No. 76 Dean Street: a restoration drama

No. 76 Dean Street, Soho

Until some point soon after lunchtime on Friday, 10 July 2009, No. 76 Dean Street probably looked, to the thousands of people who rushed or ambled past it daily, much like any other Soho building. A few, perhaps, would have glanced up and seen it for what it was — a townhouse of some quality, built c. 1740, and thereafter subject to the usual vicissitudes, serving variously as residence for the seventh Earl of Abercorn, a workhouse, premises for a firm of leather-cutters and, most recently, offices for a financial services company. A brief look into one of those tall ground-floor windows might, if correctly timed, have revealed an elegant deal-and-oak staircase curving up towards the right of the front door. Sometimes, indeed, passing by after dark, it was possible to gaze upwards, usually more by accident than design, and to be astonished once again at what the chance illumination revealed inside that front first-floor room — elaborate cornices, surfaces painted with scenes of various sorts — a fleeting impression of gilt, brightness and even grandeur reclaimed from the slushing tides of ambient, could-be-anywhere ordinariness lapping about our city.

Soon after lunchtime last Friday, however, a fire seems to have started somewhere within the air-conditioning system of No. 76 Dean Street. By the time dusk fell, the roof had collapsed. Much of the building was, it turned out, badly damaged. How many fire crew were present when the blaze was at its zenith — 60, 100? Accounts variy. Meanwhile evacuated office-workers stood outside in the afternoon sunshine, half-pleased at the unexpected holiday, conversing amidst wafts of acrid smoke. As for the local residents, we looked anxiously to our own roofs and consoled ourselves that no one had been killed. Some of the younger children, I think, rather enjoyed seeing all the fire engines.

By Saturday, the smoke was gone, although the air still smelled of burning. Out for a walk, we stopped to chat with a neighbour. He’s that rare thing, a Soho resident who was actually born in the parish — a man who has spent virtually all his entire life here. He was, he said, very sad at the loss of No. 76 Dean Street. The conversation wasn’t a long one. Perhaps it was for that reason that the two points he made stood out so clearly. First, he reminded us that, having grown up in Soho, he’d known that building all his life. Secondly, he insisted that No. 76 Dean Street should be rebuilt exactly as it was before. Our neighbour, I should add, is by no means some sort of crazed reactionary — one of those is, surely, enough for any single short street — nor is he, as far as I know, prone to architectural fundamentalism more generally. And yet he knew exactly what should happen next — literal restoration of a fire-damaged building. This distressing tear in the fabric of his everyday life must, it seemed, be mended both swiftly and invisibly, leaving us free to get on with the task of forgetting that things ever, for whatever reason, had been otherwise.

I was reminded of this earlier today, upon discovering that HRH The Prince of Wales had resigned as patron of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), in protest at the SPAB’s refusal to publish an introductory essay that the Prince had written for one of their publications, the Old House Handbook by Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr.

That, anyway, is how the story has been reported. Was there, in fact, more to it than that? The SPAB, after all, have retained their founder William Morris’ powerful antipathy to restoration since 1877 or thereabouts, while the Prince of Wales’ horror of ugly modern architecture is hardly a well-kept secret. And while these two positions need not conflict in most cases — the SPAB, after all, has often worked hard for the protection, conservation and sensitive redevelopment of old buildings, while the Prince of Wales has a warm regard for the sort of traditional skills and building practices without which much of the SPAB’s work would be impossible — there is, self-evidently, a point at which the two approaches potentially come into conflict.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have a degree of sympathy for both sides here. The SPAB grew out of particular historical circumstances in which, across much of Europe but particularly in Britain, old structures with complex histories were having much of their extant fabric ripped out, centuries of development excised along with anything that didn’t fit the prevailing notion of ‘correct’ medieval building. All too often, the result was a parallel loss of romantic charm and accurate historical understanding. Obviously, when it comes to parish churches, I much prefer the most repulsive yet still functioning Victorian rebuilding to a deconsecrated ruin — yet is there any heart that does not sink a bit when encountering that bleak little phrase, ‘much restored’, in the relevant volume of Pevsner — or, conversely, any Anglican who can’t see what’s wonderful about the sort of church that contains not only an Easter Sepulchre and angel-headed roof bosses, but also a tester pulpit, Georgian box-pews and some good late nineteenth or early twentieth century memorials?

