Monday, 14 February 2011
Palaces, brick boxes & council houses
English vernacular may be described as cottage style architecture. The two main sources of period house styles were the vernacular and the classical. The classical tradition in English domestic architecture began with royal palaces and filtered downwards through society. But no less an authority than William Morris dismissed as ‘brown brick boxes’ perhaps the most greatly admired examples of the classical tradition: late Georgian terraced houses.
From top: the Banqueting House, Whitehall, one of the first classical buildings in Great Britain
the palatial grandeur of the north side of Queen Square, Bath (1736)
large terraced house in Bedford Square, London (1780)
small late Georgian houses in Stokesley, Yorkshire
How the Golden rectangle was applied to the front of a large terraced house
Large Regency and early Victorian houses in Brompton Square, London
Neo-Georgian council house (1923)
The Banqueting House, Whitehall (1622) was the first complete classical building built in Britain. King Charles the First’s surveyor, Inigo Jones, designed the Banqueting House, as part of a much greater development. This was to have been the Royal palace of Whitehall. The Banqueting house was the only part that was actually built. Ironically, on 30 January 1649, Charles the First stepped through one of its first floor windows onto the scaffold where he was executed. Although the classical tradition began under the Stuarts (1603-1714), including Queen Anne (1702-1714), it became what we know as Georgian.
Inigo Jones also designed the first classical terraced houses in the north west corner of the Duke of Bedford’s development of Covent Garden (c.1630). But it was the Woods development of the terrace, in Bath, which brought about it s success as the predominant urban style. When the rich stayed in town they did not object to living in terraced houses which looked as though they were part of a palace. John Wood, father and son, achieved this by emphasising the centre and ends of their terraces and adding giant columns. John Wood the elder first applied this to Queen Square in Bath (1729-36). Bath has the advantage of being in a stone area. Stone gave the buildings additional grandeur. Jane Austen stayed in Queen Square. She described it as having ‘all the grandeur of architectural excellence’.
The form of Georgian with which many of us are familiar is built in London’s brown brick. By the late Georgian period builders could apply classical proportions to the front of a large house without an architect. Even William Morris conceded that a ‘brown brick box’, such as those in Bedford Square, had ‘some style about it and even some merit of design, if only negative’. He meant that it was formulaic. Indeed it was, speculative builders had learnt how to apply the ‘golden rectangle’ to the front of a large terraced house. The style was applied to large, medium and small houses across the full social range.
During the Regency and early Victorian periods the large terraced house became even larger. This was due to the need for additional bedrooms and ‘coal in the cellar and servants in the attic’ as a French observer put it. It grew upwards to fit the additional rooms. Classical proportions were applied to individual features such as windows. Once again the speculative builders could meet this demand by themselves.
But the Edwardian neo-Georgian revival was led by architects who started designing neo-classical country houses about 1905. The leading Edwardian architect, Edwin Lutyens called it the ‘high game of classicism’ or the ‘Wrennaissance’ which acknowledged that what the Edwardians called Georgian was actually Stuart.
But it was the compact forms of neo-Georgian which led to its widescale application when council houses were being built on a large scale after the First World War. The architect Louis de Soissons chose a local version of red-brick neo-Georgian for Welwyn Garden City. It became the usual style for interwar council houses. Houses for sale were usually built in the vernacular style to distinguish them from council houses.