Thursday 22 November 2012

Photographs by Emily Richardson

During the summer we visited the house and took pictures in preparation for the next stage of the production. The garden is very overgrown but gives the place a magical feel, like discovering a ruin in the jungle. Inside the house we discovered treasures, such as this mobile by Alexander Calder still hanging above the sink. The light scoops pour light into the house in unexpected ways.

The entrance to 3 Church Walk, now overgrown

The Calder mobile still hangs above the sink

A view of the house from the garden

Looking up through one of the 'light scoops' to the sky

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Interview: Alan Powers

In July 1997 the architectural writer Jill Lever recorded over five hours of interviews with Jim at his home in Aldeburgh for the British Library’s National Life Stories: Architects’ Lives archive. Discussing the house, Lever tells Jim it should be listed. “How would you feel about that?” she asks. “I would feel fine,” Jim acquiesces, “Big deal!” 

English Heritage listing summaries detail references to published articles on the building in question. Between an article in 1966 (two years after the build's completion) and then in ’77 there had been no coverage of the house until twenty years later when, only three months after Lever’s interview took place, Country Life magazine ran an article on it by the architectural writer and historian Alan Powers. The following year, in 1998, Perspectives on Architecture ran a piece by Neil Bingham called “Out in the Garden." “3, Church Walk, Aldeburgh, Suffolk: The Home of Prof and Mrs H.T. Cadbury-Brown” ran the title of Powers’s article for Country Life. The subhead reads: “Designed for a site once set aside by Benjamin Britten for an opera house, this beautiful but little-known house demonstrates the remarkable creativity of British domestic design in the early 1960s.” Powers’s article was, and remains, the single most comprehensive piece on a house that otherwise had received no coverage in the architecture and design press. 

Alan Powers, video still by Emily Richardson, September 2012

Following the Country Life article, three years later, on 4 December 2000, number 3 Church Walk and attached north, east and south walls, including the garage, received Grade II listing for its “special architectural or historic interest." More precisely, English Heritage's List Entry characterises 3 Church Walk as “a fine example of a courtyard house with fine detailing and an interesting and effective plan, and as a good example of a good architect's own house.” (To see the List Entry go here.) In England post-1945 buildings amount to a mere 0.2 percent of total listed buildings. The majority - 32 percent of this total - date from the nineteenth century, followed by 31 percent from the eighteenth century. According to the Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings, issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in March 2010, buildings of less than 30 years old are normally listed only if they are of “outstanding quality and under threat." “Particularly careful selection is required,” the document continues, “for buildings from the period after 1945.” Listings of this period are often highly contentious: modern architecture, stuff apparently not yet historical, elicits particularly strong views. Between 1987, when it was first established post-war buildings could be listed, and 1995, some 189 separate buildings were listed. Today private domestic housing makes up a majority 14 percent of total post-war listings. Then, twelve years ago, 3 Church Walk was one of only eight other house listings announced by the arts minister Alan Howarth.

Alan Powers's Country Life article, October 1997 

As a researcher, writer, and campaigner/lobbyist for modern architecture, Alan Powers was certainly instrumental in the listing of 3 Church Walk. In 1981 Powers was the first caseworker of The Twentieth Century Society, an organisation that safeguards the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards. Today he continues to jointly edit the society’s journal and is chairman of Pollock's Toy Museum in central London. In 1994 he was employed as a consultant by English Heritage to survey post-war houses for listing. Powers is author of many books on aspects of British modernism, including Serge Chermayeff: Designer, Architect, Teacher (2001), Modern: The Modern Movement in Britain (2007) and Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities (2012). With the architect James Dunnett (who, like Cadbury-Brown had worked in Ernő Goldfinger’s office) and Senior Architectural Investigator for English Heritage Elain Harwood, in 2007 Powers curated Elegant Variation: the architecture of H.T. Cadbury-Brown RA, a retrospective of Jim’s career hosted by the Royal Academy, London. “A  commonly held view of modern architecture as wrong-headed,” wrote architect-critic Stephen Gardiner of this exhibition in The Times on 6 October 2006, “is dismissed by this inspiring display of work.” As a special one-off Architectural Research Quarterly (ARQ) produced a supplement to act as the exhibition catalogue. This issue, with contributions by Powers, Dunnett and Harwood, remains the most comprehensive appraisal of the modern architect H.T. Cadbury-Brown - one of many of an overlooked generation. When Emily and I met with Alan at his Judd Street home in September this year I began by asking when it was he first met Jim, and was surprised to learn just how far back their association stretched.  