This suggests what the SPAB was up against, at least at the start, and what it was meant to do by way of reaction. Today, with a degree of irony, it sometimes fights to retain the faux-medieval ‘restorations’ that comprise yet another chapter of Britain’s ecclesiastical and architectural history, or at any rate struggles to prevent their replacement with unsympathetic contemporary substitutes. It speaks up for half-derelict old piles that will otherwise fall victim to very convenient conflagration, followed by re-development as unremarkable housing estates. It protests against bad double-glazing, impermeable finishes, the sort of government environmental policies that mean death for any house built before 1920. Armed with a set of reasonably clear-cut principles, it does, in fact, achieve much good, and prevent even more harm. I’ve been a member of the SPAB for about a decade now. It’s not necessary to agree with its every working doctrine in order to be glad that it exists.

Taken to an extreme, of course, some of its policies start to look like madness. Take, for instance, this:

New work should express modern needs in a modern language. These are the only terms in which new can relate to old in a way which is positive and responsive at the same time.

Why, though? Take, for example, a rotten floorboard in an early Georgian house. The obvious, sane response to this problem is to get a jobbing carpenter round to cut a similar-sized floorboard out of the same sort of wood, nail it down, and forget about it. This is, as far as I can see, what people in early Georgian houses have been doing with their rotten or damaged floorboards since, oh, a few months after the houses were built. Part of the problem, here, is that many of the functions performed by houses, or indeed churches, are not so much either ‘old’ or ‘modern’ as they are eternal and unchanging — and of course many traditional solutions to these needs, such as wooden floors, continue to work very well, whilst at the same time requiring periodic repair or even replacement. One of the minor fascinations of living in an Oxbridge college was discovering the near-perpetual fussing-about that’s necessary in order to keep old stone buildings standing — the exchange of new, sound stone for its decrepit and crumbling equivalent very much included. Done carefully, with abundant respect for proper materials and continuing craft traditions, what on earth is wrong with treating old structures in exactly the way their creators would have hoped and expected? Why put everything in some ‘modern language’, when older forms of grammar may well be perfectly intelligible, and far more resonant?

For this is what is, ultimately, most sinister about the lines I have quoted above — the implication that Modernism is the only legitimate architectural mode of practice these days, with every other style or tradition reduced to mere pastiche, historicist conservatism, something somehow less than ‘honest’. I’ve written about this rather a lot, lately — here and here, for instance — so I won’t belabour the point. Suffice to say that the dogmatic assertion that there is but one architectural idiom, and Mies van der Rohe is its prophet, is starting to get on my nerves a bit. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Modernism, but ultimately, it’s a style like any other — good at some things, bad at others, appropriate in some instances but certainly not in all of them — with historic or traditional environments not always a very good choice as a setting for Modernist structures. There is more, after all, to a happy and satisfying built environment than the imperatives of architectural self-advertisement. And there is, dare I say it, more to contemporary building than the Modernist idiom alone.

All of which brings us to our marvellous Prince of Wales. What his critics cannot stand about him — what drives them to mad little temper-tantrums like this one, which would have been unbecoming in an over-tired four-year old screaming ‘it’s not fair’ in the wake of too much fun, chocolate and so forth, but which was frankly inexcusable coming from a fully sentient adult, much-decorated professional and indeed peer of the realm — is less that the Prince somehow abuses his notional constitutional ‘power’ (for heaven’s sake, there is no one more effectively hamstrung in terms of his constitutional ability to do or say anything than the heir to the throne) than the Prince’s unfailing willingness to speak up against smug, patronising and painfully arrogant elites. Did anyone ever manage to locate a single Chelsea resident, worker or frequent habitué who had anything good to say about Lord Roger’s plan for the Chelsea Barracks development? Or, in contrast, are people in general not a bit fed up with having lazy, badly thought out and wholly unsympathetic structures inserted into their communities, on the basis that to do anything else would somehow push against the prevailing currents of architectural history?

