Architectural history

How Margaret Thatcher could have saved London’s skyline

Looking around London on the eve of the millennium, it would have been difficult to think that the UK government had an adviser on architectural design. The 1990s had been a dismal decade. Yet such a body existed in the quaintly named Royal Fine Art Commission, refounded in 1924. The original Commission had been created as a way of giving Prince Albert, recently married to Queen Victoria, something to do – contriving the decorative scheme for the new Palace of Westminster. Fresco, the chosen medium, was not ideal in that damp position beside the Thames since the plaster took three years to dry; and the Duke of Wellington did not

Architecture for all occasions

Architecture is a public art, but public intellectuals tend to engage with more abstract stuff. The style-wars ructions excited by our new King nearly 40 years ago have been settled by gravity, but intelligent discussion about what makes a great building is still a rarity, especially in the Ministry of Levelling Up, where there is muddle. On the one hand, ‘generic’ is anathematised; on the other, ‘design codes’ and building regulations which stifle the original thinking necessary to good design are encouraged. Perhaps the Ministry should put in a therapeutic bulk order for Hugh Pearman’s About Architecture. ‘If these be the times, then this must be the man,’ as Andrew

The country house is dead: that’s why we love it so

The true English disease is Downton Syndrome. Symptoms include a yearning for a past of chivalry, grandeur and unambiguously stratified social order, where Johnny Foreigner had no place unless perhaps as butler in the pantry or mistress in the bedroom. And the focus of the disease is the country house, Britain’s best contribution to the world history of architecture. Except often the architect was Johnny Foreigner. The typologies are well understood: from great halls with their Tudor feasts to Italianate palazzi, with Alexander Pope scribbling in the garden; thence to disturbing Victorian horrors corrupting their inhabitants (q.v. Balmoral), lovable Arts & Crafts by Lutyens and, latterly, the wince-making middle-brow pastiches

Has Notre-Dame ever been a symbol of unity for the French?

From the kitchen of her apartment on the Quai de la Tournelle in Paris, the journalist and broadcaster Agnès Poirier could see the bright yellow plumes of smoke rising into the sky. Notre-Dame de Paris was on fire, and suddenly, in that tourist-crowded, hyper-expensive ‘cradle of France’, nothing was certain — ‘democracy, peace and fraternity’ — any more. The following morning, children living on or near the Île de la Cité took to school little plastic bags filled with blackened bits of roof picked up from balconies and pavements (as well as probably quite a lot of lead dust) which ‘dated back to the Crusades’. Live-streaming of that apocalyptic conflagration