Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Greece in the Midlands
This is the most unexpected sight to see on a suburban street in Solihull. Its architect, the young John Soane, soon to design the most elaborate country houses, such as Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire and Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire, described it as a barn à la Paestum. While Soane’s houses are elegant Georgian or Regency buildings with complex interiors often displaying a sense of space that’s both intricate and dazzlingly sophisticated, this barn is designed in the simplest, plainest red-brick classicism.
The building dates to the early phase of the architect’s career. He had studied at the Royal Academy and in 1777 won the Academy’s most glittering prize: its Travelling Scholarship. This enabled him to go to Italy to study the buildings of Rome. While there he also traveled south to visit Caserta, Baia, and Pompeii. One of the highlights of this trip was Paestum, the Greco-Roman city some 50 miles southeast of Naples, where the ruins of three ancient Doric temples, built by Greek colonists, survive. These temples, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries BC, are among some of the best preserved of all ancient Greek buildings. Their antiquity and their proportions inspired Soane.
While in Italy Soane met a number of British aristocrats and gentry whom he saw as prospective clients. Among them were several young men who hired Soane as a draughtsman to travel with them from Italy to Sicily and Malta. One member of this group was Henry Greswold Lewis, a landowner from Solihull, and it was for Lewis in 1798 that Soane designed this unlikely structure as a kind of homage to the ruins he had seen at Peastum.
The building is severe, and rather shocking. It’s not exactly like a Greek temple, which would have evenly spaced columns, a deeper entablature above the columns, and no round arch in the centre. But its carefully laid soft red bricks and imperfect white entablature do the job of suggesting ancient Greece and translating some of its architectural hallmarks into the very English medium of brick. For all its severity, it must have made Lewis think of his youthful travels, and smile.