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adventures in architecture Posts

The Rookery, Congress House, Bloomsbury

Many years ago when working in central London I’d spend lunchtimes exploring Bloomsbury, its bookshops and squares, its Georgian terraces and modernist university blocks. I remember the front of Congress House (1956), with its Bernard Meadows sculpture, though don’t think I’d ever ventured around the side of the building until recently, when I was surprised to see what appeared to be a recently renovated entrance:

The Rookery, Congress House
The Rookery, Congress House

Named ‘The Rookery’, the project was completed in 2018 with the purpose of offering commercial office space while updating the rundown rear entrance and staff facilities. It’s a colourful, curvaceous addition to some rather grey backstreets, with a touch of the art-deco-ocean-liner aesthetic upstairs, though I don’t think the architects would thank me for saying that the projecting row of perpendicular windows remind me of the old restaurant spanning the M1 at Leicester Forest East services (the height of sophisticated dining in 1966).

Architecture Today notes that the ‘undulating side elevation on Dyott Street is … exuberant in form, with a complex composition of contrasting curves and volumes’. However, it was intriguing to find that the curving of the updated facade still follows original architect David Aberdeen’s plan, which was itself influenced (constrained?) by the slightly acute intersecting angle where Dyott Street meets Bainbridge Street.

By coincidence I happened at time to be reading about St Giles Rookery, the infamous 19th century slum that once occupied this area, in David Olusoga’s A House Through Time, which explains how the building of New Oxford Street cut through the slum and would eventually lead to its ‘clearing’. The narrow street layout north of New Oxford Street, however, remained the same (with some renaming). So fascinating to see that while the slum has gone, some of the Rookery’s street layout is still there, influencing architectural decisions in the 21st century …

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Sketch of Blickling Hall (1619)

I found an old sketch I did of Blickling Hall (1619) on a trip to Norfolk, where I also wrote an article about it and visited nearby Felbrigg Hall (1620).

Blickling Hall, built in 1619-20 by Robert Lyminge, who was also responsible for Hatfield House.

Both houses claim to be designed by Robert Lyminge, though Lyminge‘s claim to Felbrigg appears to apply largely to the Jacobean entrance front, as much of the rest was altered in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lyminge’s involvement with Blickling is greater documented, and he was buried in the churchyard there in 1628.

Also particularly memorable from that trip to Blickling was the rather creepy pyramid mausoleum built for the Hobart family in 1793. I didn’t have time to sketch that – but you can read about it here.

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St George’s church, Bloomsbury (1730)

The entrance to St George’s church, Bloomsbury, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and consecrated in 1730.

The English Baroque was the subject of Week 4. We looked at buildings designed by Wren, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Gibbs, and tried to define what characterised the baroque in English architecture, how it differed from baroque expression across the rest of Europe.

We also discussed how ‘eccentric’ Hawksmoor was, which prompted lively discussion. I had passed Hawksmoor’s St George’s church on Bloomsbury Way a week earlier and managed to take advantage of the sunny day to take some good pictures outside as well as in. The porticoed entrance with its fine Corinthian columns and pediment harmonise well with its quarter-attached set flanking the south entrance, which was beautifully illuminated with shards of morning sunlight streaking over the Portland stone the day I visited:

The steps to the entrance to St George’s give it a grandeur lost by St Paul’s in Covent Garden (which also originally had steps leading up to the portico) due to centuries of ground raising. It’s also difficult to get a real sense of proportion of St George’s given the density of surrounding buildings – I wonder whether the creation of New Oxford Street was a factor here?

Attached Corinthian columns at St George’s.

The church’s famous tower, modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and topped by a statue of George I in Roman dress, is an essay in itself, but sits awkwardly behind the Roman portico, and suffers like the rest of the exterior by the viewer finding it difficult to appreciate the church as a whole due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings and passing traffic.

St George’s tower, famously depicted in Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751)

The interior, while bright and full of detail, also posed questions. If you have a traditional eastern alter, as St George’s has, why did Hawksmoor position the entrance to the south? Doesn’t this make the use of space awkward? A guess would be that there may have been alterations over time that necessitated this orientation, but a brief web search suggests that the plot of land was this narrow when Hawksmoor designed the church, and that he went against its commissioners’ instructions to build it in this way.

