Monday, May 17, 2010

Are We Posh? No, We're Arts'n'Crafts

So, despite advancing years and increasing decrepitude I managed to make it to the summit of the Old Man of Coniston, as well as to two Arts and Crafts masterpieces; Baillie-Scott's Blackwell House and CFA Voysey's Broad Leys. They lie less than a mile apart, overlooking Lake Windermere, and were completed within two years of each other, Blackwell in 1900 and Broad Leys in 1898.

Both Blackwell and Broad Leys embody the many contradictions of Arts and Crafts architecture. They are self-consciously idyllic retreats from the modern world commissioned by wealthy industrialists. The stable image of traditional English domestic architecture they evoke is also undermined by a desire to break out of its limitations and expand its language. They are a mixture of pragmatism, fantasy, artistic refinement, ad-hocism, honest construction, theatrical illusion, traditional planning and spatial complexity.

They are also very different from each other. If they anticipate modernism then it is of two very different kinds. Blackwell appears immediately more traditional, at least from the outside. Its picturesque massing is studiedly casual, as if grown over time or casually thrown together. But the size of the house, the sharpness of its detailing and its precise siting hint at something else.

The interior has an almost hallucinatory intensity. It is a dream-like assemblage of disassociated fragments loosely held together in a three dimensional collage. It is hugely indulgent and very beautiful, an Edwardian concoction that combines mock-tudor with gothic gloom, art nouveu delicacy and a spatiality that is new to all three.

At the centre of the house is a huge hall employing a highly aestheticised language of half-timbering. This space splits into a number of sub-rooms, dissolving at the edges into other spaces. Seats are carved out into the wall, a windowed corridor passes by at high level and a musicians gallery peers into the space with an extraordinary fire place/alcove/window seat squeezed below. It is an amazing composition, a compression of five or six different spaces which you seem to inhabit simultaneously. The eye is drawn up stairs and through various internal windows where glimpses can be caught of the legs of other visitors on the stairs or disembodied heads in the gallery.

The minstrel's gallery is accessed via a tiny, winding staircase lined in stone and with a miniature gothic vaulted ceiling. A small window allows you to look out into the garden or let your hair down to assist passing royalty in climbing up.

Once inside you can look down into the hall through decorative screens that direct the eye downwards. A busk of John Ruskin looks on approvingly at the artful neo-gothic jumble around. In the centre of the gallery is a watercolour painting by Bailie Scott of an almost identical space in his House for an Art Lover. The picture seems to accentuate the sense of ever diminishing scales. The house within a house contains a miniature representation of itself.

Below the gallery is the fireplace which leads in turn to a small window seat. The space is cramped and dark but with a brilliant light emanating from the windows. The contrasting blue/grey and pale grey stone colours around the fire place are amazingly vivid, a piece of pop - or at least mock - heraldry.

Inglenooks abound inside the house. These small rooms within rooms push occupants to the edge of the space as if they are inhabiting the thickness of the walls. The trick is used obsessively, creating intimate spaces that seem to invite you to climb in. There is an almost primal sense of space created by the compression of these nooks, a sense of the body physically enclosed by walls.

Almost all the inglenooks are also window seats - even when they occur around fire places - and project out into the external landscape. This gives them an ambiguous role. They are a place to hide away but they also lie at the point where the boundaries of the house dissolve.

These liminal spaces prefigure Adolf Loos who adopted the inglenook and the window seat as key spatial elements in his densely packed interiors. In Beatriz Colomina's reading of Loos, these little rooms have sexual and psychological overtones as spaces of surveillance within the domestic landscape. They lie at the interstices of rooms, often providing views from one to the other. Colomina likes them to theatre boxes from which the occupant - usually gendered as female - can survey the drama of family life but silhouetted against the light.

Seeing people sitting within them suggests that they're both part of the house and the exterior at the same time. The window seat in the Blackwell House drawing room is the most extreme example, thrust out beyond the wall so that it appears to hover over the landscape. It is an illusion, of course, a kind of Edwardian viewing apparatus that responds to the advent of photography and tourism. The room suggests an experience of simultaneity, inviting the occupant to occupy more than one space at the same time.

The drawing room itself is a remarkable room. It seems to glow at the end of an extremely dark and extremely long timber lined hallway. Stepping into the room there is a dazzling and quite disorientating luminosity.

Everything in the room is white, except for the aquamarine tiles around the fireplace and the chequerboard floor pattern. Stick thin columns with flower petal capitals provide almost comical support to shelves and ceiling panels. Everything is delicately refined to the point of absurdity, as if it might all blow away at any moment.

From the outside, the quality of these spaces as lenses for viewing for the landscape is masked by their casual displacement in the facade. Subtleties, such as the frameless glass set into the stone window surrounds, hint at the more radical qualities inside. There is a difference in the way that the house orchestrates views of the external and internal landscape. A subtle balancing act between physical and visual experience is played out so that neither dominates over the other. The eye is constantly drawn to spaces that you will later inhabit.

