When it comes to the desirability of a house, property experts and novices alike have no doubt heard (and used!) the famous mantra: location, location, location. The attribution of this oft-quoted phrase is debatable, but one could argue that it’s a modern-day maxim for a foundational element of architectural planning that stretches back millennia: position and environment really matter.
In this blog, revising author Martin Roberts uses examples from the Pevsner Architectural Guide to County Durham to explore the different ways in which architects have overcome the challenges of a building’s immediate surroundings and utilised location to dominate a landscape, as well as the ways in which our own viewpoint of a structure can enhance (or detract from) our experience of it.
Martin Roberts takes a step back to appreciate the architecture of County Durham …
Legs Cross is small, behind a hedge, and easily missed. But park up, nip into the field and there on a low mound is the 9th century boundary marker, its interlace carving blown away. It stands at the corner of one of County Durham’s Anglo-Saxon shires, set in the angle between a geological step in the landscape and a Roman road that drops you down onto the Darlington plain, to Piercebridge and the Tees. Placed with an acupuncturist’s precision, it resonates powerfully, commanding the view. Location is everything.
The site of Durham Cathedral was chosen by the canons of the Community of St Cuthbert, at the end of the 10th century, in search of a final resting place for the body of their saint. The great Norman church that later rose on the spot is a paradox, famously dominating its immediate peninsular setting, yet sitting low in the surrounding wooded bowl. To compensate, its central tower is drawn up high, extended to provide a beacon for the pilgrims, approaching beyond the bowl. Architecture in the response to landscape. The little-known view from the east, above Old Durham Gardens, captures the contradiction as the trees encircle the body of the church.
Long before St Cuthbert’s remains arrived in Durham, an earlier monastic community was drawn to another peninsula. The monastery at Hartlepool was founded in the mid 7th century and was later developed under St Hild. What followed was one of the most extraordinary palimpsest landscapes in the North East: medieval church and walled town, some 18th century elegance, a working port and a handsome seaside resort in the Victorian period. Then bombardment by German cruisers in the First World War and a later 20th century grubbing out of most of the old town, replaced with municipal gardens and a tidy car park. The result, though hard on the eye at times, is never dull. This is no easy, chocolate-box heritage, yet it is one of the most important historic landscapes in the county. Medieval walls against a little beach, colourful Georgian grandeur, dockside cranes, oil platforms and shipping, all spiced with probably the best fish and chip shop in the county.
To appreciate the full grandeur of Gainford Hall, you must leave the historic county altogether. Within the village itself the approach is confusing, through narrow twisting lanes, then farm buildings to the entrance front. Far better to cross the river and travel to Barforth on the Yorkshire side, and look back at the magnificent position of the county’s own ‘prodigy house’ of 1600-3. It stands high above the Tees, where walled parterre gardens would have been viewed from hall and great chamber. With an early double-pile plan, the house has a tantalising, if obtuse, Robert Smythson association. The link is, perhaps, too remote to support a serious attribution, but this is a sophisticated house in both plan and form, the product of a highly competent designer.
Butter Market, Barnard Castle
In seeking an architect for the 1747 Butter Market in Barnard Castle we may be more confident in suggesting Daniel Garrett on stylistic grounds, and from his activities elsewhere nearby. Perfectly positioned at the intersection of the town’s medieval streets, this eye-catcher could not be missed by even the most short-sighted of visitors. It stands centrally in the long continuous Bank – Horsemarket – Market Place, a memorable street, the spine of the town. It is set out on a rising curve and swollen in its middle for the weekly market, the essential townscape components of so many northern market towns.
Dunelm House and Kingsgate Bridge
The importance of a building’s location in its landscape can be appreciated from a fixed point, as the accompanying photographs amply demonstrate, but that enjoyment can be enriched by movement, approaching and passing it at close quarter, seeing it, losing it, seeing it again. This was all the stuff of Ian Nairn’s Townscape and Gordon Cullen’s Serial Vision, hugely influential writings of the 1960s, that sought both to celebrate and codify the urban experience. When Durham University commissioned Kingsgate Bridge from Ove Arup (1962-3), it was local officials who suggested the final alignment, a siting that free’d up a large site for Architects Co-Partnership’s dramatic Dunelm House Students Union (1963-6). The juxtaposition of the two, and the new route it opened up onto the peninsula, full of spatial variety and surprises, led Professor Douglass Wise to observe that together they represented ‘the greatest contribution modern architecture has made to the enjoyment of an English medieval city’.
Location, location, location…
Martin Roberts is a former historic buildings inspector for English Heritage, North East region, and the founder of the North East Vernacular Architecture Group.
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