Reading Summerson (Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, published 1954, still a standard text and recommended reading four our course), I was struck by his description of Hawksmoor as ‘dour, proud, deep’ (not characteristics one usually associated with eccentricity!), in contrast to his colleague Vanbrugh, who Hawksmoor worked with at Blenheim, who was ‘neither dour nor proud, and if he was deep, the depths were flood-lit by a wit which had few equals …’.

The eastern alter at St George’s.

Summerson also mentions Hawksmoor’s modesty, and to a degree I see these character traits in his architecture: a desire to impress his own individuality through eclecticism (and in doing so be considered the equal of his peers), though grounded in a rather English sense of solidity-through-restraint (while Vanbrugh ‘excelled in the handling of mass’, he perhaps did so with a flair that Hawksmoor was unable or willing to match).

It would have been fascinating to witness their working relationship …

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73 High Street, Watford (1905)

One of the requirements of our course is to try and spot architectural references to the period we are studying each week when out-and-about and apply some of what we’ve learned. With that in mind I snapped 73 High Street in Watford, a branch of HSBC, as I passed last week. It’s sandwiched between the new Las Iguanas restaurant on the left and another bank building on the right, and just about manages to stick its head out amongst a mish-mash of modern buildings on the main shopping drag.

73 High Street, Watford

The building is obviously neo-classical, but its age was hard to ascertain. The ionic pillars immediately jumped out, with their tightly-scrolled volutes and connecting festoons. There’s also a recessed pediment behind the balustrade with a central dome poking out above that’s easier to see from across the street. My first guess was early Victorian Neoclassical revival, but up-close it doesn’t appear that old. I didn’t manage to go inside, which might have yielded more clues.

Ionic columns and entablature at 73 High Street, Watford

Walking around to the left gave a better view of the smooth-faced rusticated ashlar. It also emerged that the forebuilding only reaches back twenty feet or so, with a brick wall containing a decorated former sash window stretching back towards the shopping centre, however the stone gable with niche and pediment above suggested the stone and brick parts were built at the same time. The brickwork led me to think that the building might be more recent, possibly late-19th century.

Side view of 73 High Street, Watford

A web searched revealed all: 73 High Street, built in 1905, is grade II-listed and surprisingly has always been owned by the same bank (or at least its previous incarnation as the Midland). Style-wise, its listing description has it as:

A sophisticated Baroque revival design achieving a monumental scale despite the actual size of the building and the narrowness of the site.

The interior is built to a Greek cross plan, with the dome described as a ‘bulbous-based, lead clad, shallow saucer dome with vase finial’ (must go inside next time!) The designer was Thomas Bostock Whinney (1860-1926), who become chief architect of the Midland Bank, and was responsible for many of its offices in the early past of the 20th century. Interestingly, Bostock Whinney was married one of Charles Dickens’s granddaughters.

King Edward VII driving to Sunday Service at St Mary’s, 18th July 1909.

I also came across the postcard image (above) of Edward VII driving down the High Street a few years after number 73 was built. There appears to have been space to the left of the building even than (an alleyway?), and with the adjoining building to the right possibly still extant with a later facade.


Churches built during the Commonwealth (1649-1660)

Re-post of article on churches built during the Commonwealth I originally wrote for

Staunton Harold church, Leicestershire (1653). Photo: David Stowell (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Various numbers are quoted for how many churches were built during the Commonwealth (1649-1660), usually ranging from four to seven. A web search suggests no consensus, with the lack of clarity seeming to hinge on whether the churches were entirely new constructions, re-modellings of older ones, or whether you include Scotland or not.

Here’s a rundown of all the contenders, with a stab at some conclusions …

Holy Trinity and St Mary, Berwick-on-Tweed (1652)

Holy Trinity Church, Berwick-on-Tweed (1652). Photo: © Copyright Mark Anderson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Charles I originally gave money for the building of Holy Trinity and St Mary in Berwick-on-Tweed in 1641. Though the civil war intervened, funds were collected throughout the 1640s with John Young of Blackfriars finally being contracted to start work in 1650.

The building was modelled on St Katherine Cree in Aldgate (the only surviving Jacobean church in London), completed in 1652 and consecrated ten years later. The church’s website notes its features as:

With our mix of Gothic and Renaissance features, fine stained glass windows including 17thC Flemish Roundels sequestrated by Charles I from The Duke of Buckingham, unique Reredos by Sir Edwin Lutyens, original Communion Table used at our consecration in 1662, magnificent Rose Window, churchyard full of fascinating headstones including Viking and Plague Graves, there is much to interest.

