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James Wyatt – Architect to George III

book review for Building Design

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 16.04.29James Wyatt: Architect to George III

By John Martin Robinson
Yale University Press
400pp; £48



A detailed and fascinating narrative of Wyatt’s extraordinary life

Two hundred years have elapsed since the death of James Wyatt. This is an appropriate time for a reassessment, which John Martin Robinson has undertaken in this detailed and fascinating narrative of Wyatt’s extraordinary life.

Wyatt led a charmed life. From relatively humble beginnings in Staffordshire, he made his way aided by family and local nobility through two years in Venice and four years in Rome: studying, drawing and observing. Contacts and powerful supporters gained in Rome led to a commission to design the Pantheon in Oxford Street, a speculative entertainment building that was to make his reputation. He barely looked back for the next 30 years.

Robinson enthuses over Wyatt’s talents and his creative development in thematic chapters covering his working methods, developing neoclassical and gothic styles of architecture; designing and furnishing country houses; collaborations with industrial giants Matthew Boulton and Wedgwood and furniture for Gillow and Hepplewhite. The result was an architectural practice and appointments that, by the late 18th century, were unchallenged in England, Wales and Ireland.

Works “of improvement” to a number of cathedrals led to Wyatt being described as “The Destroyer” for his insensitivity to the historic aspects of existing buildings. Almost nothing remains of his changes. His best “public” work at Oxford University (the Radcliffe Observatory and Oriel College Library) remain. But, for such an extensive public output, which included Woolwich Arsenal and Chatham, there is little that is unaltered if not demolished.

By the end of the 18th century Wyatt had succeeded Sir William Chambers as architect to George III. But his reputation and output has suffered since. Drawings have been lost and his chaotic working methods have taken their toll. The Pantheon was burnt down in 1792.

Wyatt was essentially an eclectic aesthete, with excellent taste, who, after the six years’ study in Italy, turned his hand to different styles with facility and sensitivity. The illustrations and detailed descriptions by Robinson are an education.

His life ended in a single tragic accident but decline was well on the way. While he was exceptionally well served by craftsmen, builders and clerks of works, he had nobody honestly handling the daily grind of practice management, keeping records and indeed claiming fees. Clients lost patience in spite of the assured way he dealt with their demands. He died in a coach accident, bankrupt.

The debate over the role of “traditional” architecture and copying is as old as the hills and Wyatt’s contribution, as a supreme interpreter of many styles, remains a rich source of reference and a great story.


Walking to work….

On Sunday, I went for a long walk. It was a lovely warm day and I wanted to look at a couple of sites on the edge of the City in advance of a design review.

I also wanted to look at what was happening in Victoria Street where I spent about 8 years working at City Hall, including the redesign of the Cathedral Piazza, a favourite project as the City Council client working with Luke Engleback.

Cathedral Piazza, an oasis.

Cathedral Piazza, an oasis.

I wanted to have another look at the Tate Britain and the Caruso St John work there. I wanted to take the river boat to Tate Modern. When I got there I set out on my meandering walk to the 2 sites.

You can see what is happening to the City from the air, from models at the Building Centre, from websites and blogs, from the architectural and urban design press, from riverside walks and the river bus, but you have to experience it at ground level to appreciate the transformation that this City is going through.

On that quiet Sunday the city was generally pretty empty. The parks and gardens around St Paul’s generally packed. The South Bank thronged with people including some paddling in the Thames.

The south bank beach

The south bank beach

Traffic was virtually non existent, yet no roads were closed. As soon as I reached Liverpool Street station all that changed. It was packed, the roads were busy, the pollution noticeable, the hustle and bustle of street markets and the pull of a major transport interchange. Away from the main streets all was much quieter, no crowds of office workers and so the spaces were revealed for their positive and negative qualities.

The sites were close by, very much as I expected, largely derelict, unloved and ripe for development of some kind. Little if anything of quality. The replacements will be transformational. They could potentially undo much of the solid incremental work of repair and conservation that the area is undergoing. They will have an immediate impact on the surrounding streets and the value of what remains there.

Elevated view Arnold Circus

Elevated view Arnold Circus

So I thought I should remind myself of local examples of places created from scratch not just through the historic process of renewal and rebirth. I went to Arnold Circus, the Boundary estate.