Lord Rogers‘ ‘argument’, such as it was, holds that the Prince should not be allowed to comment on architecture — or, indeed, music, art and medicine. This is, apparently, in part because ‘the Prince will not debate’. Yet what have his various publications on the subject, his speeches and acts of patronage been, if not ‘debate’ of a markedly robust and serious sort? Meanwhile, in attempting to silence the Prince — since sneering at him, patronising him and ignoring him haven’t really worked either — Lord Rogers exposes the weakness of his own case, his lack of compelling counter-arguments. And by failing to publish an introduction which they had, themselves, commission, from a public figure whose architectural views are extremely well-known, the SPAB leadership seem to me to be doing something rather similar. All of which is quite sad, for while Lord Rogers has at least the excuse of gross professional self-interest, the SPAB might conceivably have entertained a conversation on such important topics with someone who is, so clearly, in sympathy with them on so many serious issues.

Let me be clear about this. For a membership organisation to lose a royal patron amidst circumstances of acrimony is, quite clearly, a disaster. The situation should never have been allowed to get to this point. It is for that reason that the organisation’s secretary Philip Venning should apologise for his mis-handling of this affair, and then resign with immediate effect. And SPAB members, while keeping in mind the good work that SPAB has done and continues to do, should consider whether they wish to continue their involvement.

The unprintable portion of the Prince’s introduction was, apparently (those of delicate sensibilities, look away now) his claim that ‘honesty’ in conservation — using modern design and materials, as mentioned above, when carrying out modern work — had been used too often ‘in order to justify unsatisfactory alterations and ugly additions’, and that old buildings should be restored in their original style.

It is, of course, astonishing that such conventional wisdom should be regarded as unspeakably controversial. Clearly, different points of view exist on these matters, making nuance particularly important. I’d dearly love to know, for instance, whether the Prince actually wrote that old buildings ‘always’ ought to be restored in their original style, or simply ‘in general’? There are plenty of cases where the present-day functionality of old buildings seems to me, at any rate, to have been improved with the addition of explicitly modern additions — one thinks here of the open-ended ‘quad’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the new wing of the Pallant House in Chichester, or the modern refectory attached to Norwich Cathedral. There are also some truly attractive contemporary buildings placed in ‘historic’ settings, such as the Ismaili Centre in London, so much of its own time yet very much in sympathy with the buildings that surround it. But against these successes, it’s possible to set so much laziness, so many monstrosities — and so many cases where Modernism won out, not because it was the best option, but very explicitly, because it was the cheap option, e.g. here. And then there are instances in which old buildings, badly damaged by catastrophe or by time, have been restored to something resembling their original appearance, not as some sort of forgery or subterfuge, but as a respectful evocation of a well-documented, much-loved structure recently lost.

In other words, there’s no single, simple answer that covers all these eventualities, or even one easy set of considerations. Dealing with loss is, here as elsewhere, rarely straightforward. That’s why the conversation regarding different values, different priorities and interests must be allowed to continue, with the views of architects and historic preservation professionals not always given priority over those of local workers and residents, let alone those of princes.

What the SPAB seem to be missing, as far as I can see — and again, it would help if we were actually allowed to see the draft introduction itself — is the possibility that the Prince isn’t so much dismissing their whole approach, as making the modest assertion that the execution of that approach requires care, sensitivity and the rejection of Modernist dogma as an end in itself. If the SPAB can’t sign up to that — or at least countenance it as a valid point of view, worthy of attention and discussion — then something really has gone badly wrong with the SPAB and its governing principles.

All of which brings us back, sadly, to that oyster-coloured plastic sheeting now covering what used to be No. 76 Dean Street, Soho, the road-blocks and tall red cranes. What will happen next? How will Soho’s own restoration drama play out over the coming months and years?