A previous church had existed on the same site slightly to the south but was demolished shortly after the 17th century one was built.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Staunton Harold, Leicestershire (1653)

Staunton Harold church, Leicestershire (1653). Photo: David Stowell  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I visited Staunton Harold Hall many times as a child, and often dropped into the church (now owned by the National Trust) with my parents. It was built in 1653 in the gothic revival style by Sir Robert Shirley, a Laudian whose opposition to Cromwellian puritanism drove his architectural act of rebellion. Incensed, Cromwell demanded that Shirley pay for a new ship for the navy, only for Shirley to refuse and later be imprisoned in the Tower.

Shirley died aged only 27, with the church finally being completed by others, including Shirley’s wife, in 1665. An inscription above the west tower reads:
In the year 1653 when all things Sacred were throughout ye nation, Either demolisht or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, Founded this church; Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times, and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

Verdict: new church

St Matthias Old Church, Poplar (1654) 

St Matthias Old Church, Poplar (1654). Photo: © Copyright ceridwen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Built by Mast of the Bricklayers’ Company John Tanner, St Matthias Old Church is bordered by Popular Recreation Ground, a fine Georgian terrace and the Lansbury Heritage Hotel. Both the church and the Lansbury building have connections with the East India Company founded in 1600 to focus on trade with the far east, before later coming inextricably linked with the expansion of the British Empire: St Matthias was built on the request of EIC shipyard workers who lived in Poplar and Blackwall. Various bequests were given, with the work completed in 1654. 

The church combines classical and gothic elements, with a barrel-vaulted roof supported by timber Tuscan columns. Rumour had it that the columns were made from ships’ masts, which some have suggested gives it a Dutch feel remeniscient of similar churches built in early-seventeenth century Amsterdam, however no evidence has come to light to support this.

Significantly modified in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, St Matthias survived Second World War bombing before being merged with St Anne’s, Limehouse. After the new congregation moved to St Anne’s, St Matthias was declared redundant in 1977 and deconsecrated. It is now an arts and community centre, governed by a Trust.

Verdict: new church

St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan (1656)

St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan

St Barnabus was completed in 1656 to replace the old Norman church destroyed during the 1643 siege of the castle, fifty metres north. The siege is well-documented, its primary sources often quoted in studies of the period as the six-week defence of the castle was commanded by a woman, Brilliana Harley. Historic England, citing a 1981 journal article, has it that Harley held the fortress:

… despite bombardments from a cannon on the church tower, and a poisoned water supply (which killed the cook).

Brilliana died soon after and a second siege the following year resulted in the new governor surrendering the castle.

The church appears to have been allowed to be rebuilt due to the standing of Brilliana’s husband, Sir Robert Harley, a staunch puritan and a long-standing political colleague of Cromwell. A distinguishing features is its hammer beam roof, possibly salvaged from the ruins of the castle. The church was altered in the nineteenth century, though a number of 17th century additions, such as the north vestry doorway, survive.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Ninekirks (St Ninian’s), Brougham (1659-1660?)

Ninekirk’s, Brougham (1659). Photo: Ken Brown (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

Sources disagree on when St Ninian’s (known locally as ‘Ninekirks’) was built, with a completion data of 1658-1660 suggested, though its planning certainly fell before 1660, so we’ll give it the benefit of doubt.

The site is remote: Ninekirks is located beside a bend in the River Eamont, in a field near the village of Brougham, Cumbria. A Norman church existed on what was thought originally to be a Roman settlement, with the building standing now a remarkably preserved 17th century re-building by Lady Anne Clifford

Ninekirks’ interior is white-washed, with a flag-stoned floor and original pew boxes (including family pews). Lady Anne’s restoration work is recorded in plasterwork above the altar. Repair work in the 19th century added a porch, though what remains is largely unaltered since 1660.

Verdict: new building on ancient site

Charles Church, Plymouth (1658 – Historic England date)

The ruins of Charles Church, Plymouth (now a war memorial). Photo: Partonez (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A tricky one, due to its long and rather tortuous birth. Charles Church, as the name alludes, was named by Charles I as a stipulation of its building. Plymouth was a puritan town, and the request to split the parish of St Andrew into two in 1634 led to protracted negotiations with King. This would would drag on to 1641, when royal assent was finally given for the construction of the new church. The Civil War interrupted building, though sources indicate that Charles Church was used for some baptisms, weddings and burials in the 1640s. Historic England has 1658 as a completion date for the building, with the church’s consecration finally coming in 1665.