Broad Leys' radicalism is more evident on the exterior. My friend Jon described this view as almost "Mendlesohn-esque". The three enormous bay windows of Voysey's house seem to break out of the four-square structure of the rest as if from another kind of architecture altogether.

Voysey's designed another house nearby called Moorcrag which sits perpendicular to the lake, defiantly avoiding the view. At Broad Leys he didn't bother fighting the obvious and concentrated instead on giving the house an unequivocal sense of grandeur. For such a disciplined, almost pious, architect as Voysey, Broad Leys is a rare moment of showing off.

Nevertheless, Broad Leys is a far more rational and tightly planned piece of work than the Blackwell House. It forms an L-Shape with a three storey wing containing servant rooms on the long side and the bedrooms and reception spaces in the short section of the house looking out over the lake.

Despite this, the house is, externally, typical Voysey with rough cast walls, corner buttresses and Buckingham Green painted timber work. Voysey's language, like his clothes, was almost completely unchanging throughout his career. Flirtations with the gothic and with Wrenaissance classicism came and went but his basic language was remarkably consistent.

It is pushed to its absolute limits though at Broad Leys where the hipped roofs become an elaborate and complex series of cascading planes. Ribbon windows start to erode the walls and suggest a completely different spatiality within the house.

Looking at photos of the house in the past I'd wondered what the engraved plaques that adorn the upper gallery were. It turns out that Broad Leys is owned by the Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club* and is filled with penants, trophies and boating memorabilia. It also contains a number of photographs and models of Donald Campbell's boat Bluebird which crashed on nearby Lake Coniston. Having previously written a somewhat tortuous post attempting to link Campbell with John Ruskin (also a resident of Coniston) and the picturesque, this coincidence delighted me no end.

Some of these mementos are very intriguing, including one of Campbell's CN7 land speed record car which appears to be melting. The model is cast in aluminium and is caught between abstraction and literalness as if a more regular model had started to dissolve into something else, or been involved in a hideous accident....

The hall is a grand but actually comparatively compact space. Its grandeur lies in the phenomenal craftsmanship of the detailing and the view from the entirely glazed bay window. In contrast to the modernity of the exterior, the leaded lights of the glazing gives the interior a vaguely Elizabethan look. The Inglenook window seat plays an important role in Voysey's architecture too although typically it is less elaborate and whimsical than in Bailie Scott's

Again, the fire place forms a small room in itself but here the inglenook seems more practical than peculiar although potentially like sitting in a very large oven.

Like Blackwell, a long galleried hall looks down into the main living room. Windows open out onto the double height space making it appear like a house within a house, or an inhabited bridge. It is probably the most spatially flamboyant gesture of any Voysey design and one of his most ambiguous. Like Blackwell's main hall it draws attention to the physical occupation of the house as a complex domestic choreography.

Parts of it are just simply beautiful though, exquisitely made and perfectly proportioned, like the staircase that winds up from the living space to the gallery. It also has an attractively garish carpet, no doubt to Voysey's design. It's hard to avoid getting all National Trust about this house but it manages to transcend its bourgeois status to become intensely moving as a piece of art.

The stair wraps around three sides of a glazed box. A photograph taken looking towards the Voysey designed lodge sits on a deep shelf in front of the same view.

A port hole window - possibly the first rhetorical use of this in modern architecture - frames a view of the picturesque playground of Lake Windermere. There are other nautical references, including the boat-like detailing of the overhanging eaves and, plausibly, the billowing nature of the bay windows themselves. This kind of thing is not to be encouraged today though.

The artful 'naturalness' of both Voysey and Bailie Scott is in some ways the perfect accompaniment to the contrived wildness of the lakes. Both houses revel in rather than hide their artifice, which is part of their modernity. They are, despite the inevitable tea and crumpets that accompanies visits to Blackwell**, unashamed products of a progressive bourgoise culture. They are also machines for contemplating the landscape and for acting out an idealised form of domestic life.

Broad Leys is both rational and romantic. In his commitment to a universal architecture and in his obsessive devotion to a few standard materials and details, Voysey was the prototypical modern architect. His work is always the same, even when as flamboyantly executed as Broad Leys. Like the modern architects who came after him, he refined his object types until they became, parodoxically, elements of a highly developed personal style.

Bailie Scott clearly wasn't rational in the slightest and his work has, as a consequence, been less influential. While Voysey's work influenced modernism and helped to create the quintissential suburban style, Bailie Scott seems to belong to a much stranger, more marginal traditional. The nonsense verse of Edward Lear and the elliptical language paradoxes of Alice In Wonderland come to mind as does, at some stretch, the psychedelic Edwardania of bits of Seargent Pepper.

Perhaps I should end there, before the comparisons get more tortuous or absurd. Both houses though are up there in my all time favourites. Go visit.

* This is almost as appropriate, in its own way, as Adolf Loos' Villa Muller being owned (if that's the right word, property being theft an' all) by the Marxist Leninist Society of Prague.

** There's no tea and crumpets at Broad Leys, although you can actually stay there.