Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Weald and Downland Gridshell

 The Weald and Downland Gridshell (2002) is a building designed by Buro Happold and Edward Cullinan Architects for the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum: it was a runner-up for the Stirling Prize in 2002. The building is a structural wooden gridshell, constructed of oak sourced from Normandy. 
See this article for detailed information regarding how it was built:  Gridshell Construction

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is an open air museum at Singleton, Sussex, England. The museum covers 50 acres (20 ha), with nearly 50 historic buildings dating from the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries, along with gardens, farm animals, walks and a lake.  The impressive barn dates from the 1771.  It has a timber frame of oak and elm clad with weatherboards and a roof thatched with reed.

The buildings at the museum were all threatened with destruction. They were carefully dismantled, conserved and rebuilt to their original form at the museum. These buildings help the museum bring to life the homes, farmsteads and rural industries of the last seven hundred years. Many buildings situated there are over four hundred years old, and still stand strong.

I spent more than 3 hours walking around and speaking with the guides in each building.  Fascinating place.  I learned a lot about the construction methods, the materials, and the tools of the early tradesmen.  This building was a shop dating from the 15th century in a town called Horsham.
The watermill dates from the early seventeenth century, and was working until 1935.  It is in working order and flour from the mill is sold in the museum shop.  I spoke with the blacksmith about blacksmithing at length.  Smithing is an amazing craft.  There is a lot to know about the task of using fire to forge, cast and weld metal into useful and beautiful objects.  In 19th century Newick, Sussex, a plumber and a glazier both shared a small workshop that probably had more gadgets, gizmos and goos than you can imagine. 
The museum actually has lectures and courses on these traditional methods.  I was thoroughly impressed with the place, though I didn't have time to see it all.  I am inspired to learn more about the implementation of new techniques through the ages and how these innovations were absorbed by local tradesmen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Castle Drogo

Castle Drogo is a country house near Drewsteignton, Devon, England. It was built in the 1910s and 1920s for Julius Drewe (businessman and founder of the Home and Colonial Stores) to designs by architect Edwin Lutyens, and is a Grade I listed building.  Castle Drogo was the last castle to be built in England, and probably the last private house in the country to be built entirely of granite. 
The castle took many years to complete, with the First World War and the economic downturn causing many delays. Castle Drogo was finally completed in 1930, considerably reduced in scale from Lutyens's 1911 designs, and only a year before Julius died; he had, however, been able to live in the house since around 1925.

The stately home borrows styles of castle building from the medieval and Tudor periods, along with more minimalist contemporary approaches.  Note the stone mullion windows akin to Hardwick Hall and Montacute House.  A notable feature is the encasement of the service staircase, around which the main staircase climbs. Its defensive characteristics are essentially decorative. Additionally, the castle had electricity and lifts from the outset, with power being supplied by two turbines on the river below.

The gardens and view of Dartmoor from the castle were spectacular.  Dartmoor is a magical landscape, and one of my favorites of the UK.  This picture doesn't do it justice.
I stayed in the town next to the castle in the village inn and it was truly authentic Lord of the Rings stuff.  When I return to the UK, I would love to explore Dartmoor in more depth as there is a wealth of history here.  The adorable Dartmoor pony is also a famous breed of pony from this area.

Montacute House

Montacute House is a late Elizabethan country house situated in the South Somerset village of Montacute. This house is a textbook example of English architecture during a period that was moving from the medieval Gothic to the Renaissance Classical; this has resulted in Montacute being regarded as one of the finest houses to survive from the Elizabethan era.  Designed by an unknown architect, the three floored mansion, constructed of the local Ham Hill stone, was built circa 1598 by Sir Edward Phelips, Master of the Rolls.
Built in what came to be considered the English Renaissance style, the east front, the intended principal façade, is distinguished by its Dutch gables decorated with romping stone monkeys and other animals.

