Where does the Society stand on architecture in Hampstead?
That’s easy: of course we support the good, deplore the bad… but it is not quite as simple as that!
The Society spends several hours each week examining planning applications relating to Hampstead so that conclusions can be reached on whether praise should be given or objections made, on your behalf. It is regrettably true that the general quality of architectural design and care for our environment is depressingly low.There are, first, the technicalities of urban design to consider: use of the land; intensity of development; bulk; height; traffic; parking; overlooking of neighbours; loss of light, sunlight and privacy, and so on. We scrutinise all these issues, and many of the objections we are obliged to make relate to them.
Some say that the planning process, or Development Control, should confine itself to such matters, that architectural or townscape design are matters of individual taste, and should be left alone.
We beg to differ. We frankly do not think that is good enough. We live in one of London’s most fascinating and beautiful areas, all of it designated as a Conservation Area, and this deserves all the help and protection it can get. Architecture is integral to the appearance and character of Hampstead, and we believe we should express views on it, as one of Britain's leading conservation societies.
There are two quite separate architectural issues to consider: style and quality.
Hampstead is an amazingly diverse area, architecturally. We don’t have much from mediaeval periods, but from the late 17th century onwards we have an exciting conjunction of buildings of extraordinary architectural quality. Burgh House, Kenwood House, Fenton House, Church Row, Keats House, Admiral's House, delightful early and mid-19th century streets such as Downshire Hill, Hampstead Grove, Holly Hill, the high Victorian extravagances of Fitzjohn's Avenue and Mount Vernon, churches of transcending but varied delight like St John’s and St Stephen’s, and work by Norman Shaw, Philip Webb, Charles Voysey, Arthur Mackmurdo, Battersby and Huxley, Horace Field, Arnold Mitchell… then from the 20th century, we have iconic examples of the new architecture of Maxwell Fry, Erno Goldfinger, Connell Ward & Lucas, Wells Coates, James Gowan… the roll-call is astonishing. Not to speak of the unique terraces at Inverforth House or the eccentricities of Jack Straw’s Castle. We are privileged to live with these giants of the architectural world.
They are scattered among us, almost at random. Not for us the ordered perfection of Bath or Bedford Square; Hampstead with its disordered tangle of hills, streets and buildings gets its distinctive character from this mixture of periods and styles. There is no Hampstead style.
What stands out from the best of the past is that each speaks with the voice and spirit of its time; none has pretended to come from another century. Of course the Georgian architecture of the 18th century and much 19th century work were founded on the classical principles of the Greeks, the Romans and the Renaissance — but they adapted them and made them relevant to the realities of contemporary urban life. Imaginative adaptation, not copying.
We believe Hampstead is strong enough to learn from and absorb these traditions, in today’s terms. Michael Hopkins in Downshire Hill and Rick Mather in Upper Terrace have shown two ways in which this can be done.
So far as style is concerned, therefore, we believe that the best of today’s architects have as much to give us as the masters of the past, and that we should welcome new ingredients in our decisions. Hampstead casserole of styles — provided, of course, that they really are tasty enough!
Which leads to the tricky matter of quality. A commodity in short supply, when considered in relation to our built environment today. How might we obtain this elusive ingredient; specifically how might we, the Heath and Hampstead Society, encourage it?
What does make a good building, one that pleases the eye and lifts the spirit, and makes it stand out against mediocrity or worse?
Vitruvius, the Roman architect and writer (1st century BC translated in the 15th century) with disarming brevity defined architecture as an amalgam of commodity, firmness and delight.
In today’s terms, commodity means function – the ability of a building to perform what its owner wants from it. Firmness of course means structural stability, but also perhaps conformity with the myriad of current rules and regulations. Delight… how does one define the indefinable?
The art of architecture embraces many themes, abstract and solid; composition and balance; scale; proportion; selection of the right materials; colour; texture; respect for and knowledge of the architecture of the past; instinct for locale.
None of these skills are the exclusive property of the architect, but it does help to have had the training and experience. Less than half of the planning applications we scrutinise have been submitted by architects…
Whoever is responsible for a design, we think that the least we are entitled to expect in our beloved Hampstead is that it should have been thoughtfully and knowledgeably, not casually, prepared, be caring of neighbours’ interests and the special character of Hampstead, and showing some indication that the Vitruvian concepts of architecture have been considered, in whatever style.
This is what we look for when we plough through those planning applications. We support and applaud the good. We object to the bad, inadequate and shoddy. Sometimes the Planners agree with us.
We persist, and are ever hopeful.