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Tag: Tuscan

The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden (BBC)

I finally got round to watching The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden on iPlayer. As with many of the best documentaries, the researchers had done a great job of finding people who had direct involvement with the subject at hand, including men and women who had worked in the market in the pre- and post-war periods. There was some great archive footage, and the framing of developments around historical figures worked well.

Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s church loomed large, though its architectural history wasn’t explored. It’s still surprising how Jones integrated the most ‘primitive’ Tuscan order with elegant surrounding townhouses, and in doing so delivering London’s first formal open space. Jones had seen the opportunity to employ the Tuscan’s earthy and robust dimensions in an ecclesiastical building after agreeing with the Earl of Bedford to deliver the ‘handsomest barn in England’. The huge east front pedimented portico of St Paul’s (sixty feet across), with its widely-spaced pair of large columns flanked by square pilasters, had no precedent in England, and the sight of a quasi-Tuscan temple would have been all the more dramatic for its urban setting. The church’s double-square interior displayed Jones’ preference for harmonic ratios, with symmetrical, tall, rounded-headed pairs of windows on the east and west facades complementing circular windows above the church’s ‘entrances’ (the east one is fake).

Flanking St Paul’s were a pair of arches, also Tuscan, with rusticated pilasters. These were positioned away from the church and joined by a wide, low wall, at a distance proportionate to the columnation of the church’s portico. The cumulative effect of their inclusion, visible in later etchings and paintings, again demonstrated Jones’ inclination for horizontality, but at Covent Garden going a step further to confidently bestow a residential skyline with the gravity of the Tuscan order.

No drawings in Jones’ hand survive for the the tall, narrow houses he designed for the north and east sides of Covent Garden, but later pictorial evidence shows that they were narrow, classical structures, with vaulted, rusticated, arcade walkways (‘piazzas’) spanning the terraces, with steep roofs and dormer windows. Summerson argued that the whole of Covent Garden was a ‘comprehensive essay in the Tuscan mood’, with Jones adapting a Serlio  design for his Covent Garden houses to deliver elegant continuity around three sides of the square. The effect is seen in later paintings: a band of red, upper-story brickwork runs around the square – smart, but subordinate to the bright, rusticated ashlar line leading the eye to its termination at the new, understated, Protestant, place of worship.

The point here isn’t to establish whether Jones’ unified application of the Tuscan order was faithful to antiquity, but more to recognise that what Jones had created was the first classical city square in England. Its influence was soon felt in surrounding streets, with Jones directing similar classical projects in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Great Queen Street. Jones had arrived at his own urban vernacular, the forerunner of London street architecture. Crucially, these buildings and spaces would be experienced by the public, not just kings and courtiers.

At this point Jones still had what might have been the crowning glories of his Westminster Palace and St Paul’s cathedral developments on the horizon, though the former didn’t come to fruition and the latter was demolished. Whatever the aesthetic merit of Jones’ work on the west front of the cathedral, it’s Jones’ influence on secular architecture that was revolutionary, though his buildings alone may not have been enough to secure that legacy.

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