It is just inconceivable that this form of development could be repeated today. Take a recent example,  Mount Pleasant.  Whether the proposed and approved design is good or poor is only a small part of the problem. The local community felt pressed by the lack of local involvement and the Mayor’s overruling local feelings to commission an alternative design.  Maybe it’s not much better, but that is not the issue.  What is clear is that the privatised Royal Mail in conjunction with the Mayor have little concern for the views of local people and their elected representatives for the place being created. A similar tale is being told across the Capital, although much is disputed by the local authorities involved.

In the City fringes where new and increasingly high value residential, mixed use and hotel developments abound, a move away from a mono-cultural office environment is welcome. But, are the places created, enhancements to the bustle and complexity of these, thriving, neighbourhoods?

Thriving and active

Thriving and active


Design Panels

Andrea Klettner “Squaring the Circle” in BD 5 July 2013 addresses housebuilding stimulation, planning, garden cities and design review in a single page, including Nick Boles’s “five favourite schemes”. Well done Andrea, no mean achievement. Even Nick Boles the Planning Minister says he does not know what makes a good system or a bad one when it comes to design review.

Robin Nicholson who does know about such matters, gets in touch with Boles to tell him about the Cambridge Quality Panel (Disclosure – as a panel member I have experienced its excellent work under Robin and John Worthington’s chairmanship). Nick Boles promptly goes to Cambridge, looks at some of the emerging developments on greenfield sites around Cambridge. In the Cambridge bubble, far sighted Councillors and officers have been and continue to release land for development whilst insisting on the highest standards of design to accommodate the City’s housing needs.

What makes the Quality Panel work so well? It has a number of consistent threads to its work. It was set up by Cambridge Horizons with a relatively small number of panel members. Panellists regularly get the opportunity to work together on reviews. There is an explicit agenda around the four themes of Community, Connectivity, Character and Climate, based on a report for Cambridge Horizons written by Nick Falk of Urbed. A key recommendation was that the panel review emerging major urban extensions. Initially this was taken on board by other Councils nearby. In the light of NPPF recommendations it is hoped that this will be restored after a lapse. The proposition was taken up by Peter Studdert and fellow planning and design colleagues. There is an understanding, largely shared by local authorities and housebuilders that the panel should be consulted as early as reasonable and that the consultation is continued through the design process, leading up to applications and  reserved matters.

12 panel members including the two chairs have a range of skills covers urban design, planning, transport, architecture, landscape design, sustainability, sociology and housing. The panel members include local and national representatives. It is well served by Council officers from the County and City Councils. Briefing and site visits are included. Revisits to review completed schemes are planned.

Design review is spread across the Country and its value is increasingly recognised. If the planning regime, developers and house builders can be persuaded that it is a facilitating not obstructing mechanism then standards can only improve.

If COR-TEN is the answer What is the Question?

Fashion in architecture is more than skin deep. However sometimes the skin dominates the fashion. COR-TEN or weathered steel is not a new material, but compared to the everyday choice of building materials, it has a relatively short and some might say patchy history. It also has that elusive quality of authenticity and honesty. Many though not all ‘modern’ architects like to work with materials that are unencumbered by other messages references to historic styles .

Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the SOM / YRM Grade II* factory of WD and HO Wills Factory outside Bristol is one famous example of a COR-TEN structure being brought back to life with a completely different function.  John Winter’s house in Highgate is perhaps the archetypal British modernist architects house. But these are very specific, fine examples of a rigorous structural aesthetic approach with the material expressed for what it was – a structure.

Other purely sculptural and structural examples, Richard Serra’s Fulcrum in Broadgate, the Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Marks Barfield’s Kew Tree Walk are now added to by advertising displays at the Chiswick roundabout with COR-TEN structure.

















Passing a quiet suburban street in Kew recently I was drawn to the remains of a modest brick facade undergoing reconstruction. I say reconstruction as it seemed that the planning authority was faced with a distinctive approach to the provision of a new home but with the remnants of an existing building, within a conservation area and with neighbours whose initial reaction was probably negative. The Richmond planning website revealed that it was designed by Piercy Conner receiving permission in 2011. When finished it will probably grace the pages of architectural and design magazines. But will it last and how will it weather? COR-TEN is a complex material and has many

Last week the Waddington Studios by Featherstone Young were illustrated in the AJ.