The range of choices is, in fact, quite broad. If the remaining facade proves to be in good enough shape to be retained, the obvious response will be to erect a modern office-block, complete with open-plan spaces and strip lighting, behind that thin skin of early Georgian brickwork. But if the facade isn’t sound, then what? A not-very-good pseudo-Georgian pastiche that doesn’t frighten the horses — or, at any rate, the film- and advertising people who dine at Quo Vadis — fronting up that same, modern, purpose-built office-block? Or some look-at-me declamatory nightmare of architectural self-promotion? Or a new, forward-looking structure that somehow pulls off the hat-trick of looking good whilst also being functional and fitting in smoothly with its recently-acquired Soho family? Or — perhaps in some sense, the most radical option of all, as requested in all innocence by my neighbour — a literal re-building of No. 76 as it stood on the day before it burned, dodgy air-conditioning system obviously excepted?

Or, as far as that goes, why not rebuild No. 76, not as an office building at all, or indeed literally as it was before, but, rather, for the purpose its original builders had intended, adopted to present-day circumstances — which is to say, why not rebuild it as a townhouse? By all means include, if you must, conventional amounts of plumbing, electric lighting and so forth — but rebuild the house itself in brick, wood and tile, using old-fashioned mortar, organic paints and non-synthetic finishes, replacing wooden shutters and casement windows, re-creating those elaborate mouldings by hand with traditional tools, adorning those painted surfaces once again with pigments that smell of eggs and linseed, turpentine and human effort? What, when it comes right down to it, would be so wrong with the inverted radicalism of producing a ‘new’ domestic space constructed on a Georgian scale, using the conventions and techniques which make London’s early Georgian houses such an unceasing source of delight and satisfaction to those lucky enough to live in one?

Modernist dogma is generous in the objections it throws up to such a plan — while the SPAB, at least under its current management, may well turn out to prefer some glass-and-steel box which could just as easily be plopped down in Barcelona or Bucharest, Plovdiv or Palm Springs, those soul-less glimmering surfaces refulgent with ‘honesty’ regarding their makers’ complete lack of interest in local idiom, the integrity of a streetscape, the practicalities of life in central London — let alone the feelings of the local people themselves, my Soho-born neighbour included. For if the Prince of Wales is scarcely allowed to state his point of view to the members of an organisation notionally formed round the need to ‘protect’ our ancient buildings, what hope is there for the rest of us?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “No. 76 Dean Street: a restoration drama

  1. Gaw

    The penny hasn’t dropped with the Richard Rogers of this world: Modernism is not a terminus, or the culmination of anything. It’s an historical period like any other.

    Moreover, modern technologies have no special privilege: there are wider, and actually more practical, definitions of ‘function’ than those of the Modernists.

    I like your proposal for a sort of pragmatic eclecticism. Why not? It’s not as if each of us isn’t capable of seeing the merits in buildings old, new, reproduced, restored, replaced, revolutionised. But, perhaps fatally, it does offer less scope for the hieratic…

  2. It’s an historical period like any other.

    Amen, brother!

    Do you suppose that Lord Rogers ever has dark nights of the soul, wherein he dreams that his own work is, in fact, nothing but pastiche, referencing Modernism as a period style, while meanwhile, in another part of the wood, architectural ‘progress’ is headed off in some other, unsuspected direction?

    No, probably not — but perhaps he should.

  3. Gaw

    Ha, ha! That’s a wonderful picture! History does have a habit of making monkeys out of those convinced they are the future.

    BTW just noticed I wrote ‘modernism’ and meant ‘modernity’ – but you got the gist it seems.

  4. Living in America, specifically in New York, I don’t think things come up quite the same way. For example, I consider my house old, and it was built in 1928.

    In fact over the years I’ve found myself wishing I lived in a newer house, say something built in the 1980s. Because then I wouldn’t care about wrecking it. Instead I feel sometimes as if I live in a museum where I’m a vandal destroying the place piecemeal. When I moved in here I would’ve argued wholeheartedly for preservation and restoration — which is a rare thing in the New York City area, where we happily plow under anything that gets in the way of someone’s idea of progress — but after a decade of living with an elderly domicile, I can see the positive side of modernity: Just being able to get stuff done without worrying, “I’m cutting a hole in plaster that’s older than anyone I know!”

