Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Enduring buildings

click photo to enlarge
I've always thought it odd that in the distant past, when people had a less sure grasp of history and time, that many buildings were built to last "for ever", whereas today, a time when we can map previous centuries in great detail, and look forwards in a way that our ancestors never could, we often build with no thought about tomorrow. Go to any trading estate and look at the brick and steel "sheds" that are being thrown up to house a business that might occupy it for ten or twenty years (if they're lucky). Or observe what has happened in central London, and many other cities, where Victorian buildings were torn down in the 1960s, replaced by concrete office blocks, which were themselves replaced in the 1990s by taller, glossier structures. This isn't the whole story, of course, but it does happen very often, and one has to ask why.

Perhaps it is associated with the free maket short-termism that was responsible for the financial turmoil of the past couple of years. Certainly the building booms of the City of London have mirrored the periods of financial growth. But there is something else at work too. Our society hasn't been sufficiently concerned with producing quality in the built environment. That's as true with commercial structures as it is with factories and private housing. If the past teaches us anything it is that the buildings that survive the bulldozers are the ones built in the right place to high standards. Many argue that old buildings are difficult to adapt to new uses. That is true in some cases, but it's surely overstated.

I was mulling this over on a recent visit to Somerset House in London. It was built in 1776-1796 by the architect, Sir William Chambers, and further extended in the nineteenth century. It is generally regarded as the first purpose-built offices in the capital. In its early days it housed the Admiralty and a variety of other public bodies. In the nineteenth century much of it was taken up with the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, as well as the Government School of Design. Then, in the twentieth century the forerunners of the Inland Revenue occupied a large part of the site. Today the Courtauld Institute of Art is a major tenant, including the Courtauld Gallery (which I had gone to see). The changing use of this large building is testament to its quality and location, two factors that have ensured its survival and enduring use. Long may it continue.

My photograph is a shot taken looking over the ornate hand rail and iron balusters of a stair-well in the Courtauld Gallery. The blue paint and cold, natural light made a good complementary contrast with the orange/yellow of the artificial lighting, and the receding stairs and curves, with the people below supplied the composition.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Lumix LX3
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 5.1mm (24mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f2
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On