“… as the philosophers maintain, the city is like a large house, and the house is in turn like some small city…”
– Leon Battista Alberti
The Lost Places Forum series continued this week with an architectural debate entitled ‘Cities within Cities’, held in the exceptional interior of Bath Abbey’s north aisle. Four Architects were invited to talk about their work, ranging from the professional to the academic, to the personal obsession, and their varied interrogations of the cities that surround and shelter us.
Cities within Cities – Fergus Connolly
Fergus Connolly introduced the themes of the evening and shared excerpts from his sketchbooks, recounting a very personal journey uncovering the universal parallels that exist between architecture at all scales; identifying the urban proportions that can govern the furnishing of a drawing room, as well as the lessons that city masterplanning can learn from the composition of ornaments on a shelf.
Through this lens the disparate elevations of Lethaby’s Melsetter house become the terraced facades of a slowly evolved city block, and Vanbrugh’s baroque fireplace surround at Grimsthorpe Hall becomes the triumphal arch of an imperial urban celebration. At this domestic scale the movement and addition of furnishings creates an atmosphere of an accreted urban square, adaptable and accommodating to the lives that course through it.
This is unsurprisingly best expressed at Sir John Soane’s museum and former house, where every aspect of the interior and collection reverberates with the classical spirit to which his life’s work was offered up. A small cork model of Soane’s unrealized Whitehall proposals sits atop the fire mantel; There exists between the model and it’s plinth a perfect harmony of poise and proportion, casually unconcerned by the vast differences separating the scale of their function and ambition.
Cities below Cities – Matt Somerville
Bath is a city well renowned for the architecture of its Roman and Georgian eras, but there is little celebration (or indeed discernible evidence) of the intervening 1500 years. The palimpsest of Bath is much more literal than in other historic environments, with both Roman and Georgian ‘street level’ given a known datum by the archaeological investigations of recent history, yet these ‘cities below cities’ remain frustratingly well hidden, and the opportunity to expose these previous lives through sensitive and conservative below-ground projects remain few and far between.
There are certain notable exceptions to the ‘missing middle chapter’, not least of all the venue for the evenings debates. Although the Abbey itself has not stood witness to the rise and fall of each era of Bath’s history, it’s location as a site of spirituality and faith is the linking piece that correlates nearly 2 millennia of architectural history; before the medieval cathedral the site housed the Norman cathedral, before the Norman cathedral it housed the Roman temple precinct of Aqua Sulis (the circular tholos thought to be located beneath the Abbey’s south-west porch). By the beginning of the 19th Century, in the years preceding George Gilbert Scott’s restoration work, the Abbey was so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the city that numerous properties crowded and jostled against its tall walls, creating urban blocks so dense that the nave aisles themselves were thrown open to the public as thoroughfares, linking the squares of surrounding streets. The unity of this civic and spiritual life in a single building is reminiscent of the Nolli plan of Rome – a city map drawn in the 1780s with the floor plan of each church shown as an open public space, belonging to the city and its inhabitants.
Several recent projects have typified a surge of renewed interest in the ground beneath Bath’s streets (not least of all the Abbey’s Footprint Project http://www.bathabbey.org/footprint), and an urge to claim what remains of those previous layers by physically digging down into the cities that lie below. But in fact this cross-section already exists, an urban ‘slice’ that allows each layer to be identified and peeled away. Slippery Lane is accessible from within the Guildhall markets, its narrow immediacy and steep descent marking it out as something very much ‘other’ from the wide and airy Georgian streets surrounding it. Sadly not open to the public, this medieval passage winds down, under, through and between the landmarks of the legible city above, taking in the astonishing survival of the medieval East Gate, and finally emerging back into the daylight down by the river’s edge, and exposing the ‘backs’ of the formal terraced facades. These disordered extensions and piecemeal adaptations tell the unofficial secret life of Bath; chaotic, irregular, lived-in and loved.
City Terroir – Sam Casswell and Alex Bank
In the industry of wine making, ‘terroir’ is a term to describe the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown which give a wine its unique flavour and aroma. It is highly nuanced, it can change every year, and it is completely inimitable – As with the life of a city, the physical and social context of the vineyard influences everything.
Sam Casswell and Alex Bank of the London Metropolitan School of Architecture suggested that the word ‘city’ could be used to describe the life force or spirit of the metropolis, and included numerous intangible variables beyond the bricks and the mortar of its buildings and architecture. The ‘city’ is the bit between the buildings; it is the shared space that allows life to happen – from the banal everyday routine of shoppers and office workers enjoying Clerkenwell Green, to the dramatic landmarks of history such as Watt Tyler’s march on the very same square in the Peasant’s Revolt of the 1380s. Building in this context becomes an offering to the spirit of the city, recognising the structures as the background to the stage, and creating the generous spaces that allow the plays to be performed.
If a city’s terroir can be identified, described and quantified, then those characteristics can be manipulated across the scales of architecture, from the urban to the domestic, down to the human, and distilled into the smallest components of the whole, and ensuring the spirit remains bound within the fabric of the city. Food markets perhaps best exemplify this; the geography, orientation and dimension of city streets dictated by the distance a flock of livestock can be herded in a day, down to the busy animation of the city squares by this most basic requirement of human survival. The act of eating itself is elevated by society into the ritual of sharing food and companionship, where stories and relationships are borne, traded, exaggerated and forgotten.
Until the wine has been consumed terroir is nothing more than unrelated data, it is the taste on the tongue that gives birth to the terroir. In the same way buildings without their people are not cities or architecture; it is the sharing of the food and the lifetimes that allow the city terroir to exist.
The four speakers seemed to agree that the most beautiful and evocative spaces of a city are likely to be those that have grown organically, as beautifully accidental by-products of conflicting uses and chaotic accretion. It is unlikely that spaces can ever be designed to exhibit these characteristics, the environment can only be created within which they are allowed to emerge for themselves. In this scenario the role of the architect is to uncover the significant stories of the city’s spirit, and to ensure that spirit’s survival in the fundamental components of day to day lives. In some respects Soane’s cork model and Vanbrugh’s triumphal arch have best achieved this, bringing the monumental high-point of architectural achievement back to the honest simplicity of the fireplace – the hearth around which man begins to make a home.