    It’s a shame what happened to No. 76 but I have to say, there are times when we’ve gone away for a few days and I’ve said, as we drove back into town, I’d be happy to return to a smoldering foundation. Not only would it solve the problem of preservation, but it’d save me hauling around all the scrap paper and knick-knacks I can’t seem to throw away.

  5. Sorry about the delay in replying, Chris — we’ve all been slightly under the weather here recently — not simply mourning charred architecture, as you otherwise might have suspected.

    First, please don’t think I’d turn my nose up at a 1928 building. There’s a lot more to ‘historic’ than mere age, in the UK as elsewhere. Indeed, until No. 76 burned, probably the recent incident of Soho destruction I minded most was the perfectly unnecessary demolition of trim little Art Deco building, quite possibly put up c. 1928, attractive in its modest ornamentation, very much in sync not only with the scale of the older buildings around it but with the (listed) Art Deco carpark visible just behind it — torn down when the facade, at least, might well have been preserved, because Westminster Council clearly doesn’t feel much obligation to protect twentieth century building, even when it’s handsome, functional and very much in keeping with the surrounding streetscape. Anyway, I’ve no doubt your house is delightful, and am not surprised that you feel under pressure to preserve it.

    The rest of your comment, of course, gets to the heart of what I was writing about in my post. There are, after all, variable hierarchies of priority when it comes to old buildings. Most of us would, I suppose, be sad to lose great swathes of our historic built environment. On the other hand, though, there’s something a bit creepy about making a fetish out of a bit of old building and expecting everything else to bow down before it, as if some value of age, aesthetic merit or historical association had priority over everything else.

    In other words, I love my own early Georgian house, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. The first time I knocked a nail into the panelling to hang a picture, I did, in fact, feel I was doing something a bit transgressive. Then, of course, it occurred to me that much of the old panelling was, in fact, plaster, because oddly enough, in the near-three centuries of my house’s history, I wasn’t the first to have come up with the bright idea of banging in a nail to hang a picture. I’m part of the house’s history, too — and if I enjoy the imaginative companionship of thinking of all those other lives, other hammers and pictures, I no longer feel particularly inhibited about adding to that history, while remaining (I hope) respectful of what’s there already.

    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, all the better for being rather unfashionably honest.

  6. Gaw

    My house is a mere 165 years old. Certain elements, despite their apparent fragility, appear indestructible.

    The house for a century or more formed part of a slum and, according to census returns, accommodated around 25 people, or eight family groups, in a house with eight modest main rooms.

    However, the original front door is intact and in place. I can’t conceive of how a panel of weather-exposed wood, having been shoved open and slammed shut for 165 years (for a good part of it by poor, packed-in tenants who had no reason to care for it), is still in service. They sure knew how to make doors back then.

  7. How I love micro-local history. Rather like your house, ours has plenty of slum credibility — the 1911 census found (from memory) something like 27 people living here at one point — and it’s not exactly a very big house! Many of these were young Italian men who, I think, must have been recruited by a restaurant owner who lived here, and — I’m speculating slightly here — must have imported a job-lot of his local, north Italian under-employed youth to help out with the serving etc.

    Still, picturing a dozen men in their 20s sharing a tiny room or two, perhaps missing home, perhaps trying to reconstruct some semblance of a more familiar culinary, linguistic and cultural order here — and interacting with the other residents of the house, who came from all sorts of other places — does, frankly, add to the interest of life in a house now comfortably occupied by three people. Someday, when I have more leisure time, I want to solve a small mystery, though — what happened to these young men when the Great War began?

    And as for doors — I share your admiration. I once saw our own front door with the paint scraped off. Of unknown date, but seemingly identical to most of the doors in this part of the street, and hence conceivably reasonably old, it seems to be composed of plaster, filler and congealed paint, holding together a few odd slivers of wood. As with much in life, it doubtless persists more out of habit than anything else.

