Thursday 22 February 2018

Building Power by Catherine Hokin

I've been having a lot of conversations recently about research, not just how much writers need to do but what type. Whatever the downsides of the web with its never-ending news feeds and all-too distracting social media, we are incredibly lucky to live in a time of such easy access to information. Like most of us I spent a lot of time buried in books but I can also be regularly found lost in articles and images on the internet and I'm beginning to think I couldn't survive without Pinterest. When you can, however, there's no substitute for getting out into the places you write about and letting your senses do the thinking. To this end I've spent a fair bit of time lately wandering the corridors of power, past and present, and one of my biggest takeaways? I really am rather small or, to put it another way, the architects of power did their job very well.

 Westminster Hall's Hammer Beam Roof Commissioned 1393
Architecture is used by political leaders to seduce, to impress and to intimidate. (The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Westminster Hall, the starting point for my recent let's-get-away-from-the-desk meanderings. As most people are aware, very little of the medieval palace survives, most of the complex having been destroyed in the 1834 fire. Remarkably, however, given the fires, floods, bombs and death-watch beetles which had other ideas, the hammer beam roof commissioned by Richard II in 1393 remains intact. The hall itself was begun in 1097 but it was Richard who had the Norman pillars removed and the wooden arch (the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe) installed. It spans 60 feet and was incredibly dangerous to construct as the great beams, which together weigh over 600 tons, had to be hoisted to a height of over 90 feet. Crane up and you can see the carved angels and tracery work that was started but not finished and crane up again and there is Richard's white hart badge still edging the walls. It is a vast space, still filled with scuttling people clutching papers and quite a contrast to the labyrinth of corridors and tiny chambers that make up the back stage of the Palace - I was lucky enough to get that tour too - although that also retains a medieval feel, all shadowy corners and plots.

 Medieval shield painted onto the nave wall
I did even more craning up when I crossed the road to Westminster Abbey where you need an eagle eye to spot the fragments of medieval paintings and shields hidden among the main church's monuments. As you come in, and along the nave, there are a series of carved sheilds of arms, dating from 1245 and 1272 and commemorating the church's aristocratic benefactors, including Fulk Fitzwarren, William Ferrars, Earl of Derby, Roger de Mowbray and Hugo de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The shields are easy to miss among the huge marble sculptures now filling the walls and there is nothing on the audio tour about them but the guides are a happy fount of knowledge. As you continue round the Abbey, the medieval touches become easier to spot, culminating in the series of paintings of the Apocalypse in the Chapter House which date from 1375-1404 with a wonderful set of lower friezes from about a century later filled with amazing birds and animals. And you go past England's oldest door, from 1050, to get to it - it's like being given a never-ending box of chocolates.

 Richard 11
The Abbey is, of course, best known as the burial place of England's monarchs and the number, and beauty, of the tombs is quite overwhelming. For me, however, the most fascinating of the Abbey's monuments comes at the end - presented almost as an after-thought The huge portrait of Richard II is contemporary, commissioned by the King, and was painted in the 1390s by Andre Beauneveu. Restored and reframed in the nineteenth century, its vivid greens, crimsons and golds look freshly done and even the loss of some of the gilt work does not detract from the power it is meant to evoke. And power is what this painting is all about. Richard was devoted to Westminster Abbey and to St Edward the Confessor and he rebuilt the northern entrance and some bays of the nave but this painting was not simply an addition to the Abbey's riches - it was a reminder to an unruly London where power really lay. Like the Palace of Westminster, it is impossible not to feel tiny when you enter the Abbey and overawed. Add to that the hidden nature of much of the church's ceremonies during this period, performed behind the rood screen, and your insignificance grows. Standing next to the painting under the soaring ceiling and imagining it on display at the far end of the nave with Richard seated below it on an elevated throne, demanding his new title of Majesty, says everything you need to know about power and tyranny. It is impossible not to shiver.

 Citta Sul Mare, Sassetta
So Scotland to London and back home again and another group of buildings pointing to the heavens and shouting look up and fear me. Fourteenth century Tuscany was riven with politically charged violence and raids as city states, and their competing families, fought to control each other. One of the impacts of this can be seen in the ruined towers which still dot the landscape. These were used as homes and warehouses and were a very visible stamp of authority - the higher the tower, the more powerful the family. Built either from white albarese stone or reddish brick, they had crenellated tops, small Romanesque windows, narrow porticoes and - when a family built a number close together as they often did - holes to support movable connecting bridges. Stretching up to 180 feet, each floor had one room and floors were reached by winding stairs set into the walls or ladders. At the height of the building craze (pun intended), there were over 200 in Florence and Lucca and perhaps as many as 100 in Siena (the inspiration behind the contemporary Sassetta painting) and San Gimignano where the most preserved examples remain. And the sizes changed - as towers were seized they could be reduced or heightened depending on the message the new owner wished to transmit, a moving picture which puts me rather in mind of the opening of Game of Thrones.

 Tower of Hallbar & Me
The WIP will get me to Tuscany but, in the meantime, we have our own version of the Tuscan towers in Scotland, one of which, the Tower of Hallbar, is on my doorstep. Built between the fourteenth and sixteenth century, these tower house castles have some differences (including more elaboration) but largely follow the Tuscan pattern. Hallbar (which is privately owned and can now be rented) is 5 storeys high, has walls up to 1.6m thick and is very narrow. Each level originally had a single room, with a winding stair, built into the walls, wrapping around and linking the floors. At the basement level was a low-vaulted cellar. If you've any doubts about the scale of these things, that's me feeling very dwarfed by the door.

Nowadays we often associated high rises with the damage caused to working class communities or the horror of Grenfell. The new builds dominating our skylines, however, are increasingly once more becoming the preserve of the wealthy - we are again looking up at temples to power and greed but perhaps our shivering needs a different aspect. London's 95 storey Shard, owned by the Qatari royal family and the city's tallest building at 390.7m, currently has 10 of its multiple million pound apartments lying empty and is the target of protesters infuriated by such wasted space in a country in the grip of a housing crisis. The spectre of ghost towers - high rise homes built for the wealthy but standing empty - is becoming a real issue in the capital. The Observer newspaper recently revealed that builders are currently constructing towers in London containing 7,749 homes priced between £1m and £10m, and have planning rights to build another 18,712 high-end apartments and townhouses, despite concern over the number already standing half-empty and the lack of affordable housing. In 2016-2017 only 6,432 affordable homes were built.

When we look up now at the works of the mighty, it really is hard not to despair.


Richard Majece said...

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Miranda Miller said...

What an interesting blog. I never get bored with the history of architecture but I also find the new towers springing up all over London rather menacing - and who is going to buy all these luxury flats?