Montacute East Facade
The profusion of large, mullioned windows, an innovation of their day, give the appearance that the principal façade is built entirely of glass; a similar fenestration was employed at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. However, despite the Dutch gables, a feature of the English Renaissance acquired as the style spread from France across the Low Countries to England, and the Gothic elements, much of the architectural influence is directly Italian. The windows of the second floor Long Gallery are divided by niches containing statues of the nine worthies, a feature borrowed from the Palazzo degli Uffizi in Florence;
the bay windows have shallow segmented pediments – a very early and primitive occurrence of this motif in England – while beneath the bay windows are curious circular hollows, probably intended for the reception of terracotta medallions, again emulating the palazzi of Florence. At Montacute, the Renaissance style is not confined to ornament, the house also has perfect symmetry. Paired stair towers stand in the angles between the main body of the house and the wings that project forward, a sign of modern symmetry in the plan of the house as well as its elevation, and a symptom of the times, in that the hall no longer had a "high end" of greater state.  Montacute, like many Elizabethan mansions, is built in an 'E' shape, a much-used plan in this era, often said to be a tribute to Elizabeth I. On the ground floor was the great hall, kitchens and pantries, on the upper floors, retiring rooms for the family and honoured guests. Over the centuries, the layout and use of rooms changed: drawing and dining rooms evolved on the ground floor. For an overview of the interior, go here: Montacute House Interior
The landscaping features some unique elements, though dating from the 1840s, includng twisting chestnuts and a strangely trimmed hedge.     
I really think the stone mullions add character and makes the windows seem less obtrusive in the facade.  If the window is fully integrated into the masonry, you also don't run into the air and water infiltration and sealing problems of modern buildings.  There is a lot we can learn from the aesthetics of these old buildings I am certain.  There is nothing more pleasing to the eye than an English garden juxtaposed against a stone manor.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Upper Lawn Pavillion

Solar Pavilion, or Upper Lawn Pavillion , as it was originally called, was built in Wiltshire by the architectural partnership Alison and Peter Smithson as their own weekend retreat from 1959 to 1962.

English architects Alison Smithson (22 June 1928 – 16 August 1993) and Peter Smithson (18 September 1923 – 3 March 2003) together formed an architectural partnership, and are often associated with the New Brutalism
The Smithsons
The implementation and theories of Brutalist architecture are a fascinating subject.  Brutalism has been heavily criticized since the 1980s.  Much of the criticism comes not only from the designs of the buildings, but also from the fact that concrete façades do not age well in damp, cloudy maritime climates such as those of northwestern Europe. In these climates, the concrete becomes streaked with water stains and sometimes with moss and lichens, and rust leaches from the steel reinforcing bars. 

The Smithson's are considered the principal advocates in England for this now loathed building style.  In looking at this simple retreat, despite all of the architectural mumbo jumbo written in praise of it, I personally think that it is hideous.  What it represents to me is the gross implementation of an abstract architectural theory (that has no respect for tradition, history or nature) purely for the need to be different and avant-garde.  It doesn't jibe with the landscape or the wall on which it rests.  It is completely alien and makes no attempt whatsoever to integrate with the tried and true methods of building construction that the local people have embraced for generations.
While the application of Brutalism in certain urban scenarios may have had some merit at one point in time, it has absolutely no place in this landscape. How could anyone look at this building and say that it was right?  It is wrong, deliberately or not, and despite the intellectualization of its merits, I wouldn't buy it for a cent.  When I drove up to it, I thought that it was a prefabricated aluminum shed of some sort.  It just looks horrible. 

Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physican, and political commentator, has written for City Journal that brutalist structures represent an artifact of European philosophical totalitarianism, a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous". After feeling Park Hill in Sheffield, I would agree that there is definitely a monstrous element there.  Perhaps the Smithson's were aliens. 

Friday, November 26, 2010


Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about 3.2 kilometres (2.0 mi) west of Amesbury and 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones. It is at the centre of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.

In reading about Stonehenge, I have learned that despite hundreds of years of research of the site, there is more that is not known than has been proven to be fact.  The most troubling aspect is its incompleteness.  What happened to the other lintels?  If the lintels were originally all connected, why is it that there is no shelf room on some of the uprights, like the one in the picture above?  Why are the uprights different heights?  Why did the uprights need to be so large?  What was the spiritual significance of mass to these ancient people?  These are simple questions without answers.  Stonehenge is a puzzle that will probably never be solved and like much of ancient history, subject to latitude and interpretation.

It was bitterly cold when I visited the site, so I was able to get some clear shots without mobs of people in the way.  On a regular day, this place draws tourists like flies.  This site is certainly different from the other neolithic sites that I have seen in Ireland and Scotland.  The Ring of Brogdar and the Standing Stones of Stenness in Orkney are, in my opinion, much cooler than Stonehenge, and I am glad that I was able to experience the "power of the stones" in a much purer and less trampled environment.