Alan Powers: I am pretty certain it was Easter 1965. I was ten years old and my family were staying at our holiday cottage near Aldeburgh. We met Jim and his wife Betty in the town mid-morning, they had just moved into their house, and they said “do come up have coffee,” so we did. The house became a byword in our family for a very aesthetic interior, where it was clear you could not have small children because things would be knocked over, fall down steps and that kind of thing. I do remember being incredibly struck by it because at that time there were not very many things in it, unlike later. I remember the engraved inscriptions he had that were done by sculpture students at the Royal College of Art, some pine cones and sort of dried grasses - I remember how nice they were. So that was my first encounter. Then there was a very long gap when I think I started to meet Jim and Betty partly in an Aldeburgh context and then in London in the 1990s. 

Jonathan P Watts: Was your father friends with Jim and Betty?

AP: Yes. I do not think he knew them particularly well. There was a two years difference. They both studied at the Architectural Association in London, but Jim was definitely a figure in the Modern architecture world. He had this distinction of having built a project before the war; you had to get in quite young to have done that.

Betty and Jim in the courtyard of recently completed 3 Church Walk, September 1964 (Photo courtesy of Natalie Wheatley) 

JPW: Could you describe Jim’s work on the Festival of Britain after the war? 

AP: Jim’s Festival of Britain was, in some way, the first main thing he did after the war. He knew Hugh Casson quite well, and certainly fitted into that group of architects. At the Festival Jim was not so much responsible for buildings, but hard landscaping and fountains. He did the entrance pavilions to a pair of exhibitions, these were rather amazing cable-hung cut away cones: one red on the inside and one blue with a mast up the middle. One of them led into the Land of Britain exhibition and the other one led into the People of Britain. The People of Britain, which went into the railway arches, was Jim’s architectural design as well; it was very cool and straightforward with a sculpture in a pool - a nice detail. Then there was the concourse which he laid out - he was really proud of that, and rightly so. They wanted to be able to light up the concourse at ground level at night. They could have used cats’ eyes from roads but they do not actually contain a light source. In the end Jim wired it for electric bulbs and used jam jars as covers, which seem to have worked perfectly well. For the fountains, he had the concept that they should be towards the river. At that point you had to raise the level to get up to the embankment. There were two or three steps going up and there was this very long rectangular fountain basin with jets ranked within it so the back ones were the tallest. It made a screen and over the top of it you could see the buildings on the far side. The idea was it made you go further to see what was on the other side - like a landscape garden feature.  Jim got very interested in hydraulics and went to Versaille - he loved telling this story - to see the water wheel that was installed by Louis XIV to raise the water to feed the gardens. The other thing he wanted was for the fountains to light up at night with gas lights. Originally his idea was that the gas jets would be underwater but he was told this would be highly dangerous. So they were actually just above water level. There is a film called Brief City which shows the lights coming on in the fountains: it obviously was quite a magical effect. 

Emily Richardson: The use of jam jars to create an aesthetic, a particular look, is quite interesting. There are elements of 3 Church Walk that had been made in a very DIY way, but in each case to achieve the right aesthetic. That seemed to have been very much part of his way. 

