Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Past in our Future

John Rylands Library Deansgate © Ellen Leslie Ltd

The end of one year and the beginning of a new one tends to draw our attention forward. If you read newspapers or magazines at this time of year, 'trends' are the subject many publications are chewing over. What's the next big thing? What old attitudes or technology are we going to discard on the wave of newness?

Apparently we as humans are hard-wired to look for the new. Novelty is what drives our species forward. In reality though, despite the inexorable move forward, we are also living with our past. The past is what shapes us today. We would be formless and blank if we didn't carry the culmination of our lives, the kind of community we come from, the events we have witnessed, the scars sustained, the memories held on to. There is the valid opinion that we mustn't dwell in the past but at the same time, we are the walking, talking product of our past. It is what defines us. Our past has relevance today.

The same can be said of our physical surroundings. The world around us; the landscapes, roads, villages and towns we inhabit are the product of years, decades and centuries of life that defines us today. For me a 16th century timber-framed house, a Victorian warehouse, a parade of inter-war shops or the centuries-old camber of a village thoroughfare are just as much part of today as we are. But not everyone sees it like that. For some, the past is something irrelevant even less-than, that should be sacrificed for the needs of the present and plans for the future. Worryingly there are many people in positions of influence who want to and can put that attitude into action. Not a month goes past when I don't walk down a London street to find wholesale demolition and new, shiny buildings going up. And yet we do have success stories to refute such approaches. St Pancras Hotel once faced the prospect of demolition in the face of modernity and post-war sweeping away of the old. Today that building still stands in its High Victorian splendor while also being restored and adapted to be a 21st century hotel meeting the needs of today.

So I am not suggesting that our history be set in aspic.  I am suggesting that in a world of new architecture that reflects our modern times, we remember that when it comes to the built environment, the past is at the core of who we are and that it provides the depth, texture and context to our present and our future!

Happy New Year!

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Building Blocks of Albert Hall Mansions

Albert Hall Mansions Today 

The imposing confidence of the red-brick, dutch-gabled, mansion blocks that surround the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington belie the truth, that their construction was accompanied by suspicion and there was doubt that they would be a social or commercial success. The Albert Hall Mansions were the first of their kind in Great Britain located overlooking Kensington Gardens, designed by the renowned architect R Norman Shaw for the developer Thomas Hussey.

Albert Hall Mansions in 1881 in The Building News

The new design concept came about because good quality accommodation in London was scarce for the middle-classes who could not afford a large town house and were seeking more of a pied-a-terre for when they were in the capital. The beauty of Norman Shaw’s design was it provided an impressive fa├žade to complement the magnificent Royal Albert Hall next door while also providing maximum accommodation. Albert Hall Mansions was a real social and architectural departure for the British as apartment living or multi-occupancy in one building had been associated with the lower classes, charitable housing and most significantly, favoured by foreigners, particularly the French! Such was the suspicion of adopting “french ways” in those days. However it would seem that beauty and utility were achieved and the publication The Building News wrote in 1881"This building, which has lately been erected in Kensington is situated close to the Royal Albert Hall ... it will be observed that the front or north side is divided into seven stories, whilst the back portion has nine floors in the about the same height. The object of this is to place the whole of the principle or reception rooms so as to overlook Hyde Park, and by the lesser number of stories to obtain greater height, whilst the back of the building being occupied by bed and dressing rooms, kitchens, &c., a less height, such as 10ft. 6in. or 11ft., is for all practical purposes as good; and by this arrangement a considerable amount of accommodation is gained... The portion already built, and shows in our perspective view, consists of three entirely separate blocks. In each block are eight large separate suites, and in the upper part eight smaller suites, which may easily be altered into four larger suites, if desired. Each of the larger suites is complete in itself, with the front door opening from the principal stair, and the back door from the service stair. Two lifts are provided: one for passengers and one for coals, provisions &c., situated close to the tradesmen's entrance."

Plans and Sections from The Survey of London

Because of this uncertainty Albert Hall Mansions was built in 3 sections, the last two only constructed once the first block was fully occupied. Mr Hussey should not have worried though. Apartments were quickly snapped up! It was a great success and soon there were mansion blocks in Mayfair, Regent's Park, Marylebone, Maida Vale, St John's Wood, Belsize Park, Battersea, Fulham and Chiswick. The collective concern that living in a mansion block was a French idea seemed to have been forgotten.