Monday, 5 December 2011

The charm of the pavilion

Some of my favourite buildings in England are tollhouses, gatehouses to country estates, pavilions. They have a certain charm that you rarely find in larger buildings - the same miniature charm that you find, for example, in the tiny hedgehog-prickly chapel of Santa Maria della Spina in Pisa,  or the chantry chapels in Winchester cathedral, or the wonderful reliquary of Saint Taurin in Evreux, a Gothic cathedral magically shrunk and ripened into gold.

By an accident of preservation, sometimes the gatehouses are all that remain of once great houses. At Layer Marney, in Essex, the tall, parapet-decked gatehouse is practically all that remains of the Marneys' plans for a country palace, together with a single range of the projected great courtyard.

I think what I love with these buildings is that despite their small size (though at eighty feet tall, Layer Marney can't really be described as small) the full resources of monumental architecture are used on them. In fact the architectural content outweighs their size; they are disproportionately stylish, sometimes indeed they are all style and nothing but style. At one end of the spectrum it becomes quite difficult to separate the ornate gatehouse from the pure folly - a building like the Rushton Lodge that is, in effect, more symbol than building.

So you have, for instance, gate cottages which boast pediments - an assertion not just of Classical values but also of a certain importance. This is no gatehouse but a temple, a Parthenon, a monument. And it's no coincidence that so many of these tiny buildings are severely geometrical - square, circular, triangular, octagonal. Their small size makes the geometry possible (no upper storey requiring a staircase to be accommodated, and only one room deep), and it makes it noticeable.

And then, one of my other great loves in architecture is the centralised building - the great polygon of Aachen's palatine chapel, the huge dome of Haghia Sophia (a cunning blend of basilican and centralised plan), the rotating arcades of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. These gatehouses and tollhouses replicate that, but in miniature - often quite knowingly contrasting the pretension of their form with the modesty of their proportions.

I thought when I started writing this that such things were of the past. Nowadays, I thought, we're too functional, too practical, too penny-pinching. And then I thought of some of the marvellous toll booths I've seen on French motorways (in among some tediously pedestrian ones); the oversailing twisted leaf canopy on the péage before the Millau bridge, for instance.


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