  8. Gaw

    Parts of your historical description don’t sound too far away from today’s Soho. I’m thinking of single young men hanging out at Bar Italia!

    This could go on a while as I too love this stuff. But I’ll try to restrict myself to one more piece of domiciliary history.

    None of our sash windows match, top with bottom. Apparently during the Blitz they were all blown out, and when the rubble was cleared, dumped in a pile in the middle of the street. When patching things up, the workmen picked up the handiest bits of window frame and fitted them as best they could.

    Looking out of the window helps frame the recent terrorist scares. Keep calm and carry on!

  9. ‘Single young men hanging out at Bar Italia’ is about right — the only problem in imagining the 1911 equivalent is trying to work out what they did with their spare time in the absence of football on cable television.

    Soho’s (north) Italian heritage runs smoothly into its present-day identity — making it all the more odd that Soho’s Jewish identity, which was also very real in 1911, has vanished more or less without a trace.

    More to the point, though, you had better not let the SPAB hear about your windows! I quote from their Ten Commandments, err, ‘purposes':

    Materials: The use of architectural features from elsewhere confuses the understanding and appreciation of a building, even making the untouched parts seem spurious. Trade in salvaged building materials encourages the destruction of old buildings, whereas demand for the same materials new helps keep them in production. The use of different but compatible materials can be an honest alternative.

    Bad, dishonest Blitz-era workmen! (Personally, I think this story is delightful, and makes your house even more interesting — but then I am already well and truly headed for SPAB heretic status.)

  10. Since you seem to enjoy the details, I’ll give you some of my own.

    Our house was built in 1928 as part of a development called Sunshine Village. A whole section of town is made up of these houses, each different, but from a set of a few basic models. I think there are maybe six different possible designs. They’re all essentially the same: Three bedrooms, one bathroom upstairs; kitchen, dining room, living room downstairs. Small attic (I can just stand in the center) and slightly larger basement (I bang my head on the center beam but otherwise it’s higher than me).

    The main thing that makes my house lovely — it’s very utilitarian in almost all resepects — is the chestnut wood trim and hardwood floors in all the rooms. Newer American houses usually put down hardwood, if at all, only in special rooms where they expect to use area rugs, like the dining room. But back in 1928, builders were still willing to throw wood wherever.

    The chestnut is really special, though, because shortly after 1928 the American chestnut was attacked by a fungus from China and wiped out. There’s still a small stand out west which is being carefully managed, but otherwise, chestnut is gone. So the wood trim in my house is literally irreplaceable.

    Most people painted over it, of course, because so few appreciate good wood. I believe there’s a special ring of Hell reserved for people who paint over wood.

    The upstairs trim was all painted over originally and the downstairs all stained and varnished. When neighbors tear out the wood I collect it from the trash. A couple of years ago my wife locked me out saying, “You can’t come in until you put that wood back in the trash.” I managed to sneak some of it in anyway.

    I spent several days stripping the layers of paint from the chestnut trim around one of the upstairs windows. The newer latex paints peeled right off but the older lead-based oil paints laughed at my paint stripper. Eventually I got almost all of it off. I found the pencil marks made by the workmen eighty years ago.

    That’s what I appreciate about old buildings: That they’re the evidence of craftsmen working hard.

    On my way in to my studio I have to transfer from one subway line to another at the Jay Street station. They’re in the middle of rebuilding it. The other day I watched as workmen put tiles up on a column. Tiling is still a very manual process, and to see these guys putting up tile, and thinking about all the subway tiles I’ve seen in my life, and that there was someone behind each and every one of them — it’s humbling and uplifting.

  11. Richard Kirk

    Can we rebuild an 18th century town house in Soho?

    It would be very difficult. Features like the windows and doors used teak and mahogany. You can’t get wood like that these days because they used it all, and you will have to wait another 300 years for another lot to come along. You would not want to use some of the toxic pigments, and the varnish that does black. This is the sort of thing the National Trust can do once or twice.

