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Urban Design often tempts with a suggestion of grand strategic game play, the manipulation of public transport systems and the ability to affect the lives of communities across an urban territory in a way few other disciplines would dare attempt. It reminds me of playing with a Hornby railway set, commander of all I surveyed, which began to make me question if in fact that wouldn’t be such a bad approach.
See, I designed my ‘layout’ to tell a story of one moment, akin to a stage set I suppose. It was built over many weeks, yet came together as a cohesive model of late Victorian Britain. The sheds, shops and the cottages, aside barns, all formed a scene which would happily inhabit any chocolate box in the land. I’d already, it seems, been sold that quaint image of Britain; in fact I spent most of my evenings cycling through it, if not pushing a Hornby loco around it. That railway board was as real a place to me as the villages outside the backdoor and the magic of them both was the telling of the story, a cohesive image of time stood still; a romanticised rural image which has ingrained itself into a nations psyche.
My point is that our cities are records of stories, our civilisations rambling stumblings. The question then arises, why not embellish the story and why limit ourselves to non-fiction? St Alban’s Court, Kent, designed by George Devey and constructed in 1875-78 is a remarkable pile (1), because it appears to do away with all the self concerned architectural conventions the contemporary architectural eye attributes to conservation, to history telling. The need for honesty and truth in the built fabric is no less apparent, but finds itself with a fiction of readable lineage which has no bearing on history itself. The country houses of George Devey’s design challenges the agreed definition of authenticity by suggesting a believable past. It is the telling of that story which reveals the society that has formed it. St Alban’s impersonates a house of grand history and gives assurance that the landscape has always accommodated its flanks, setting the scene, unquestioned, for the 1900’s.

Built of red brick in an eclectic historical pallet, St Alban’s appears built upon the ancient foundations of a former family residence. The ragstone plinth appears of such uneven coursing when it meets the brickwork placed upon it, the fantastic juxtaposition could not be designed it would appear. The result in appearance of piecemeal development, the facades could be taken as coincidence where it not for the quality of the workmanship and delightful form. The interior too is also filled with joinery from Northbourne Court, a ‘Jacobean’ manor (2), supporting an authenticity and building a myth with ‘true’ evidence. George Deveys student Charles A.F Voysey, of course went on to design the great white country houses we all know, but his early teaching by Devey and the carful cohesive compositions hint at the harmonious designs to come.
Authenticity therefore is achieves by describing a common narrative throughout the building rather than highlighting a literal timeline of additions and amendments. In fact in George Devey’s early work there was no attempt to distinguish the original or portray time. Restored cottages would appear complete and without the hand of an architect (3). What then does this do to the discussion of our urban fabric at a strategic level? Would it be acceptable to continue to develop our cityscapes with this approach and instead of finding delight in the contradiction of times amendments, could each town peddle a different narrative? The integration of a story, the building of a complete captivating theme would form scenes representative of a culture or sentiment rather than time; an approach familiar to the picturesque movement, opposed to the eclectic ‘Gothic’ series of building additions you may describe our current position as. Would the city be freed beyond the “weighty apparatus of traditional space making” (4) ?
Building cities based on the picturesque landscape, rich with beauty and folly, divine staging of tenants and land (5), is familiar and led to the Garden City movement. But what if history took a different course? Could the picturesque reinvent the future as it did the past and retain the charisma which is so easy to believe?


References:

i) Holland, Charles, The Eclectic Country Houses of George Devey https://www.apollo-magazine.com/the-eclectic-country-houses-of-george-devey/ Apollo Magazine 06 august 2018 (acc.Dec 2019)
ii) Historic England, St Albans Court ( Country Life, April 8 1971) https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1070242 Listed building description (acc.Dec 2019)
iii) Allibone, J. (George Devey : architect, 1820-1886 1991). Cambridge: Cambridge : Lutterworth.
iv) Waldheim, Charles, Landscape as Urbanism, from ‘The Landscape Urbanism Reader’ (2006)
v) Gilpin, William. Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, on Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland. … . By William Gilpin, M. A. Prebendary of Salisbury; and Vicar of Boldre, in New-Forest, near Lymington. Londonprinted for R. Blamire, Strand, (1786).

Photograph
St Alban’s Court, Kent, designed by George Devey and constructed in 1875–78. Courtesy Clive Webb/www.nonington.org.uk
Holland, Charles, The Eclectic Country Houses of George Devey https://www.apollo-magazine.com/the-eclectic-country-houses-of-george-devey/ Apollo Magazine 06 august 2018 (acc.Dec 2019)

David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Jorge Otero-Pailos, Erik Langdalen, Thordis Arrhenius (eds.), Experimental Preservation (Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016).
Jonson, Ben. To Penshurst https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50674/to-penshurst (acc.Dec.2019) To Penshurst (1616)

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One response to “Who’s looking for authenticity?”

  1. Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay: Landscape Urbanism or Landscaped Urban? by Tara Keswick
    In response to ‘Singapore’s Garden by the Bay’
    I found this blog engaging because it’s made me question what a garden is and also has allowed me to question the social context of a garden compeered to a landscape. A garden I find impossible to picture without the gardener, a nurturing hand slowly manipulating their environment to form a living artwork. A garden also suggests a delicate scale, composed views and a sparkling complexity akin to its creator. A garden can be as multi-faceted as a self-portrait. Never easy to define due to its fleeting nature, yet requiring a daily ritual to reveal its potential, a garden needs to be inhabited to truly be understood. This is particularly true of a kitchen garden, which must delight as well as sustain its gardener.
    I’d therefore like to conjecture that a garden is defined by the nurturing relationship of the gardener, the craft of gardening rather than the result. This begs the question, can that relationship be found in Singapore and does the very nature of Urban Design, the need for a defined result hinder Singapore in creating a true garden?
    In an attempt to see how cities live within or in relation to gardens I was drawn to the idea that a garden is the space in which we live and the space that can govern our culture. Cities in eastern Iraq, due to the often harsh conditions which they needed to mitigate against, were often populated with walled gardens, in order to feed the city, but also to provide respite away from the wider landscape. The result was that these cities gardens became a crafted element of social life, political discourse and were a precious commodity. They needed to be sustained in a way which relied on a complex irrigation system not unlike the one described in the blog above. Singapore’s aim to define its city to the garden which will envelop it has striking similarities.
    However the scale of the ‘Garden by the Bay’ suggests an urban infrastructure project far beyond the reach of a garden. Maybe the relationship between the city and its garden needs to develop gradually, its true impact too early to be felt? My initial inclination is to agree with Tara, but I hope that in time a true garden will grow in the shoes of this initial framework.

    L., Wescoat Jr. James. “From Ideal Garden Form to Complex Spatial History: the Changing Cultural Space of Mughal Gardens.” Chapter 9. (2012) pp 201
    Mark, Dickens. “Timurid Architecture in Samarkand.” 1990 (acc.Jan) 2019. http://www.oxuscom.com/timursam.htm
    Mohammad, Gharipour. “Transferring and Transforming the Boundaries of Pleasure: Multi-Functionality of Gardens in Medieval Persia.”(2017)
    Ochsenschlager, Edward L. “Iraq’s Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden.” Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, (2005).

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
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Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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