Charles Church continued as a place of worship until March 1941, when it was destroyed during an air raid. Its Wikipedia page has a good listing of alterations made from the 18th to 20th centuries. What 17th century features survived until the Second World War, and may even be visible now in its ruined state, requires further investigation.

Verdict: not built during the Commonwealth (due to a large part of the church having been built/in use before it and consecration coming after it) 

St. Michael and All Angels, Great Houghton (1650)

St. Michael and All Angels, Great Houghton. Photo: Neil Theasby (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

St Michael and All Angels in Great Houghton (near Barnsley), was built in 1650 by Sir Edward Rodes, High Sheriff of Yorkshire and a Colonel of Horse under Cromwell as a private chapel for family and tenants. Cromwell is said to have visited and been pleased at its simple interior, and the chapel became a haven for non-conformist preachers in the later 17th century.

The chapel was only ‘episcopally licensed’ in 1849, with its dedication to St Michael and All Angels only coming in 1960. The church’s webpage has some before-and-after photos showing the results of renovation work in 2013.

Verdict: though originally a private chapel and not designed to serve a parish, St Michael’s was newly built for worship during the Commonwealth, so classing it as a new church.

In summary

How many churches were built during the Commonwealth? Half of the buildings listed above were completely new places of worship, and half were built to replace older, Norman, structures: to what extent their 17th century incarnations are built these earlier foundations, and incorporate more ancient features, requires more detailed enquiry.

The verdict:

New churches: 3 (Staunton Harold; St Matthias Old Church; St Michael’s, Great Houghton)

New/rebuilt building on previous church site: 3 (Holy Trinity, Berwick;  St Barnabas, Brampton Bryan; Ninekirks, Brougham

Work largely completed outside of Commonwealth period: 1 (Charles Church, Plymouth)

This brief summary of each church focuses on construction dates; others interesting angles to explore might be the motivations and allegiances of the people/patrons who built them (including the role of women), or what legal/ecclesiastical mechanisms allowed them to be built when they were.

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Inigo Jones and Palladio: Queen’s House, Greenwich

In Week 3 we turned to the Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque. We looked at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed in 1618 by Inigo Jones but not completed until 1635. After looking at how Jones took inspiration from visits to Renaissance Italy, and particularly the work of Andrea Palladio, we were asked to look at the architectural features of Queen’s House and comment on elements Jones had clearly taken from Palladio’s work, and how he might be said to have deviated from it.

The south front of the Queen’s House, Greenwich

What struck me when looking at the Queen’s House was that, at first glance, how less three-dimensional it appears than many of Palladio’s porticoed villas on the Veneto. However, looking more closely at features of the south front of the Queen’s House (above), Palladio’s influence becomes clearer, with the inclusion of a six-columned loggia and lower storey rustication.

The north facade’s (above) central bay is projected, even if only slightly, and has a semi-circular windowhead flanked by rectangular windows (though Palladio seemed to prefer a trio of semi-circular windowheads at the centre of his buildings, often with fewer rectangular windows either side).

Browsing photos of Palladio’s villas, the building I thought Queen’s House (or at least the south front) most resembles is the Villa Pisani in Montagnana:

Villa Pisani in Montagnana, south front. Image: Hans A. Rosbach (CC BY-SA 2.5)

It seems that Jones was looking to add his own refinements to his learnings from Palladio, and I think this is perhaps most evident at Queen’s House where the central string course, projecting cornice and balustraded parapet work together to give an overall effect of sharpness and under-stated sophistication (I can’t find an example of Palladio using a balustraded parapet at roof level on a country villa, though might be wrong!)

Villa Pisani in Montagnana, north front. Image: Hans A. Rosbach (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Interior of the Banqueting House, Whitehall (360 view)

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Wells and Bourges cathedrals: a comparison

One of the second week tasks from my course was to look at the interiors of two gothic cathedrals, Wells in England (1180) and Bourges (1195) in France, identifying the stylistic differences that make them representative of Early English and French gothic. I’ve included my answer below some zoomable Google maps images, and also had a crack at describing the west fronts first.

Above: Wells Cathedral (1180) – west front

The western elevation features none of the large gabled porches to be found in French gothic structures of the period, with the small doorways dwarfed by the columns and niches displaying around three hundred sculptures. The string course above the frieze of simple quatrefoil tracery draws the eye horizontally rather than upwards, a facet of Early English Gothic that continues inside. The arched lancet window are tall and narrow, without the elaborate conjoined tracery of the later English Decorated style.

