2 Dec 2004 - Viewpoint
By Yasmin Shariff on 2nd December 2004 After dinner speech Club Land
For over 150 years Pall Mall has been at the heart of London’s club land. These clubs having evolved from the 17th century coffee houses were used as meeting places. The name Pall Mall originates from a game which was played here- a cross between golf and croquet – ‘palle-maille’.
The exclusive gentlemen’s’ clubs seen today on this golf course come croquet lawn date from the 19th century and represent the work of some of the most fashionable architects of the era. The collonaded United Services Club was built by John Nash in 1827, this was the Duke of Wellington’s favorite club and now houses the Institute of Directors. Facing it, on the other side of Waterloo Place, is the Athenaeum, designed by Decimus Burton in 1830, and has long been the power house of the British establishment. The Travellers Club of 1829 and Reform Clubs of 1837 by Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, are very different from these other distinguished meeting places in that they are not in the same Greek Revivalist mode but evolve from the Italian Renaissance.
As with the Houses of Parliament, Barry won the commission for the Travellers Club in competition. Both these projects remain highly influential and pivotal buildings in the history of English architectural design. The Travellers Club introduced the Italian cinquecento, a renaissance revival with its grandeur of outline and richness of detail. The Houses of Parliament revived the Gothic and nurtured the Arts and Crafts Movement.
How did the founders of the Travellers Club get the money and the confidence to commission such a radically new and different project? Barry at that time was relatively unknown and was only just making his own way. The Houses of Parliament were not on the horizon until much later.
The Travellers Club was founded in the 1819 as ‘a point of reunion for gentlemen who had traveled abroad and to afford them the opportunity of inviting as honorary visitors the principal members of all foreign missions and travellers of distinction. There are many many scandals and stories of who was on this ‘A’ list and who wasn’t starting with founder members when it was revealed that many of them didn’t meet the basic criteria of having traveled 500 miles. There were also many distinguished people who were blackballed and barred from joining including Lord Lyton and Sir Edwin Landseer. Membership was obviously highly sought after and exclusive. In the 19th century long distance travel was for the wealthy and privileged. The grand tour was reserved for those with grand pockets. So it is not so difficult to see how the Club could attract adequate funding with such a selective 500 mile database to commission their club house ten years later in 1829.
But who was this young 36 year old and how was he able to exert such an influence on the history of British architecture?
Charles Barry was the fourth son of a Westminster architect. Born in 1793 he apprenticed at a firm of surveyors from the age of 15. Barry showed his talent during his apprenticeship when he exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, so he was clearly a good draftsman- but where did he get his ideas from?
After having served a six year apprenticeship when he came of age in 1817, he received a small legacy from his father which enabled him to go on a grand tour. He travelled through France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. His skills as a draftsman made him many important and influential friends. The archaeologist David Baille offered him £200 a year + expenses for his company and sketches on a tour round Syria and Egypt. In 1820 he returned to Rome on his way back home, where the 3rd Marquis of Landsdowne introduced Barry to the Holland House circle of Whig aristocrats.
Few architects had the money to see classical buildings at first hand. The opportunity to go on the Grande tour enabled Barry not only first hand knowledge of the classical world but also brought him into contact with the powerful and influential people who could win him commissions.
Whilst Barry was on his ‘gap year’ a few crucial events happened which were to shape his future career in addition to the formation of the Traveller’s Club in 1819. A year before in 1818 Parliament passed the Millions Act. The Act provided for the expenditure of one million pounds on the building of churches in London and other parts of the country and according to John Summerson was to act as a ‘prophylactic against revolution’. Nash, Soane and Smirke each contributed several churches. Barry returned from his travels in 1820 and in 1822 Sir John Soane, a friend of his fiancée, recommended Barry to the Church commissioners to build a couple of churches in Manchester presumably because they were so low budget and boring that he could not be bothered with out of London commissions. For Barry this was an opportunity to cut his teeth on working with low budgets, committees as well as the more technical aspects of construction. Whilst Barry was in Manchester in 1824 he won the competition for the Royal Institute of Fine Arts in Manchester now known as the City Fine Arts Gallery in the Greek revival style.
The second significant issue to emerge when Barry was on his gap year was to do with the relevance of the architect and the question of architectural style. ‘The speculative builder’ wrote Papworth in 1818 ‘ has superseded the artist, for the architect is there (in London) rarely called upon, unless it be to remedy errors, or supply some of the deficiencies, as well as the art of practical science.’ Thomas Cubitt had introduced the conception of a contracting firm equipped to supply all the building trades, with the trade of the architect thrown in.’
With Nash and Soane nearing their dotage and Smirke and Wilkins plodding ineffectively behind it is not surprising that in the 1820s informed sections of the public began to feel that something was wrong with English architecture. This uneasiness, often expressed in the periodicals, had the effect of increasing the tendency of people of taste to turn to Gothic antiquarianism. It had, also the more immediate effect of inducing the Opposition in Parliament to ask in 1828 for a Select Committee on the Expense of Public Buildings. As the evidence given before the Committee amply testifies, it was not only the expense but the quality of buildings which was exercising the public conscience.