Ring of Brodgar

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is an Anglican cathedral in Salisbury, England, considered one of the leading examples of Early English architecture. The main body was completed in only 38 years, from 1220 to 1258.

The cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom (123m/404 ft). 
The cathedral also has the largest cloister and the largest cathedral close in Britain (80 acres).  The Cathedral contains the world's oldest working clock (from AD 1386)
 and has one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (all four original copies are in England). Although commonly known as Salisbury Cathedral, the official name is the Cathedral of Saint Mary. In 2008, the cathedral celebrated the 750th anniversary of its consecration in 1258.

The carvings in the quire are wonderful.
More to follow.  Have to get going to Stonehenge, Montacute and Drogo today.  There is so much to relate in these articles, most of them only touch on the surface of what I saw.  I will add more when I return to America to make the blog more thorough.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Royal Crescent

The Royal Crescent is a residential road of 30 houses, laid out in a crescent, in the city of Bath, England. Designed by the architect John Wood the Younger and built between 1767 and 1774, it is among the greatest examples of Georgian architecture to be found in the United Kingdom and is a grade I listed building.

It was originally called just The Crescent and the adjective Royal was added at the end of the 18th century after Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany had lived at numbers 1 and 16.

Wood designed the great curved façade of what appears to be about 30 three storey houses with Ionic columns on a rusticated ground floor. The columns are 30 inches (76 cm) in diameter reaching 47 feet (14.3 m) and there are 114 in total, each with an entablature 5 feet (1.5 m) deep. The central house has two sets of coupled columns.
Each purchaser bought a certain length of the façade, and then employed their own architect to build a house to their own specifications behind it; hence what appears to be two houses is sometimes one. This system of town planning is betrayed at the rear of the crescent: while the front is completely uniform and symmetrical, the rear is a mixture of differing roof heights, juxtapositions and fenestration

The houses in the Crescent are a mixture of tenures — most are privately owned but a substantial minority of the property is owned by a housing association.

Number 1 Royal Crescent is a museum, maintained by the Bath Preservation Trust, which illustrates how wealthy owners of the period might have furnished such a house. It was purchased in 1967 by Major Bernard Cayzer and donated to the trust with money to restore and furnish it.

I toured Number 1 and thought that it was remarkable.  The art and furniture that is displayed within is all period, and quite interesting.  They had Hepplewhite chairs, a Chippendale picture frame, and a variety of portraiture, all of which must be worth a mint.  The tour guides were very informed and I enjoyed chatting with them, and asking questions.  I identified one portrait of Samuel Richardson as the author of the epistolary novel "Pamela".  When I read the book many years ago, I never knew what he looked like, but the picture fit the profile of a bourgeois 18th century novelist perfectly. 

I could imagine that he would be the type of man who would have taken up residence in a place of this sort, and I found it rather amusing.

Each one of these 30 residences has seen so many characters come and go, "if only the walls could talk".  From decadence to decay to contemporary "moderate respectability", these historic buildings have demonstrated a resilience that is amazing.   The character of this building is the sum total of hundreds of life experiences, love and grief, hope and despair, encapsulated in stone. 

The Circus is a nearby example of similar Georgian architecture designed by John Wood the Elder.

Nice place to live 250 years ago, and even today, very nice place to live.  For a mere 450,000 GBP, you could own a 2 bedroom flat here.  Small price to pay I think, (if you have that kind of money).
This is a random street photo of Bath's market area. 
If you look closely, you can see a supermodel in the center of the picture and her assistant two steps behind her with a fur cap on.  Until she walked past me, I didn't realize who I had just taken a photo of completely by chance.  There is all kinds of scenery here!

Roman Baths

The Roman Baths complex is a site of historical interest in the English city of Bath. The house is a well-preserved Roman site for public bathing.
The Roman Baths themselves are below the modern street level. There are four main features: the Sacred Spring (below), the Roman Temple, the Roman Bath House and the Museum holding finds from Roman Bath. The buildings above street level date from the 19th century.

The first shrine at the site of the hot springs was built by Celts and was dedicated to the goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified with Minerva.  The name Sulis continued to be used after the Roman invasion, leading to the town's Roman name of Aquae Sulis (literally, "the waters of Sulis"). The temple was constructed in 60-70 AD and the bathing complex was gradually built up over the next 300 years.   During the Roman occupation of Britain, and possibly on the instructions of Emperor Claudius, engineers drove oak piles to provide a stable foundation into the mud and surrounded the spring with an irregular stone chamber lined with lead. In the second century it was enclosed within a wooden barrel-vaulted building, and included the caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (warm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath).