AP: Yes. There was a phrase “As Found”, which was a slogan of early New Brutalism and, although Jim was not quite of that generation, I think he adopted those principles. I remember him telling me about a conversation he had with Benjamin Britten, for whom he did some design work, about what was going on in architecture compared with what was going on in music - this would probably have been the late-1950s, early 60s. They talked about New Brutalism and Britten said “Oh, well I think that is what I find myself doing in my music.” At that stage he was innovating new percussion instruments. For the sound of raindrops in Noye’s Fludde he used teacups hung on a string which are hit. When doing The Burning Fiery Furnace he wanted a particular metallic percussion sound and so rooted around the garage at Orford, near the church of its premier performance, and found old Rolls Royce springs discarded in the corner somewhere. They tried those out and they made exactly the right noise. Jim loved telling that story. 

JPW: I’ve seen a photograph of Britten and children standing by an A-frame strung with tea cups. To return to Emily’s point, what we struck by in the house, for instance, is that Jim had cut the back of the cooker off to achieve the right look. There were several other items of furniture, present and absent at the time of our visit, Natalie pointed out were bought, irrespective of material qualities, for the correct look. 

AP: I would not say that is absolutely true...  

JPW: Not the build of the house, interior details. 

AP: ...Partly because the person who fixed things was Betty. Jim was quite funny about that. He said" “She can do everything with a screwdriver, can mend everything. I just arrange the flowers.”  

JPW: Jim describes encountering Le Corbusier for the first time as a revelation. Later he became friends with, and worked for, Ernő Goldfinger. If you could characterise what did he learn from these luminaries? 

AP: What did Jim learn from Le Corbusier? Well everybody learns from Le Corbusier. I would not say Jim’s buildings are very directly linked. I think there was a sense of excitement, a sense of improvisation, invention. Maybe he responded to Le Corbusier’s overlooked sense of place, where you design in relation to where you are: landscape, some of the surrounding buildings, perhaps. Jim certainly had that quite strongly. In relation to Ernő Goldfinger some of the same things definitely apply. Goldfinger had a very developed sense of materials and Jim appreciated the way he would mix marble and concrete, for example, and that there was a logical background to the design decisions but they were not boring either. 

Damage to trees and boundary wall by the hurricane of 1987 (Photo courtesy of Natalie Wheatley)

JPW: That response to place is felt quite strongly at 3 Church Walk. The bricks, for example, are local, and in the 1962 mortgage application Jim notes “many good trees on the site” such as Scotch pine, chestnut, ilex, apple and pear. What do you think is the relation between Jim’s public and civic projects - the Royal College of Art Kensington campus and Gravesend Civic Centre - and 3 Church Walk? 

AP: To understand Jim’s architectural motivation what I have found very useful is the one worked out theoretical statement he produced, which was his Architectural Association presidential speech in 1959 called The Dance of Life. The title is taken from Havelock Ellis, who Jim used to refer to on the primacy of dance, of it being a fundamental form of artistic expression - you would think architects would pick up on that more. The way Jim interpreted it was that all buildings contain people and people are moving: that is one of the aspects from which the design can develop, the movement paths. He is not alone in that idea but he had an interesting way of seeing it as a link between the social aspect of the building and its formal expression. So that, for example, at the Royal College of Art, he looked at the lunch queue and realised that was the place where people met and talked and therefore to make lunch serving more efficient and faster was the wrong thing to do. In at 3 Church Walk the fact there is a circuit you can take to go around the house and also see the long vistas through it, in what is actually quite a small building, is definitely signifiant. Most architects would not have done that. It is not really a sacrifice of privacy as such. The idea of openness was important to him; standing furniture away from the walls so you can feel the space going down the back; His and Betty’s absolute delight in the fact there were no skirting boards, and their explanation of how difficult it was to get a builder to do that. They were very lucky: they had a plasterer working for the building firm who was good enough to do that, to bring the plaster right down to the floor with a tiny recessed joint at the bottom. Also, the fact that the doors go right up to the ceiling with no moldings or anything around them, that was fundamental. I remember him saying to me that he got the same pleasure from Norman Foster’s Willis Faber building in Ipswich where the glass comes right down just below the pavement level surrounding it into a little lowered gutter. “Alan,” he said to me “you’re not an architect so you would not understand.”

JPW: The English Heritage listing of 3 Church Walk describes it as a “good example of a good architect’s home.” Do you feel it is an outstanding example of domestic Modernism? 

