Dabbling in Design

At the Society's meeting on 17th October we welcomed Dr. Maxwell Johnson who, despite stressing that he was merely an amateur in building design matters, provided the audience with a stimulating tour around Britain looking at the built form and the range of building materials in use. Innovation, adaptation and ornamentation were key themes for the evening's slide show.

Where better to start than Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Many Society members will have paid it a visit. For Max, this was an early statement of innovation in building design. The main elevation, with those famous large windows, must have made quite a statement when the building was constructed towards the end of the 16th century. It certainly was a departure from conventional building design at that time.

Moving on to the slightly more idiosyncratic, we visited A La Ronde, that famous sixteen-sided house built by Jane Parmentor at Exmouth in the late 18th century. Constructed of local materials, particularly limestone, it makes quite an input. But perhaps some of the innovative ideas, such as diamond-shaped windows, haven't really caught on.

We continued our tour of Britain to visit Blackwell, a large house built to the principles enunciated by the Arts and Crafts Movement. Located at Bowness near Windermere, this was built for Sir Edward Holt, a Manchester brewer, in 1900. Of course at some stage the work of Sir Edward Lutyens was bound to appear and Max showed us some interesting slides of Marshcourt near Stockbridge in Hants. Built in 1907, this almost white building was constructed of the local chalk known as clunch. Its hardness allowed it, unusually, to be acceptable as a building material. That, combined with the sensitive use of flints, produced a most imaginative and memorable building.

Our journey continued to the University of East Anglia at Norwich where we looked at both the halls of residence and the striking new Sainsbury Centre Art Gallery. Max even dared to show us photographs of Birmingham New Street Station signal box. Built in the 1960s in concrete to what some may say is a brutalist style, Max reminded us that this now was a listed building. But perhaps less successful as a concrete building has been the Birmingham Reference Library. Max reminded us that this decaying building was now scheduled for replacement.

We were all pleasantly surprised when Max showed us photographs of the Museum at Barrow in Furness. Sunk into a redundant dry dock, which was partially watered, the building caught the audience's imagination. A visit to Barrow must now certainly be on the list. It appears to be one of our hidden gems as far as English museums are concerned.

Max spent part of his presentation sharing with us his love of art nouveau design. His enthusiasm for its natural form and wonderful sinuous lines, its representations of roots, leaves and tendrils in artistic form, was evident. He pointed out to us that the principle of art nouveau design is that art is indeed all around us and not just in paintings or sculpture but in buildings and other structures too. This predictably led us to a visit to Barcelona and in particular to examine the works of one of the pre-eminent architects of the art nouveau style - Gaudi. This was followed by a visit to Brussels where we looked at the work of Victor Horta.

Closer to home we studied the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, starting with an examination of his design for the Glasgow School of Art. Max pointed out that of course Mackintosh was not only a designer of buildings but an interior designer and a furniture designer. His concept of art was total - the building, its interior design and furniture all had to work in harmony. Few members of the audience realised that the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London was also a fine example of the work of Mackintosh.

Max concluded by looking at some of the buildings which were entered for the Stirling prize in 2000. These included the superbly designed Sainsbury Superstore at Greenwich, adjacent to the Dome. Here energy savings were high as a consequence of the use of natural lighting (no neon lights inside!), wind turbines and efficient use of insulation materials. We looked at the Jubilee Line underground station at Canary Wharf, the Baltic Flour Mills at Gateshead and the links to the new Millennium Bridge. Walsall Art Gallery and finally the Stirling prizewinner which, much to our surprise, was Peckham Library in South London. One suspects that the audience have mixed views about its success, but it did meet Max's criteria of meeting a challenge on a difficult site with an innovatory solution.

Max went out on a high note by taking us to Bilbao and the famous Guggenheim Art Gallery. Clad in titanium, the architect's intention was to celebrate Bilbao's maritime history. Is it a boat, is it a whale? The answer is in your mind.

The audience probably had different expectations of the night's presentation from its title but no-one left disappointed after what was generally agreed to be a thought provoking and stimulating exploration of our built environment.

Roger Hockney
October 2002