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The staircase leading to Chapterhouse Exploring the city of Wells in pursuit of the steps to heaven

The Architect

A few days ago I escaped the metropolis and headed for an impromptu but long desired trip to the West Country. I knew little of my destination except that there was a particular flight of stairs, that I knew only from a black and white photo, that seemed to be very well worth the time and the journey. Indeed these steps to heaven had inspired the promenade architectural of a house I once designed overlooking the Bristol estuary, sadly, at least for  me and I like to think the client, it remains unbuilt. Anyway for an architect schooled in the life of physical experience and touch, rather than reliance on the rich but unedited imagery of the internet, I saw this trip as validating the idea for use elsewhere.

The city did not disappoint. I travelled hopefully and found in defiance of the old adage, that it was in fact much better to arrive. I drove swiftly straight to the city’s two squares, one a dipping formal lawn the other an idiosyncratic yet most legible street expanded to accommodate an ancient market. For the city, as all small cities should, began as swiftly as it ended, with none of the tedium of urban sprawl or fashionable edge lands. As a result the populace, indigenous and visitors alike ensured that the busy looped high street was alive and all seemed to enjoy the civilising effect of chance and courteous encounter.

The West front of the Cathedral was magnificently distinguished by it’s Purbeck stone columns that framed the many fine carved stone  figure that were stacked, like a very refined cabinet of curiosities, from the first floor to the sky. Only the two figures accessible above the main doors had been defaced (literarily)  by Cromwell and the puritans of his aspiring Commonwealth. Perhaps, in the race to spread the excesses of their particular brand of democracy (that all too soon degenerated into corrupted absolutism and  pious misery) on the the greater populace elsewhere.

Beyond its urban and aesthetic majesty the cathedral was an essay in the long established sequence of crisis demanding  innovation and tolerance both dimensionally and culturally. Two hundred years after completion, the weight of the great tower started to cause the collapse of the nave. Without  resort to lawyers and the retribution enabled by warranties, the stonemasons were called back and invented the scissor arch which righted the wrong and established a uniquely brilliant structural innovation. If the burghers of Pisa had been an able to call upon such brilliant thinking their city, like this one, would still be a small unfashionable backwater!

History is defined by people as well as the architectural marks they leave. And in this small city, these marks are well celebrated. Just off the green there is a plaque celebrating the home of  ‘last fighting Tommy – Private Henry John Patch who died aged 111’. The length of the long jump of Mary Bignell Rand, another  native of the city, that won get Gold at the Tokyo Olympics, is marked out in the market square (just beyond the Penniless Porch where beggars asked for alms).

Of course history is also brutal. In the Market Square the site of the Market Hall is noted. Not because it was of any great architectural interest but because in 1685 Judge Jeffrey, of the Blooody Assizes, condemned to death  94 of the city’s Catholic  population for their support of the Monmouth Rebellion. A timely reminder both of the dangers of harking back to a more civilised past and of the likelihood that the great significance attached to the relatively minor spat between Brexiteers and Remainers is much overblown. After all, in our adolescent era of the internet, all  news is not so much fake, as  blown up to be of such gargantuan significance that the  import of perspective is lost. Which of course left me wandering if our brief dalliance with the EU will be remembered, as are Cromwell’s Commonwealth and  the Monmouth Rebellion, as but a passing interlude in our long history?






The Architect

About Simon Allford

Simon Allford

Simon Allford is a Director at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. From AHMM’s base in London Simon leads a studio that works in the UK and internationally, engaging public and private clients in the exploration of a particular architecture’s potential to offer delight as well as utility. Simon works on a wide range of scales and typologies. Recent projects include Stratford residential master plan, The Angel, Tea and Yellow Buildings as well as Adelaide Wharf, the Saatchi Gallery and Chobham Academy. He is currently working on the new Google HQ at King’s Cross, The White Collar Factory at City Road, a new tower 240 Blackfriars, three mixed use projects on Regent Street for the Crown Estate, an academic building for the University of Amsterdam as well as large urban scale projects in London and America. Simon is Chairman of the Architecture Foundation, a trustee of the Architecture Association Foundation, a visiting professor at The Bartlett and GSD Harvard. He was recently Vice President for Education at the RIBA and a Chair of Design Review at CABE. Simon engages in the broader architectural discussion as a writer, critic, teacher, judge of competitions, frequent lecturer, examiner, advisor and commentator.

Articles by Simon Allford

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