AP: I think the house is perfectly realised in its own terms. Having done research for English Heritage listing that, in a way, became my criteria. It is not that it conforms to a stylistic model and that one model is better than another, but that everything within it is worked out and coherent. I think it fits that prescription extremely well. It uses devices others have used before. Its very subtle use of internal and external space... The fact that the outside is almost unphotographable - I mean, you can see it, but there were periods when it was covered in a huge growth of ivy which made it more difficult to see. Everything is happening from the inside towards the outside. Then I think the way he partially screened the garden with brick walls and created the entry where you squeeze through a rather narrow passage by the garage and come out into a little courtyard. Your mind has already moved away from Aldeburgh and you are ready for a new experience, which is what you have going into the house and garden. There is the use of levels. Although fairly straightforward, there is just one level change going down into what Betty liked to call the “passion pit." This sunken area of the living room is very effective at effecting space: you see space better closer to the ground. The passion pit gives you that in a very straightforward way. 

Interior photo by June Buck from the 1997 Country Life article

JPW: I read, I think in your Country Life article on the house, that Jim found no photographer could ever do justice to the sense of space in the house. 

AP: Yes, it is curious because historians rely on print. The fact that when it was a new house it was not published - I do not know quite why, at that period architects were not obsessed by publicity, strange in relation to today - so after that moment passed it was only known to people who visited. I wrote the first article on it. 

JPW: That article was published in 1997. It was the first systematic piece of writing on the house?

AP: Yes. I think the objects in the house helped to do an article for a more general magazine, plus the interesting story about it. 

JPW: There is a striking resemblance between 3 Church Walk and some of the Suffolk architect John Penn’s houses. Emily recently visited the house on Single Street in Suffolk and was struck by the similarity. Was Penn aware of Jim? Are the similarities a basis for a period regional style? 

AP: Hmm. Jim Cadbury-Brown and John Penn, another Suffolk architect, both of whom I met, had some similarities. I never heard that they met each other. John was quite a private person. Jim went to Aldeburgh on holiday and knew a few architects in and around the town. John Penn’s houses have a very consistent theme about symmetry and formalism. Although they are modern, very often one storey, brick, flat roof - those are the similarities, but what he does is rather different. They make a fascinating pairing actually, because Jim is not about symmetry. Indeed, it is rather hard to see how you could put a very symmetrical house on the Aldeburgh site effectively because there is not an axial-frontal approach to it. Penn’s houses are mainly on open sites, where the nature of the site with views all around rather demands a more formal approach.

One of John Penn's 'temple' house designs, Rendham, Suffolk, built 1965

ER: Do you think Jim was aware of John Penn and his work?

AP: I have no way of knowing. I would imagine so. In what context they would have met, well there are probably enough people still around who would have the answer to that. 

JPW: In an earlier email correspondence you suggested you had an instrumental role in the house’s listing. Could you describe that role? Was it a controversial listing in any way? 

AP: This is a bit of a farcical footnote actually, although luckily not totally. I was employed as a consultant by English Heritage in 1994 to survey post-war houses for listing. I drew up a long list, which went to a committee and then another committee to be sifted down. I had Jim’s house on the list. It did not make the final cut partly, I was told, because they had not got a plan. Well the plan was not published, it is true. Jim had given me a plan and I had put it in a folder of information for the person who was presenting it and they had not realised what it was! Therefore it missed the bus, which could have been quite serious if the house was under threat. Luckily everything carried on as normal up to the point where it was possible to put it through at a later point. At that stage Elain Harwood was managing the submissions from inside English Heritage and she had been there quite a lot and got to know Jim. She made sure there were not any slip ups like that again. Luckily it was not controversial in any way: there he was living in it and it is almost invisible from anywhere. 

Eastern Daily Press article, 5 December 2000, the day after the house's listing was announced by Alan Howarth 

JPW: How did Jim feel about the listing? 

AP: Oh he was definitely pleased about it. He did come to feel, because he did not have children, that the house was his legacy. He was concerned somebody should have it who would appreciate it. 

