Friday, 7 March 2014

The Campaign for Better Elevations

The dozens of consultants appointed to take part in the design of a major project now include 'facade specialists', but these people don't presume to design the look of the elevations - that is one of the few jobs still left to the architect.

However, a quick walk round many new developments suggests that some architects aren't much good at designing elevations. I don't offer any examples, but you can picture your own at this point.

Is there a need for a new specialism?

The handsome immeuble Lavirotte (or immeuble d'Alexandre Bigot) in Avenue Rapp (two great names there), in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, has a sign explaining that it won 'le prix des facades de la Ville de Paris' in 1903.

The design of elevations was also taken seriously as a discipline in its own right in London in the first part of the twentieth century.  In the Survey of London one can find two typical examples of interwar buildings in Mayfair getting facade upgrades at the request of the Grosvenor Estate, presumably because the original architects weren't thought quite up to the standard that the estate saw as appropriate.  At no. 8 Upper Grosvenor Street, the design for a 1920s refronting of the elevation in stone was taken out of the hands of the leaseholder's architects and given to the Estate's consultant Sir Edwin Lutyens...

...and on the other side of the street, the elevation of a block of flats being put up by Messrs Edifis Limited of Pimlico (yet another great name - aren't they in the Honeywood file?) was taken by the Estate out of the hands of the builder's jobbing architect and given to establishment architects Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie.

Today, when architects have 'value engineering' attack dogs set on them the morning after the planning consent is granted, we get dumbing down, rather than this patrician sounding smartening-up.  But for many central London projects, the front elevation of a new building between party walls is the only important outward and visible aspect - one that is often got terribly wrong, as the architects' waking hours are dedicated to optimising the core layout rather than fine tuning the window proportions.

Of course architecture is more than elevations. But elevations are all the public get to see or care about with many buildings, and they deserve more attention than they get.

The Campaign for Better Elevations needs a prize sponsor.