Monday, 26 July 2010

Reinstating vertical sliding shutters

Most traditional wooden shutters fold into housings at the sides of the window and open horizontally. Less common are sliding shutters, or sash shutters, which normally rise vertically from the sill, although sometimes they slide across from the side. The mahogany sliding shutters in the corridor window at 6 Fitzroy Square have long since gone, but the heavy mahogany sashes are still there (albeit without their pulleys). With advice and practical assistance from Charles Brooking, founder of the extraordinary Brooking Collection of salvaged historic fabric, we are reinstating the shutters. The picture shows Charles sizing up brass pulleys, recycled from lost buildings, for use in the restoration project. Here he is holding one that came from a demolished workhouse in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.


Thursday, 22 July 2010

Cars and railings don't mix

Iron railings had a torrid time in Britain in the twentieth century, being ripped out systematically during the War - ostensibly to be melted down for armaments, although in reality many were uselessly stockpiled. The recovery was long and hard, reinstatement being no sort of priority in the post-war austerity years; the crude wooden stakes and wire mesh that replaced them persisted in many places until very recently and still aren't altogether gone, a good example of how cheap stopgap solutions end up becoming more or less permanent. But from 1990 onwards numerous squares in London have had their railings put back, among them Fitzroy Square where the Georgian Group is based. All excellent stuff, but as the first line of defence railings remain vulnerable to all sorts of threats, including neglect (which brings on decay and eventual collapse) and accidental damage. Our pictures show railings within 50 yards of Fitzroy Square that have suffered grievous damage over past eighteen months, including two that were uprooted by joyriders who then absconded. No amount of protective legislation can guard against this sort of bizarre and random occurrence, but at least the legislation does ensure that the railings are put back where they were, although not necessarily as they were; vigilance is needed to make sure that cast iron railings aren't replaced by inferior substitutes made from laser-cut mild steel.        

Reintroducing timber sashes

The facade of 6 Fitzroy Square, our grade I listed Robert Adam townhouse, is being restored to its original Adam design. The most dramatic change will come with the removal of forty-year-old barred crittal windows (gaps between the frame and the brickwork were stuffed with newspaper dating from 1970) and their replacement with timber sashes. The new sash frame, made by joiners at Fullers, is shown here, complete with nineteenth century brass pulleys kindly donated by Charles Brooking of the Brooking Collection. Also visible, in the lower left photograph, is the niche cut in the Portland stone steps to accommodate the sill of the original sashes; the niche has been a useful marker, allowing the new sashes to be replaced in their historic position. 


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Fitzroy Square Restoration: laths arrive

Consistent with our general mission, we are using traditional construction methods in our basement improvement project. In its present configuration, our basement is in fact largely a product of the twentieth century, when it was rebuilt to accommodate bank strongrooms, with the Robert Adam building propped up above; so some of the ceilings are made of modern plasterboard, but others are lath and plaster, and where these need to be repaired we are using like-for-like materials and techniques.

Laths are narrow strips of wood nailed across ceiling joists (or wall studs) and then plastered, the laths forming a key for the plaster. In the Georgian period, horsehair was often added to the plaster to help it bind to the laths and although we haven't used horsehair on this occasion in the basement, we have done so recently in our ground floor rooms. Laths are rarely used at all nowadays, having generally been replaced by cheaper plasterboard or drywall, but they do offer greater flexibility and tolerance of stress.

Broken laths awaiting replacement (above).

Bundles of new laths  (left).  

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Summer Competition

Win a year's free membership of The Georgian Group for yourself or a guest! We're giving away five free memberships this summer and all you need to do for a chance of winning one is tell us where you think this photograph was taken - we're looking for the name of the house to which this estate belongs. Answers please by email to by 5pm on Friday 30 July 2010. Please give your name and postal address (and if you are already a member please also give the name and address of the person you would like to nominate for membership). All correct answers will be randomly drawn after closing time on that date.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Cap'n Bob and The Georgian Group

Apart from restoring eighteenth century features, the current basement improvement project at 6 Fitzroy Square, home of The Georgian Group, is revealing interesting clues about the building's more recent history. This fading sticker, attached to a cabinet left behind by the previous occupiers, NatWest Bank, bears the legend 'Pergamon', the publishing firm owned by Robert Maxwell. In the 1980s, Pergamon had offices at 2 Fitzroy Square and the (apocryphal?) story goes that Maxwell, who banked with NatWest, so valued the convenience of a branch almost next door that he threatened to close the account if NatWest closed the branch. The story is lent credence by the fact that NatWest did indeed move out as soon as decently possible after Maxwell died in 1991. By that time the country was in the grip of a recession, property prices were low and the Georgian Group had just benefited from the largest benefaction in its history, courtesy of the banker and connoisseur Sir Philip Shelbourne. This perfect storm of propitious circumstances allowed the Georgian Group to buy the freehold of 6 Fitzroy Square at what would now be considered a knockdown price. Unfortunately the cabinet has no hidden compartments and contains none of Mr Maxwell's missing millions. 


Friday, 2 July 2010

Disharmony in Cork

There's more than one way to graft a new building onto an old one. Give the task to a skilled practitioner in the mould of Carlo Scarpa and the result will be to enhance both. The method used here, by Wilson Architecture in Cork, is so outlandish as to be off the spectrum; effectively to build the building you were going to build anyway, and cut out a niche to accommodate the building you're obliged to keep. This is not so much a marriage as forced cohabitation. The effect is risible, made more so by the commentary in Architecture Today magazine which gamely tries to rationalise this dog's dinner.  'The building is wrapped by a glass envelope that adapts and responds to its varied context', it says. 'Curtain walling dissolves the building's mass through its reflective nature and is recessed at ground and first floor level on the west side, establishing a datum with the historic eaves'. Well, if you say so. But never was an historic building incorporated in such a degrading and perfunctory manner. One is half inclined to say that demolition would be better than this humiliation, but the old building has some purpose still, if only to show up the hubristic nonsense and design poverty of what surrounds it.

The Tower from Porlock

Coleridge's Man from Porlock, the unwanted intruder and interrupter of marvels, now has his architectural equivalent in the new Strata Tower, located innocuously (you would think) in South London but actually now visible in several important views of historic buildings. In fact it's so prominent an interloper that it's set fair to become one of the most photographed buildings in London, without ever deliberately being photographed at all. You can see it leering over Southwark Cathedral. It appears in the classic view of Lambeth Palace, otherwise essentially unchanged for centuries and before this a picture of contemplative calm. Not any more. And yes, there it is again, poking up alongside The Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey in the long view down the Serpentine. Did anyone consider the wider impact of this building? Were photomontages produced, as the old Royal Fine Art Commission would have insisted? Or was its successor as guardian of aesthetic amenity asleep on the job, or taken in perhaps by the greenwash of wind turbines on the roof (they're going to fill the three holes)? All in all it's an eloquent building. It says, very loud and very clear, that London's tall buildings policy has failed miserably and needs to be rethought. And it also reminds us that the Royal Fine Art Commission, which made it its business to examine the precise impact of proposed buildings on important views, has not been adequately replaced. The new Government could do much worse than to bring it back.