The baths have been modified on several occasions, including the 12th century when John of Tours built a curative bath over the King's Spring reservoir and the 16th century when the city corporation built a new bath (Queen's Bath) to the south of the Spring.  The spring is now housed in eighteenth century buildings, designed by architects John Wood, the Elder and John Wood, the Younger, father and son. Visitors drank the waters in the Grand Pump Room, a neo-classical salon which remains in use, both for taking the waters and for social functions.
 Victorian expansion of the baths complex followed the neo-classical tradition established by the Woods.  The visitor entrance is via an 1897 concert hall by J M Brydon. It is an eastward continuation of the Grand Pump Room with a glass-domed centre and single-storey radiused corner. The Grand Pump Room was begun in 1789 by Thomas Baldwin. He resigned in 1791 and John Palmer continued the scheme until its completion in 1799.  The elevation on to Abbey Church Yard has a centre piece of four engaged Corinthian columns with entablatures and pediment.

The museum houses artefacts from the Roman period including objects which were thrown into the Sacred Spring, presumably as offerings to the goddess. These include more than 12,000 Roman currency coins which is the largest collective votive deposit known from Britain. A gilt bronze head of the goddess Sulis Minerva, which was discovered nearby in 1727, is displayed.

I drank the water in the pump room and felt the warmth from the bath, and honestly, it did make me feel good.  The water, particularly, is like a tonic, slightly salty, with an hit of sulfur. 

Bath is a really pleasant looking town due to the predominant use of  Bath Stone in the buildings.  Bath Stone is an Oolitic Limestone comprising granular fragments of calcium carbonate. Originally obtained from the Combe Down and Bathampton Down Mines under Combe Down, Somerset, England, its warm, honey colouring gives the World Heritage City of Bath, England its distinctive appearance.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pembroke Castle

Pembroke Castle (Welsh: Castell Penfro) is a medieval castle in Pembroke, West Wales. The first castle was established in 1093 during the Norman invasion of Wales. However its present appearance owes much to William Marshal, one of the most powerful men in 12th-Century Britain.

Pembroke's strategic importance soon increased, as it was from here that the Normans embarked upon their Irish campaigns. The castle is sited on a strategic rocky promontory by Pembroke River. The first fortification on the site was a Norman motte-and-bailey. It had earthen ramparts and a timber palisade.
In 1189, Pembroke Castle was acquired by William Marshal. The Earl Marshal then set about turning the earth and wood fort into an impressive stone castle. The inner ward, which was constructed first, contains the huge round keep with its domed roof. Its original first-floor entrance was through an external stairwell. Inside, a spiral stairwell connected its four storeys.

The original entrance was on the first floor, approached by an external stair, the present ground-floor entrance being a later insertion. The keep had four floors, connected by a spiral stair which also led to the battlements. The large square holes on the top of the outside were to hold a timber hoard, or fighting platform. When the castle was attacked, the hoard could be erected as an extra defence, outside the battlements but way above the heads of the attackers.

In the late 13th century, additional buildings were added to the inner ward including a new Great Hall. A 55-step spiral stairwell was also created that led down to a large limestone cave, known as Wogan Cavern, beneath the castle. The cave, which was created by natural water erosion, was fortified with a wall, barred gateway and arrowslits. It may have served as a boathouse or a sallyport to the river where cargo or people could have been transferred.

Although Pembroke Castle is a Norman-style enclosure castle with Great Keep, it can be more accurately described as a linear fortification because it was built on a rock promontory surrounded by water.
This meant that attacking forces could only assault a narrow front. Pembroke's thickest walls and towers are all concentrated on its landward side facing the town, the river creating a natural defense around the rest of its perimeter.
This castle is what I always envisioned a castle should be.  The layout is complex and there are multitudinous passages, stairways, towers and halls offering endless scenarios.  It literally took me 2 hours to walk around this castle, and I still didn't see it all.  The spiral staircases are treacherous and the towers are precipitous. 
There was even a real dungeon (with a stuffed prisoner..)!  This would be the most awesome place for kids to play, albeit a bit dangerous.  Even I felt like playing hide and seek or capture the flag here, and I am pushing 40 (going on 10).

