Last Sunday morning I had an enchanting walk around Hampstead in the company of a group of strangers and an erudite guide. I’ve enjoyed a number of these London walks over the years and so it was that one cold January afternoon in Little Venice I learned about the history of the Regent’s Canal and enjoyed peering nosily through houseboat windows. On another walk I explored the quirks of upmarket Notting Hill, and a walk around Chelsea revealed intricate treasures from the Arts and Crafts movement. But Hampstead is definitely my favourite walk so far, with its panoramic views over London and streets so steep they have handrails.
Our morning provided two hours of entertainment coupled with a bit of exercise as we puffed up and down the hills. Church bells rang and if I hadn’t known better I’d have thought I was in a Hampshire village. It’s so high that we would normally have had views stretching way into the distance over the City, the docklands and out to the Dartford Crossing. But it was misty and we saw nothing. Despite this, there were plenty of figurative high points. We touched on the edge of wild Hampstead Heath which made me think dreamily of highwaymen, and I was charmed by the preposterous eccentricity of the Admiral’s House with its quarterdeck. It sits like a ship, improbably run aground on the hills above the city. It was built in the eighteenth century for a lieutenant with aspirations. According to local legend, he kept a cannon on the roof and would fire it to celebrate naval victories. My pleasure was complete when I learned that in the twentieth century it was the inspiration for Admiral Boom’s house in Mary Poppins.
Our guide also showed us a very different building, tucked away at the end of a quiet road. It’s one of his favourites in the whole of London. The exterior of Klein House made me catch my breath. It’s sleek and white and Modernist. The South African client who commissioned it wanted to be able to float in his indoor swimming pool and look at the sky. The planners started out insisting that this plot should house a Georgian recreation but eventually they were won over by Rick Mather’s design which blurs the distinction between the inside and outside. And it won the RIBA National Award in 1993 when it was known as The Priory, despite being up against the design for the new British Library. Click on this link to see pictures of its imaginative design with glass floors and a glass staircase.
This Hampstead walk wasn’t one of the treats from my list of sixty. It was just an extra unlisted pleasure, but it did make me think of another architectural adventure, which was a treat from my list. A couple of years ago I made a visit to Poundbury in Dorset; Prince Charles’s experimental new town on the outskirts of Dorchester. The idea of developing a town from nothing intrigued me and I wanted to see it for myself. A main aim of the development is to create a community with housing, shops and businesses where people don’t have to rely on driving. Other princely principles include architectural harmony, local building materials, traditional regional styles, avoidance of unnecessary signs, and size on a human scale. The overall plan was created in the 1980s by Leon Krier, an architect from Luxemburg, and building began in 1993. It continues today with the ultimate intention of having 2,500 houses and a population of 6,000.One of the first things that struck me when I arrived was that the mock Georgian houses have bricked-up windows in deference to the real old buildings and their attempts to avoid paying a tax on windows. But why are they here in Poundbury? The other thing that surprised me was the silence. It was broken by just two sounds. We heard a child’s screams coming from inside a dental surgery. And the pavements are covered in pebbles which made a pleasing Georgian crunch as we walked on them. This rich auditory nostalgia was what I liked best about my visit.
I felt I should admire the harmonious proportions and the streets which run at angles to one another but somehow I just found it all rather dull and imperfectly perfect. It was a relief to spot a building that had signs of weathering. Never have I been so pleased to see walls with spreading rust marks and damp. They made a little corner of the town look real. I can appreciate that Prince Charles has followed heartfelt principles but my overriding reaction is that it doesn’t matter how well-built it is, or how good the materials and craftsmanship…it feels inauthentic.
I wonder about the point of it. There’s plenty of the real past in England. Where is our future monarch’s confidence in modern architecture? It’s all nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia and I contrast this with Hampstead’s exciting Klein House.
I was reading about nostalgia recently and discovered that it was originally considered a medical condition. The term was first used in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a medical student who observed a strange condition amongst Swiss mercenaries fighting in France and Italy. They frequently became ill with symptoms such as indigestion, fainting, fever, and a deep longing for the mountains of their homeland. The explanation for the affliction suffered by these soldiers was that their brains and ear drums had been damaged by the constant clanging of cowbells in the Swiss mountains. Hofer wanted to give it a label and at first considered philopatridomania. In the end he settled on the more pronounceable ‘nostalgia’, which was derived from ‘nostos’, the Greek for homecoming, and algos, meaning an ache.
I’m glad that I visited Poundbury. It made me think and that was a treat in itself. But ultimately I found it irritatingly retrospective. I wonder… has Prince Charles spent a lot of time in Switzerland?