Thursday, April 25, 2013

Houses for artists

So we finally set out for west London and a short tour of the buildings of Charles Voysey. Voysey is most famous of course for his long, low houses in the country built for the newly wealthy Victorian and Edwardian bourgpoise. Houses such as Broadleys on Lake Windermere and The Homestead in Frinton-On-Sea, which I've written about before.

The personal style of Voysey's houses - white rough render, slate roofs and green painted woodwork - became ubiquitous and defined to an extent the popular ideal of housing in the early decades of the twentieth century. The buildings we were off to see though are unusual in Voysey's oeuvre. Only one - 14 South Parade in Bedford Park - is a conventional house and even then it is small, urban and compositionally at odds with most of his buildings. The other two - a factory for Sandersons and a purpose-built artists studio - also represented unusual commissions for an architect who became somewhat unfairly typecast.

We started in Baron's Court, emerging out through its magnificent district line station finished in irridescent green glazed tiles. The stunning quality of this building with its exquisite little pedimented ticket booths stands as a rebuke to contemporary public realm infrastructure. The latter still managed to make its presence felt though through the introduction of a credit card reader parked unceremoniously in the window.

Once out we nipped around the corner to see these rather lovely Edwardian artist's houses with their vast north facing studio windows. Despite some extravagant art nouveau touches, they are in bad shape and clearly a little unloved. Not surprising really because they face directly onto the six-lane Talgarth Road choc-full of traffic crawling into London from the west. The built-in benches in the porchways where models would once wait for the besmocked painters of genteel nudes now look particularly uninviting. To be fair it was snowing on the day we visited but the belching fumes of the traffic didn't help.

This mannerist number caught our eye too with a chimney seemingly growing out of an elaborate scrolled gable end as if one had been violently compacted into the other. Having attempted the odd elaborate gable in my time, the structural stability of this one worried me the longer I looked at it.

Just around the corner and on the other side of the railway tracks is Voysey's little  St. Dunstan Road studo. The back of it can be seen from the local park where the vast north facing windows are clearly articulated, as is the sharp programmatic dividing line between studio and residence. The latter is tiny, squeezed into the front few metres of the building, the austerity of which must have appealed to Voysey's infamously puritan nature; barely room to tap out your clay pipe.....

The studio is oddly wedged into its corner site forming a diagonal at 45 degrees to the neighbouring houses on either side. The relationship between the two is gently mediated though by a subtly curving and beautifully detailed low wall with Voysey's delicate ironwork fencing following it around. It also only just about fits into its site, leaving what must be some strange wedges of space around the edge...clearly the artist was no gardener. 

It is now in the hands of a Hungarian Church group who have constructed some peculiarly garish timber gateways at either end of the front facade. My lack of enthusiasm for these DIY additions brought amused accusations of ideological inconsistency from my companions.

Voysey - like Edwin Lutyens - was often accused of having a rather childish sense of humour when it came to architecture and the timber brackets holding up the front porch are typical of one of his jokes. The profile is presumably that of his client, a trick he repeated with slightly absurd regularity.

After this we set off to Chiswick and the second bit of Voysey on our itinary, the ex-Sanderson wallpaper factory where we were joined by our Acton native guide Sam McElhinney. En-route we passed through two Charles Holden designed underground stations, Acton Town and Chiswick Park, the former mainly because we got lost.

Both of these had an admirable toughness to them, Acton Town being almost brutalist in its straightforward use of materials. It also contained vast amounts of space, all elaborately orchestrated for armies of suburban commuters. None were in evidence on the freezing saturday morning we passed through though, leaving us plenty of room to admire the quarry tile clad walls and austere decoration.

Voysey built relatively little except for houses so the Sanderson factory is a very different kind of beast than his usual fare. Nevertheless it has his refined sense of proportion and delicacy of line. Its white glazed brick walls end in chimney-like finials linked by an elegantly loping parapet line which gives the building the quality of a giant version of his furniture pieces.