COR-TEN was the preferred material of enclosure to the public face of the building. This time it was not compromised by attempts to keep some reference to what was there before and to that extent it makes a more positive statement. It is also a far more complex arrangement of spaces and functions and the COR-TEN was only a part of the stylistic references and messages. (MAXXI, green roofs, Waddington playing card designs)

COR-TEN can be used in its pure structural and sculptural form without references or historical detail. It can as in the examples of Piercey Conner’s house and the Featherstone Young building be embellished and perforated to create patterns. But there is more to the material than honesty and truthfulness, it has distinctive weathering qualities and design detail requirements. This demands complex design detailing and craftsmanship.

The question lingers, if COR-TEN is the answer what was the question?

Swansea City of Culture

The shortlisting of Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and parts of Carmarthenshire as a “City” has demonstrated that Cities are more than single entities. They depend on a physical hinterland and in Swansea’s case a significant physical and cultural background. Even without that background the twitter question posed by me last week on my way there….

“Off to city with 2 universities premiership football club in Europe plus top notch rugby club beach and marina where?”

Got the almost immediate response

“Swansea. One of my all time great UK cities”

If 140 characters allowed I could have gone on to list plenty more but that was apparently unnecessary.

Now the challenge of “winning” this title is up to the combined efforts of a group of authorities whose future lies in collaboration as well as friendly competition. They need to think hard about what they want their city to be in 15-20 years time as well as in 2017. This will include thinking about the role of the motor vehicle, encouraging urban movement and how city living, shopping and leisure can become a reality for a significant population.

This is the same challenge that many places face. The future lies in moving to the head of the pack, working collaboratively for the long term, political continuity and above all being bold.

The Edge Debate 58

The question for debate was

“Is creating an institute of the Built Environment the answer to a ‘fragmented and ineffective’ industry?”

That’s a positive message, I thought, and Terry Wyatt was quite happy to go straight in there with a proposition to merge two of the many professional institutes that make up the sprawling group of individuals and major companies that make up the “construction Industry”. It was a well structured argument that picked at the separation of design, production and management and the silos that they construct. But neither side really questioned the premise, indeed they generally agreed on much. So why is the industry so fragmented and ineffective?

The importance of leadership and the paucity of it generally was proposed by Mike Murray. His argument drew considerably on the Wolfenstone report of 2009 as the most important review of the industry. I have just read its 30 odd pages. Digestible and clear. But is it just another look down the wrong end of the telescope? It seeks to justify the importance of the industry, to show that it is efficient, to raise its profile, all valuable aims, but is that what is really needed?

Were we talking about the “built environment” of just the professionals, trades, contractors and FM technicians that make up the building industry within strictly defined boundaries? Yes, for much of the time we were. The debate ranged far and wide and took in the attractions of architect courses over engineering, the professions generally – law, medicine and architecture/engineering. Buildings are an important consumer of energy, they cost and have to last. But will they ever be truly sustainable? We knock them down before the end of their natural life and build another one that will go the same way in 20-30 years time if not  sooner. None of this was addressed.

It was only towards the end of the debate that anyone mentioned “planning”. Were there any planners in the room? Two hands went up. Was there a mention of Urban Design? No. But the message I came away with was that’s all very well but construction, unless it is the Olympics, Crossrail or a new London airport, is just a minor works job. Long life, loose fit, low energy was one of the old slogans that didn’t warrant a repeat last night. Perhaps it should have done but then we would have only had to say that was then and now is now. The future is BIM, zero carbon etc. But a one-off where the design is usually specific to need, certainly specific to site is most of the industry and the bread and butter of the SMEs that struggle within it. Craft is important as is knowing your builder/sub-contractor. The bigger questions remain. Where and how does the community and user fit. Do they have a voice? Unless the project is rolled out many times over, it is a one off, delivered by a group of individuals responding to a client. The client, their advisors and the teams working for them all contribute to the success or failure but trying to make a single solution will not work.

Chaired by Professor Alan Penn from the Bartlett and with the two sides represented by Terry Wyatt of Hoare Lea and CIBSE and Mike Murray of many places including One Creative Environments. It made an interesting and valuable discussion. Afterwards talking to Robin, Steve and Rob it was the comment that Alan Penn made at the start that it is around the edges that interesting things happen that kept coming back to me.

Walking to Charing Cross from Carlton House Terrace, through Spring Gardens Rob pointed out four stories or perhaps facts all to do with the place we were passing through. Albert Speer, Patrick Abercrombie, Frederick Gibberd, the silver jubilee and squatters. A very Iain Sinclair or Jonathan Meades moment.