas Archer – are among the outstanding examples of English architecture of any period. With the Commission eager to make an impression quickly, budgets were almost unlimited. Gibbs seized the chance to show off everything he had learned in Italy. He did not quite have carte blanche, having inherited the foundations of an earlier project by Archer. His initial role had been to design a 250-foot-high monumental column to Queen Anne to stand in front of the church; when she died, however, the commissioners quickly dropped the column and focused their energies on the church, which Gibbs designed, taking on some of Archer’s ideas.
    In his executed design, Gibbs decided to make the same point as the monumental column but more subtly. He took his cues from St Paul’s Cathedral – completed in 1711 after nearly half a century of work – showing the sophistication of his Italian training by reworking Christopher Wren’s ideas in a new context. The semi-circular projections of the west and east elevations were inspired, respectively, by the north porch and east end of St Paul’s and, inside, the disposition of the east end closely matches Wren’s design. The ornamental quality of the design is created by Gibbs’s ingenious compression of motifs deriving from St Paul’s into a much smaller area.When built, the church was always expected to be in the centre of London’s life and traffic – in A Book of Architecture (1728), Gibbs explained that he had inserted windows only in the upper storey of the north and south elevations, with niches below, ‘to keep out Noises from the Street’. Of all the churches projected by the commission, St Mary-le-Strand was perhaps the most prominently situated, a point not lost on its architect; he explained elsewhere that ‘the Building can not be too fine for the situation, since it’s so much in viue.’ As envisaged, it was to have been a major monument on the royal processional route into the City of London, something obscured by the comparative unpopularity of the early Hanoverians, under whom it was finished, and their dislike of public processions.
    Since last year, the church’s urban context, so important to its design and history, has been completely transformed. Gone are the streams of traffic that smothered it on either side, replaced by raised beds and picnic benches, part of a scheme to unite the campuses of three of London’s universities, King’s College, the London School of Economics and the Courtauld Institute, into a single ‘Global Cultural Thinking Quarter’. Once an inconvenience, the church is now hailed as the ‘jewel in the Strand’, the focus of London’s newest piazza. The project is not yet totally successful. The zigzagging benches in the supposedly Italianate piazza have a strange, playground quality, and the aims of the and the aims of the Global Cultural Thinking Quarter seem ill-defined. Yet, visiting a year on, a once unappealing – and dangerous – thoroughfare is populated with people, loitering, taking in their surroundings and visiting the church.
    With St Mary’s at last protected from the engine fumes that have for so long blackened and corroded its exterior stonework, and from the developer’s wrecking ball that threatened it in the 19th century, it is now possible to look towards preserving the fabric for future generations. One major ambition is to make the raised ground floor accessible and also turn the crypt (intended for burials) into usable space for events and church activities. On such a cramped site, the project will undoubtedly be challenging. Above ground, the church hopes to restore original features and relight the space to show its magnificent plasterwork ceiling to better advantage. The interior fittings, though the result of several reworkings, retain important original elements. To help achieve this, the church has been awarded a grant of £3.9 million by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and is currently fundraising for the additional £4.5 million needed for its ambitious plans.
    In 1716, as work on the church continued, Gibbs’s former patron John Erskine, Earl of Mar, wrote to the architect from exile in France (Erskine was a Jacobite). It was, he thought, Gibbs’s ‘fair daughter in the Strand […] the most complete little damsel in town’. If done right, the restoration now being planned may bring this church to completion once more.
    From the May 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More