Carew Castle

Carew Castle is a castle in the civil parish of Carew in the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire. The famous Carew family take their name from the place, and still own the castle, although it is leased to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, which administers the site.

The present castle, which replaced an earlier stone keep, is constructed almost entirely from the local Carboniferous limestone, except for some of the Tudor architectural features such as window frames, which are made from imported Cotswold stone. Although originally a Norman stronghold the castle maintains a mixture of architectural styles as modifications were made to the structure over successive centuries.

The use of the site for military purposes extends back at least 2000 years.

The castle stands on a limestone bluff overlooking the Carew inlet — a part of the tidal estuary that makes up Milford Haven. The site must have been recognised as strategically useful from the earliest times, and recent excavations in the outer ward have discovered multiple defensive walls of an Iron Age fort.

The Norman castle has its origins in a stone keep built by Gerald de Windsor around the year 1100. Gerald was made castellan of Pembroke Castle by Arnulf of Montgomery in the first Norman invasion of Pembrokeshire. He married Nest, princess of Deheubarth around 1095. Nest brought the manor of Carew as part of her dowry, and Gerald cleared the existing fort to build his own castle on Norman lines. The original outer walls were timber, and only the keep was of stone.
This still exists in the later structure as the "Old Tower" (on the right).

My favorite part of the subsequent history is this story:
In the 17th century the castle's lord, Sir Roland Rhys, is alleged to have kept a Macaque in the north-west tower. It is claimed that it had been captured, half-crazed, from a shipwreck and was subsequently chained up for the entertainment of the lord.
The story goes that Sir Rowland had one son who ran off with the daughter of a local merchant, not a union that Sir Rowland approved of.

On the fateful night there was a storm brewing. The wind screamed around the castle and the rain lashed at the windows. The monkey was restless, sensing Sir Rowland's evil mood. There was a knock at the door and the girl's father, a merchant by the name of Horowitz, demanded admittance, distressed and upset that his daughter had run away with Sir Rowland's son. Sir Rowland did not believe his story and after a fierce argument he released the monkey from its chains and ordered it to kill Horowitz.

The merchant fought off the monkey and, although badly injured, managed to drag himself from the room. He shouted for help from the servants who tended him for the night. Horowitz cursed Sir Rowland with an evil fate and, as he cursed, great piercing screams were heard from the tower room. The servants, who were terrified of their master, were unwilling to venture into the tower room to find out what had happened.

At first light the following morning they summoned up the courage to enter the silent room. There, lying in a pool of blood was the body of Sir Rowland, but of the monkey there was no sign.

Legend has it that the ghost of the monkey returns to the castle on dark, stormy nights where he has been seen and heard by passers-by.
This is one of many stories surrounding the inhabitants of this legendary castle.  For more history, see Carew Castle on a nice website about the castles of Wales.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Great Glasshouse

The Great Glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden of Wales reinvents the glasshouse or as it's more commonly known - the greenhouse, for the twenty-first century, offering a great model for sustainable development and protecting the environment.
Set in hills overlooking the Tywi Valley in Carmarthenshire, the building forms the centrepiece of the 230-hectare park of the former Middleton Hall.

The glasshouse was designed by the famous British architect Sir Norman Foster.

The largest single-span glasshouse in the world, it contains more than a thousand plant species - many endangered - and conserves specimens from Mediterranean climates around the globe.
The aluminium glazing system and its tubular-steel supporting structure are designed to minimise materials and maximise light transmission.

The toroidal roof measures 99 by 55 metres, and rests on twenty-four arches, which spring from a concrete ring beam and rise to 15 metres at the apex of the dome. Because the roof curves in two directions, only the central arches rise perpendicular to the base, the outer arches leaning inwards at progressively steep angles.

The building's concrete substructure is banked to the north to provide protection from cold northerly winds and is concealed by a covering of turf so that the three entrances on the northern side appear to be cut discreetly into the hillside. Within this base are a public concourse, a café, educational spaces and service installations.
To optimise energy usage, conditions inside and outside are monitored by a computer-controlled system. This adjusts the supply of heat and opens glazing panels in the roof to achieve desired levels of temperature, humidity and air movement.
Perfectly formed technology that enables the growth of life that is perfectly formed. 

Incidentally, I found a striking similarity between the forms of the passage tomb of Knowth and The Great Glasshouse.  Plus ce change (plus c'est la meme chose).