    I am writing this from another, slightly older house in Soho that has been gutted and painted white. The only interior sign that this was once an old property is the strange dips in the floors. This seems to be the sort of thing that property agents want to do – a sort of live-in whiteboard that you can occupy, personalize with your pot plants and spot lamps, and the week after you’ve gone bust, it’s like you were never there. This is, I suppose, the attraction of MacModernism: it fits the timescales of modern economics. You don’t build to last hundreds of years if the building may be gone in twenty.

    We must compromise. We haven’t got the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to work on our houses for small wages. We must find a way of making good building cheaper. There are modern materials with character. You can use wood, and it is carbon sequestration. Modern paints last, or can be stripped easily. Modern bricks are much the same shape as old bricks. Metal roofs are light and easy to maintain, and tiles can be a pain. I suspect if you tried to make a Georgian house from scratch with modern materials, it would look bogus, if only because it was so new and straight. However, we are not trying to make something historically perfect – just making something that is built solidly and good to look at.

    William Morris would understand.

  12. Chris, I did indeed enjoy your details — although how you’d disapprove of my own house, full of much-painted wood! Well, my excuse is that it was meant to be painted, has always been painted, and frankly isn’t desperately attractive in its unpainted state — unlike the wood in your house, from the sound of it. I’d write more, were I not about to collapse from some boring summer ‘flu. Suffice to say, though, that I do rather love the picture of you trying to sneak home with those armfuls of scavenged wood …

    As for your comment, Richard Kirk — one of the greater joys of blogging is the experience of receiving a comment that’s considerably better than the actual post itself probably deserves — and while that experience is not exactly an unusual one hereabouts, your comment was a very good illustration of it. Suffice to say, my brainstorming about the possible future of poor charred No. 76 was really more of a thought-experiment — an attempted break-out from the SPAB’s orthodoxy — than anything else; the seriousness with which you reply takes the thought-experiment another step forward, with a degree of good sense that’s probably wholly unarguable. In any event, many thanks for contributing.

  13. I’ll admit that there’s some wood that is meant to be painted. Plain old pine, for example, or poplar, neither of which are very attractive in their natural state. Cheap bits which have been jointed together, too, should be painted.

    But people paint over stained oak and, as I said, irreplaceable chestnut, and probably mahogany and teak, too. That’s a grievous sin.

    Richard brings up a point which is the flip side of my thinking, though. On the one hand I appreciate old things, well-made things, and the handiwork of previous generations. Not too long ago my son and I stood next to these fantastic Byzantine sphinxes nearly three thousand years old at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Really fantastic.

    But at the same time, we as a species often seem to build things for the ages which are really meant as temporary structures. We’d probably be better off designing and building with a plan for how to take it down to its components and reuse them in new structures. For example, not far from my house they’ve built a new Giants Stadium (for American football and huge concerts and such). Next to it is the old stadium. They’re going to have a heck of a job demolishing that thing because it was designed to be built, not destroyed, designed to stand, not to fall.

    It’s difficult, though, to imagine that many of the old buildings we love so much were not intended by their builders to be permanent monuments for the ages, but practical tools for living. Sure, the pyramids at Gaza were supposed to stand forever, but who builds, say, a train depot for eternity?

    If we did adopt the strategy of take-down-able architecture, we wouldn’t even be able to leave any legacy accidentally.

  14. An update: when I passed No. 76 yesterday, there was a big skip in front of it, with a very thoroughly charred old wooden beam poking out. It’s odd to think that the tree from which the beam was cut presumably lived through the Civil Wars etc. Sad, anyway.

    And Chris, wouldn’t “a train depot for eternity” be rather a good title for something? (Of course a lot of apparently rather everyday, practical stuff built by the Romans, like aqueducts, might as well have been built for eternity, presumably for all sorts of ‘bad’ imperialist reasons — signalling perhaps “we’re not going to leave any time soon, are you?” — and yet no one thinks much the worse of them for that.)