Barry’s 1829 competition entry for the Travellers Club must have been a breath of fresh air away from what was considered to be the drab and lifeless exactitude of Greek revivalism. The grand well proportioned lines of this style and its rich ornamentation appealed to the Victorians. The building captured the exotic atmosphere of the grand tour and what the world had to offer but in a distinctive English manner. Barry’s son states that his father would have preferred it to be referred to as the Italian style. Barry was able to work in any style he chose be it Greek Revival, Italian cinquecento or Gothic.
This should not be mistaken for or confused by the work of mere stylists – Barry’s work is not a text book imitation of Italian Palaces Greek Temples or Tudor mansions or a mere application of ornament. As George Wightwick describes in 1832 ‘every carpenter who builds a row of ordinary houses on speculation, gives them porticoes and Greek scrolls, honeysuckle ornaments and sarcophagi…. The display without meaning- the semblance without substance.’
It is without doubt that Barry’s career flourished through entering competitions the most prestigious of course being the 1836 Houses of Parliament. His skills as a draftsman and presentation and knowledge of the older orders of architecture gave him a rich vocabulary to draw from and were significant in winning the commission but his skills at working with committees and other contractors and consultants was without doubt his remarkable achievement.
Many of the same issues are being debated to day. Today contractors like Cubbit can throw in design free with the rest of their PFI or Design build bids. My question is – is it worth it. There are still Select Committees investigating quality and expense of publicly procured buildings. Holyrood has had considerable publicity but the NAO admit that last year 76% of projects were over budget, over time and we spent over a billion pounds on remedial works.
We are on the threshold of a major building program. Five growth areas have been identified in the south east and over half a million houses are to be built. There are endless reports stating that all of this has to be carried out in a sustainable way.
Last week at the Floodgates to the exploitation of the Thames Gateway opened at the Excel Conference Centre when senior government ministers, the mayor of London, chief executives of government quangos and volume house builders put out their stalls and reassure the public that quality and sustainable development is close to their hearts. And of course who needs architects when it any old carpenter can to imitate the styles and ornament the facades to suit individual taste and whimsy.
The response to John Prescott’s plans to provide 500,000 homes in designated growth areas in the south east is welcomed with glee by large house builders. Government agencies turn helplessly to these builders of mass destruction as they assume that the only way of delivering affordable homes is to encourage their soulless mass housing on the fringes of existing developments. These growth areas benefit from London’s economy and this is not the first time they have had to accommodate London’s expanding housing need. The post war Homes for Heros was a catlyst for our garden city utopian ideals. New millennium homes could equally lead to something exciting, inspiring and socially responsible and be a catalyst to revitalise decaying villages and towns.
Today there is a paucity of vision and limited aspiration. Unlocking the potential of a site and its people is difficult and complex. It requires highly skilled designers sensitive to the needs of people and communities as well as skills to unlock the potential of a place. Without skilled people driving this process and informed clients there can be no hope of success. The ODPM admit that there is a skills gap in the delivery of development from planning committees to planners. In contrast Mr Prescott celebrates the fact that the UK has some of the world’s leading designers who are able to deliver exemplary housing developments abroad but not here. CABE’s report on the quality of housing, released earlier this month, also highlights the problem of poor design, which is not surprising as designers have little opportunity to contribute meaningfully. The legacy we are leaving future generations is undoubtedly worse than the mass housing of the 60s, with poorer space standards and workmanship.
The ODPM’s ambition to provide affordable housing and create vibrant and economically sound communities. Relying on house builders to make this transformation is, however, a grave oversight. Volume house builders do not deliver high quality affordable housing- they never have. Their interests lie in maximising short-term profits. Look at any volume-house built development and they are invariably soulless brick-banded, pitched-roof boxes. The ODPM will no doubt, point to a few exceptions to the brick box standard and often quote Countryside’s developments at Harlow. These mono pitched thatched roof designs are quaint but expensive, with studio flats starting at £145K+- they can hardly be termed as affordable, neither can they be termed as sustainable. The services inside are gas guzzling CO2 rich contributing heavily to global warming. These homes should come with an environmental health hazard warning and not be held up as good practice.
Imagine homes with no heating. Homes that can be offices, shops or anything else the owners or users think appropriate. We have the technology, but we are currently hiding behind false facades. Energy efficient flexible use homes will look and work very differently to houses built in earlier times. In the East of England over 40% of our elderly have to choose between heating and eating and over a million homes are not fit to live in.
Britain is one of the richest countries on the world. We have the world’s leading designers. We do not need to and cannot afford to carpet our countryside in second rate developments and leave a legacy of Noddyland for future generations. The issue is not merely about housing- estates for the living dead, but about every aspect of living and community. London would not be the vibrant cultural city of ideas and knowledge without its clubs, pubs, and other public institutions. The growth area plans lack any kind of social institution; the designs are sterile estates of housing or out of town shopping.
We should be enabling the Barry’s of today to make their contribution and future generations to marvel at their creations in the way that we are able to feast our eyes on the Travellers Club and marvel at the innovation and skill of Charles Barry.