The leaded light windows have been replaced and the high level bridge connecting it to the existing Sanderson factory has gone (if it was ever built), but Voysey's design is very fine indeed, an object lesson in how to make an urbane and dignified factory on a tight urban site. It's solid rather than stolid and shows that Voysey could handle both urban situations and vertical compositions.

At this point there was a departure for food, beer and warmth, followed by a quick scoot around a randomly located timber works. I always enjoy these, especially because the buildings tend to be made by the products on sale making for delightfully ad-hoc timber-fests. This one came by way of appointment to the Queen who obviously gets her decking here, some of which had been used to make an elaborate flight of external steps.

And then on we traipsed on towards Bedford Park, that genteel artists colony largely designed by Norman Shaw in the 1870's. Shaw developed a number of house types which were bastardised in various ways to create diversity from street to street by Jonathan Carr, Bedford Park's opportunist developer. This mucking around with an already ecelctic mix of architectural provenance, leads to all manor of strangeness and some fairly nutty compositions all round.

Fruitiest of all is probably Shaw's own Tabbards Inn, a huge pub and theatre beside Chiswick Park station. It has a hundred and two things going on, many of them very nice although not possibly together. I'm not one to judge on excess or questionable taste, but Shaw's work lacks the geometry of Lutyens or the complete conviction of Voysey. Instead it offers a heady melange of mannerisms, overscaled oriel windows, riotous gables, chimneys ago-go and every conceivable material. Nairn described him as a bit heartless, which seems harsh. The addition of a 1960's covered entry stair seems almost of a piece with what else of going on and that in itself is an achievement of sorts.

The weather was unrelentingly grim by this point and Bedford Park is rich and interesting enough to warrant another visit and another blog post so I will concentrate here on Voysey's single, remarkable contribution. This sits on South Parade overlooking a large green space and the district line trains that hurtle past. It is yet another artists studio, expressed this time as an elegantly slim little tower with a pyramidal roof. The projecting eaves are supported by the daintiest steel brackets possible which break delightfully to let the chimney pass through.

Voysey himself added an extension at the side which slightly reduces the building's compositional purity. As remarked by Nairn in his London architecture guide, south parade is Voysey's most art nouveu and urban design, a world away in many senses from his ground hugging houses in more suburban and rural locations. Instead, it sits perky and upright, very dainty and, yes, vaguely reminiscent of Vienna or Paris.

At the back a north light wraps over to follow the pitch of the roof, again breaking through the eaves line and showing Voysey's careful attention to functional matters.

Voyey's reputation today is an odd one. On the one hand, he is celebrated as a kind of proto-modernist, a precursor to the more progressive and puritanical white-walled international style to come. On the other he influenced countless suburban houses, pantiled and rough rendered pseudo-cottages the country over. Although he had no time for modernism, his work can still partly be seen in its light, especially a building like South Parade. The care and attention to detail of the most humdrum domestic elements links him in some way to the modernist experiments in living, the interest in ergonomics and both household efficiency and comfort. He was in some ways, a strict functionalist. albeit a romantic one.

Like Lutyens, he attempted to combine the ramshackle vernacular house with more sophisticated aspects of geometry and composition. With Voysey, these formal concerns are incredibly subtle and never dominate the gentleness of the whole.  His houses manage instead to be highly refined and carefully composed and seemingly loose and casual at the same time. This is an almost impossible trick to pull off in architecture and maybe Voysey's brilliance was to hit on a certain formula that allowed him to do it time and again. The slightly austere but comforting avuncularity of the materials allowed him to play very precise games with proportion, scale and texture whilst rarely straying from middlebrow acceptability.

Only once or twice, as at Broadleys and Bedford Park, did he do anything that could be seen as radical but in housing that might also be a blessing. Instead, he developed an entire idiom of housing, an image of home that is still incredibly popular today.

At this point my hands were so cold I dropped my iphone on the pavement with a resounding splat resulting in some smashed glass and an expensive bill. So, we headed for Turnham Green station and (various) homes, artistic or otherwise.

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