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?
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).
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)