JPW: When Emily and I visited there were various objects still in the house, lamps, chairs and furniture, that Natalie told us he stipulated be left. What is the significance of these objects? 

AP: Jim had a very personal attitude to interior decorating and objects. I was very struck by it. Everything was carefully chosen, well you expect that from architects. Some things were quite surprising, they were not all modern, they tended towards monochrome with colour accents. That was very typical of the way the black leather sofa had one cushion lemon yellow and one that was mauve - a colour combination he used in his clothes quite a lot. Just very stylish. I do not know which pieces were left but I would imagine they are a hint towards the right way of living there. 

ER: There is the William Morris bench seat, Eames chairs, Anglepoise lamps and that sofa.

AP: He was very interested in the Arts and Crafts period, and had some slightly Art Noveau candle sticks that had been family items, and the Morris seat. Like a number of architects of his generation that was his parents’ and grandparents’ era. The fact that his grandfather was in the property business and had a house in Hampstead near where C.F.A Voysey built a house for his father. I think all that sank in and he had this sense of the previous generation also in Aldbeburgh, where there are Arts and Crafts houses, as being a valid ancestry for what he was doing. 

JPW: Originally the site in Aldeburgh was supposed to have four houses. Obviously there is the house built for Imogen Holst, but what do you know about the acquisition of land? And the building of Holst’s house? Was there ever a question of that place being listed too? 

AP: The acquisition of the site is quite a curious story involving a project for an opera house for the Aldeburgh Festival. It was actually the second opera house project Jim had worked on. In the process there was a committee set up which, I think, bought the land, or at least bought an option on it. While he looked at the design they looked at fund raising. Eventually it was dropped in about 1960. It was probably a good thing: the site was not big enough for what they wanted to do. That was the point when he made an offer on the land and built his house, and the smaller one for Imogen Holst who was very much linked with the Festival. On the issue about there being four houses, he never wanted or expected to build four houses; in planning terms it was designated as a site that could be used for four houses. 

ER: It was not that he had a group of people in mind? 

AP: So far as I am aware I never heard anything about it and he had the luxury of a rather nice big garden. 

JPW: Were they close friends with Imogen Holst? 

AP: I do not think they were close friends. She was a very nice person. I used to see her around in Aldeburgh. I never knew her but I’ve read and heard a lot about her. She was a character. They enjoyed her character. When they were designing the house she said she wanted a completely soundproof room and they realised she would suffocate in there because it would have to be so tightly sealed. 

JPW: Was there ever a question of listing them as a pair? 

AP: I cannot remember the circumstances around that, but Jim’s house is architecturally superior. One could quite legitimately add her house for historical as well as architectural interest and for “group value," which is one of the phrases used in listing. Indeed that might be a worthwhile thing to consider. The history of listing in the past few years has really been so depressing because the ministers who have to approve post-war listings seem to have been against them on principle, with only a few exceptions, for a very long time so one feels it is better not to try until the climate improves... Or until you get a threat. In fact they do not want random suggestions coming in unless they are under threat. So while that situation remains I think it will be left as it is. 

Flyer (front and back) for Elegant Variation exhibition at the Royal Academy, London 

JPW: Your exhibition Elegant Variation, what did it mean for you to be able to do that? Cadbury-Brown is not known as a significant British Modern architect. Was it an attempt to right that? 

AP: Well the exhibition I put on with James Dunnett and Elain Harwood at the Royal Academy in Autumn of 2006 called Elegant Variation: The Architecture of H.T. Cadbury-Brown RA I was really pleased that was able to happen. The motivation began with a listed building dispute over the Royal College of Art about making an addition on the side towards the Albert Hall. That was very touch and go for a long time as to whether that would get permission, which really would have compromised the building and seemed to me not a good project in terms of its brief. It was supposed to be the painting school but it seemed fairly obvious it was not big enough to be the painting school. It was more of a prestige operation. It was really bad idea. Jim did not like it either. Luckily the proposal was withdrawn.