Sunday 25 March 2012

Little Things That Matter by Eleanor Updale

So often, it's everyday details that give you a feel for the past. You can read a whole dissertation on the trials of domestic service, but understand more from seeing a mangle, a flat iron and an elaborately pleated dress in a museum. Often it's the sum of incidentals that tells you how people lived: the size of a glass, the binding on a book, the shape of a table leg.

Some of the most eloquent witnesses of an age are the buildings it leaves behind: unmissable public manifestations of the values and standards of long ago.

And yet the message they convey can so easily be distorted. Buildings are living, lived-in things, and few survive unchanged. It is also rare for them to stand alone, and a small modification to one can alter not only its own story, but the message given by its neighbours.

I was struck by this the other morning when I was out walking my dog, and I took some photos of changes that spoil everything for everyone. They are not particularly extreme or unusual examples - just a taste of how much damage a little ‘improvement’ can do.

This is a particularly handsome row of houses. I love those domes, which carry on down the street, far beyond the frame of the photograph.

But how much better the road must have looked before one owner decided to get rid of the bulge.

Windows and doors can, unless listed, be changed at will, and yet -- perhaps more than any other feature -- they express a building's character. They are the eyes and mouth of its face.

To my mind, the fine Victorian house on the right of this pair now looks as blank and characterless as the forehead of a botoxed old actress.

The effect of doing away with the glazing bars on the windows is to diminish another solid, integrated terrace.

That change may have been made many years ago, and I like to think that people are more respectful of old buildings now -- though as always we are not very caring of those built by the generation immediately before our own. How many of us would fight to preserve the architecture of the 1970s? Perhaps our children will love all that grim brown brick and those asymmetrical windows.

I once knew a civil servant who had the power to grant or deny the right to demolish old buildings. He was at the height of his powers in the late 1970s, and he simply couldn't see the virtues of buildings designed in the 1920s and 30s, when he was a boy. To his eye, they were cheap and ordinary beyond belief. So it was on his watch that the Firestone Building on the Great West Road disappeared in August 1980.

I don't know whether he suggested to the developers that they could present the conservationists with a fait accompli by sending in the wrecking crew on a bank holiday - but that is what happened, and I know he was very happy with the result.

He was less pleased about his failure to dispose of the Hoover Building, now (despite being occupied by Tesco) one of the great sights on the outskirts of London.

These days, his successors are more careful: more interested in (even obsessed with) the preservation of period detail even in quite recent buildings -- though few would go as far as to fight for the urine-soaked lift in a post-war tower block...yet.

Anyway, back to my walk. Here's some good news. I must be one of the luckiest people in Britain, because I live a stone’s throw from a public library that has been refurbished.

Not only that, but the 'new' library actually contains books, as well as the inevitable computers and DVDs

The council have done a great job renovating this fine building, inside and out, and they have saved much of its turn-of-the-century detail, but one little mistake is driving me mad.

Here is the side entrance - complete with its original door furniture.

Oh, how I would love to steal that handle for my own house!

Its simple shape and craftmanlike composition take us instantly to the time of honest endeavour and personal improvement out of which the library itself was born.

Now here is the front door:

Ignore, for a moment, the casual disrespect shown by the scrappy notice stuck to the wood.
What I can't bear is the idea that someone deliberately chose these naff mocky-georgiany shiny brass knockers:

They look like something from the palace of a footballer's wife. They are totally inappropriate to the style of the building, and not even accurate evocations of the period to which they refer (about 100 years before). They are the Pot Noodle of door pulls, even though they probably cost a fortune. And they speak of an age of exclusion, not striving for equality and enlightenment through education - the sentiment on which the library was built, and which remains utterly approprate 9perhaps more so than ever) today. I have no idea what happened to the original door furniture. Perhaps it has been stolen or sold. But I do think it should be replaced with something as similar as posible. Real knobs and knockers come up on eBay all the time, and there are plenty of architectural salvage firms in this city and on the internet. How have we ended up with this tat?

An architect friend of mine calls such things ‘pixie skit’ (only the k isn’t a k). Surely such badly-targeted mimicking of the past is worse than putting in something well-fashioned that is genuinely of our own time.

Oh, what a lucky woman I am to be able to clog up my mind with such concerns...

One last thing. I'm not suggesting that buildings should never change. But how far should we go? What do you think of this:

Is it OK to deface a fine building to save the planet? Or are the solar panels an adornment?
As renewable power technology improves, will these monsters become period pieces worthy of conservation themselves? Will they be valuable evidence of the obsessions of the early 21st century? Perhaps we should slap a preservation order on them now.

Homing, by Alastair Moffat. A book I found while browsing in the library above. It's a memoir of growing up in the Borders in the 1950s. Beautifully written, moving, funny, and packed with historical detail. I'm also dipping in and out of 'All Hell Let Loose' By Max Hastings - a masterly history of World War II.


adele said...

This is so interesting, Ellie! I am a hater of solar panels on roofs, but oddly love wind turbines on the ridge of a hill,seen from some way away, esp a whole line or bunch of them. Do not know why but they look like birds on sticks, or some kind of art installation. Might feel differenly if I had to live right under one. And yes, the things people do to their windows and doors are most odd sometimes....there are streets, aren't there (I think I saw one in Saffron Walden) where only certain colours are allowed for exterior paintwork....there must be some kind of residents' committee.

Leslie Wilson said...

I do find the limited colours on houses in the Cotswolds rather gruesomely tasteful, I have to say, but I do totally agree about the door handle. We have solar panels and I think they look fine on our roof which is nothing special anyway - especially today when they're generating loads of electricity - and good on a Scandinavian-style wooden modern house. However, we do like the roof of the 16th-century cottage opposite us. It's facing the wrong way for solar panels on the side we see, but I wouldn't like its beauty covered up. On the other hand, there are loads of ordinary houses to put solar panels on..
But hey, a friend of ours has just won a pitched battle with the planning department to demolish his tatty old asbestos garage. It wasn't listed, but they said it lent character or something. It was one of those horrid prefab things.

Stroppy Author said...

I believe you can now get solar tiles - so they look rather like slates, but reflective. Much less obtrusive than panels.

alberridge said...

Late to the party, Ellie, but thank you for a fascinating post. I don't know enough about architecture (there wasn't much on the battlefields) but you make me want to scrawl placards and sit outside these buildings demanding some respect for history.

And this. This paragraph which says it all for those of us in the business and those who care about it too:
'You can read a whole dissertation on the trials of domestic service, but understand more from seeing a mangle, a flat iron and an elaborately pleated dress in a museum. Often it's the sum of incidentals that tells you how people lived: the size of a glass, the binding on a book, the shape of a table leg.'

I wish I'd written that...