a task worth trying

Last week, an interesting exchange about Regent Street in London, between John Massengale’s Veritas et Venustas and Peter Lindberg’s Tesugen.com, prompted me to reach for my bookshelf and open my copy of ‘How to Look at Buildings’.

Written by the wonderfully named Darcy Bradell, it was originally printed in 1932. The copy I have is the third edition from 1945 and the inside cover tells me that it was For the use of H.M. Forces – it’s stamps on the opening pages listing R.A.F Ringstead and R.A.F Hope Cove as two of it’s former homes in 1950 and 1957 respectively. How it came to belong to me is a bit of a mystery as I don’t remember where I bought it, although I note from the price inside that it only cost £1.

I was certain that I’d find something of worth about Regent Street, but sadly it wasn’t to be, there was merely a passing comment about its changing building heights being detrimental to the scale of the street. I did, however, find two other sections that snuggle up to some of my recent posts and give them a nice, friendly squeeze.

A few days ago I wrote about the problem of form over program and the scaleless lump that is Selfridges in Birmingham. It seems this isn’t the first time the department store has landed badly on the high street.

Selfridge’s store when it was first built threw out the scale of the whole of Oxford Street. No doubt it was a fine advertisment for Commerce in the grand manner but architecturally it was a misfit.

There is value in consistency I suppose. At the end of the book Bradell gets all Socratic on us and sums up what we’ve learnt by creating a discussion between a Mentor (us) and a Friend (them) which picks apart the design of a house they have just visited; the Mentor having no difficulty explaining to his enthusiastic Friend how he has been duped by various examples of spatial/formal clumsiness masquerading as Architecture. Dejected and beaten, Friend has little choice but to ask if Mentor thinks he could do it any better himself.

The result has a little something for everyone. Sitting neatly on the well proportioned fence, there are principles to be claimed by both sides of the debate that occurs in my previous entry about design codes (which was written in response to John Massengale’s comments about British Architects).

FRIEND: ‘Well, I see that there’s very little about this house you like. Have you any views about what you yourself would have built in its place?’

MENTOR: ‘Of course I have, but I cannot be expected to give you details, only general principles. Well, first of all, I would build a house that spoke to me in terms of this century and no other. I would trust to good proportion of general mass and line, rather than to ornament or detail. But if I used detail I would see that I got some value out of it. I would put it where it could be seen and meant something to me. I would not just put it in places where other people in the past had been in the habit of doing, for that reason alone. I would build my house of permanent materials. I would see that it fitted the character of its surroundings. If they were formal ones, such as are found in most streets, then I would build a formal house. If I were in romantic surroundings on the banks of a river, or a windswept sea-shore, or in a clearing of a forest, then I would build in the romantic manner. I would try to avoid leaning too much on the Past, but I would not spurn it altogether. I would recognize that there is much to be said for the materials that man has found suitable to his use for house-building these hundreds of years and I should be chary of departing from them. I should recognize too that each has developed a technique of its own, and that I am likely to get the best results if I study the work that has been done in the past, not so that I may slavishly copy it, but rather so that I may learn the lesson that it is to be gained from it.’

FRIEND: ‘You set yourself a difficult task.’

MENTOR: ‘Yes, but a task worth trying.’

Combine this with Massengale’s excellent, ‘Got Neighborhood?’, and you’ll have all the design codes you need.

Leave a Reply