Above: Bourges Cathedral (1195) – west front

In contrast to Wells, the emphasis at the west front of Bourges is on the five large portals with their recessed pointed arches and twin towers. There is also an early introduction of the rose window, though smaller in Bourges’ case, and not yet the dominant feature of the west front, when compared to other French cathedrals started over the next half-century, such as Laon, Amiens and Reims.

Impressive though the front is, there’s a curious lack of windows, with blind arcading where one might expect lancet glazing. This, together with the large entrance portals, elaborate tympanum sculptures, and the dearth of outside space (you can see from the Google image that it’s hard to take a complete photo of the eastern elevation due to the proximity of nearby housing), suggests that the glory of this end was intended to be experienced when entering the cathedral, and not from standing back and admiring it, which could be said of of the east, north and southern facings.

Above: Wells Cathedral – nave looking east

Moving to the interior of Wells, we see the gallery arcades running the length of the nave with the gallery and clerestory above as distinct sections – a strong indication that the cathedral was built in the Early English Gothic period, with the emphasis on horizontality rather than height. There are no floor-to-ceiling shafts, as typical of the French gothic style that English builders took inspiration from. The nave ceiling is lower than found in French cathedrals of the same period, with the vaulting shafts beginning from beneath the clerestory rather than from the floor. The later addition of the spectacular strainer arches (1330) show that architecturally we’ve moved into the English Decorated Gothic period.

Above: Bourges Cathedral, nave looking east

The interior of Bourges is a strong case study of gothic as “an aesthetic of line rather than mass”1. The thin vertical arcade shafts reach uninterrupted to the beginning of the vault ribs, emphasis the height of the nave: at 121 feet it is almost double that of Wells. The huge east window and clerestory windows allow light to flood in, creating a luminous interior that must have astonished its early worshippers.

There are no transepts at Bourges: instead a double set of aisles run the length of the building, forming an ambulatory at the east end, with the inner aisle vault taller than the outer one. The necessity to build vertically rather than horizontally in this period was a constraint faced more by French than English masons, as the preceding Norman/Romanesque structures were more likely to be situated in areas of more highly concentrated housing (see west front, above).

1 Sutton, I. Western Architecture (1999) p.74

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A Guide to Modernism in Metro-Land (2020)

I first discovered Joshua Abbott’s photos of modernist architecture via his Instagram page. His new book is a small but full-colour selective directory of modernist cinemas, factories, Tube stations, private houses and other structures largely built in the first part of the 20th century in the suburbs that sprung up with the development of the Metropolitan Railway.

The best of this type of short guide aren’t designed to be comprehensive, instead reflecting what the author sees as salient, and are all the better for it. Though I did find myself jumping straight to the Hertfordshire chapter to see whether buildings I’m familiar with had made the cut: the Odham’s building and the Ovaltine factory are there, though how long the unlovable Sun Printers clock tower will be around judging by its current crumbling state I’m not sure. The descriptions often tell me something I didn’t know, though I’d have liked more detail on their architectural quirks, though I expect the copy had to be kept short for reasons of length (the book is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher).

What’s more interesting of course are the local buildings you aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about the Peter and Alison Smithson-designed Sugden House in Watford (which at its last sale appeared to have retained its original interior) or a couple of other private dwellings in Bushey, an area more significant architecturally for its surviving arts and craft houses.

The author also notes that he hasn’t included buildings that can’t be viewed from the street. What else is out there, hidden from sight, behind those thick walls of conifers down gated private roads?

The book’s introduction casts metro-land as more of an idea than a place, referencing John Betjeman’s famous 1973 documentary, where architects like Charles Holden (underground stations) and Curtis and Burchett (Middlesex schools) had space to invent their own futures amongst the wistful avenues of mock-Tudor semis and prefabs.

A book like this is also intended to be a pocket tour guide, so organising chapters by London borough (with the Met line’s outer-reaches of Herts and Bucks tagged on) works – a map is included at the start of each.

Might it have been done in another way? I’d have liked to know more about the key architects, with more insight into the way their own backgrounds and personalities influenced their styles, though concentrating on fewer names would have come at the expense of eclecticism and is a different book, perhaps. It might also have been fun to order the chapters as stops or sections along different tube lines – I wonder if that’s something the author considered …


PS – reading up more about Peter and Alison Smithson I came across this film about them from 1970. Something tells me the took their work seriously …

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