I have a window fetish. There, I’ve said it. Mullions or muntins* of different widths make my hair stand on end; clean lines bestow calm and order to even the most carelessly designed building, and can be a joy to behold.
Another missed window of opportunity, my comment on windows made Letter of the Week in the Architects Journal back in 2005, provoking further comment. It was encouraging to read of Giovanna Forte’s interest in the detailed aesthetic of window design. If only more “lay” observers were so committed …” from a Director of Avanti Architects made me very happy. The upshot of the professionals’ correspondence was that window manufacturers are fundamentally lazy. Now we know who to blame. If you are interested enough, I can talk you through buildings in London that boast beautiful windows, but perhaps not now.
The urban landscape can provide pleasure that will soar or crash during a ride through London streets. When observing buildings old and new from my trusty moped, the heart will leap at architectural joy, sink at the sight of lazy building design and twist with irritation when faced with something that should never have passed planning.
There is something triumphant about a building façade that is proud to address the world around it. Brick has made a huge comeback in recent years, although the craftsman bricklayer is unlikely to enthuse over the faced panels often used to create the illusion of a traditional brick wall. Some architects reference the building’s historic context by specifying a material or finish that speaks of its past; a favourite of mine is the Turnmill Building, faced with bespoke bricks designed as an homage to the nature and form of Clerkenwell’s warehouses.
Far less edifying is the glazed façade, a ubiquitous trick exemplified neatly by the Lexicon Building on City Road. Here, SOM with Squire and Partners have designed a handsome building, each apartment sealed with floor to ceiling glass. Presumably the developer was happy to avoid the expense of window openings or balconies; now fully occupied, all these high windows feature drawn, full height blinds protecting the occupant from the magnified morning sun beating straight into their home – and the panoramic city views for which they have paid a premium. At launch in 2015 a two-bed apartment here cost a cool £1.4m – a substantial sum for hot, blind home.
Balconies once offered beauty for those both inside and outside a building, their design perhaps giving expression to a plainer façade; from delightfully carved stone or wrought iron coaxed and curled into wonderful designs, even the most modest but carefully crafted balustrade had the capacity to lift the spirits for passers-by. Apartment blocks have become ubiquitous in their design, often ignoring the context or story of their environment. This repetitive architecture is bereft of not just careful thought, but the craft that could transform its presence in the street.
Grey, steel vertical bars proliferate the balconies of new-build apartment buildings; worse still is the use of solid glass, denying even a small breeze to flow through the enclosed space and defying the opportunity for occupants to celebrate the open air.
Value design is embraced by those responsible for delivering major projects, forgoing opportunity for contemporary art and craft to flourish within our city scapes. Just a little more investment into the commissioning of artists could deliver wrought iron railings cast into a design that becomes a developer’s hallmark. Interestingly perforated metal might create shapes that throw fascinating strands of light into the interior they embrace; a façade of balconies could play host to stencilled words that combine to reveal a poem when viewed from the street. In this simple way, the originator’s identity becomes implicit to the building, whilst beauty is created for all to enjoy.
Imagination, art and sculpture has a part to play in the built environment; older buildings feature embellishments that speak of the building’s intent, or they may just bring a playful lift to an otherwise perfunctory function. Riding through London I see gargoyles placed below gutters, collecting rainwater then released from open mouths; the opportunity is missed most especially in the design of municipal buildings, when a council might express the area’s backstory or their hopes and dreams for the future.
Haggerston Baths and Washhouse was built with the best materials that celebrated the area’s brick and tile industry. Intended to engender pride amongst the residents of one of the poorest boroughs in London, this red brick building provided beautifully designed public amenities within, and a compelling exterior enhanced with colonnaded balcony, topped by a cupola with a gilded ship weathervane. Author and local resident Ian Sinclair reports that ships on pub signs and weathervanes confirmed London’s self-confidence as a world port.
Which brings me neatly to finials, embellishments implicit to the Regency overtones of my home town, Brighton. Here, it is as if in commissioning his Pavilion the Prince Regent gave permission for buildings to enjoy themselves, for the architecture that emerged from this period is nothing if not elegantly decorative. Brighton and Hove rooftops are alive with animals, dragons, gargoyles, angels and more simple but ebullient ornamentation. The exuberance of its architecture has surely played a part in the town’s cheeky reputation.
All over the world, craft, art, sculpture, turrets, domes, finials and flourishes celebrate the buildings we come to love and remember. Legacy architecture that speaks not only of the history of surrounding streets but respects and uplifts its residents and workers.
Glass and steel serve a purpose and I’m all for modernism, but it seems that imaginative, humane and creative building design has been “valued” out of contemporary architecture. In these times of uncertainty, of dissatisfaction with the world around us, perhaps developers might think about how to create more spirited context and legacy that can make a real difference.
- Mullion: a heavy vertical or horizontal member between adjoining window units
- Muntin: narrow strips of wood that divide the individual panes of glass in a traditional sash
© Giovanna Forte 2019