Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/The Architecture of Town-Houses


IN choosing as my subject "The Building of Town-Houses," it seemed to me that I might, from the experience gained during the past five-and-twenty years in my professional career as an architect, give some information and suggestions on the various points which should be specially observed and insisted upon in any building wherein sound construction, healthy arrangement, common-sense treatment of the rooms, and practical knowledge in their general fitting up, are all-important, where health, cleanliness, and comfort, and economy of service and labor, are considered necessary.

The speculative builders have too long had their way without control of any kind, save that which is provided for under the Metropolitan Building and other local acts, which simply permit of the district surveyors insisting upon certain thicknesses of walls, but give them no power to reject inferior materials, or to prevent scamping and unsound work, and the disregard of all known sanitary laws, and of the commonest precautions to insure health and comfort.

It is surely time that every house erected in the great centers of habitation should have some systematic supervision, so that ordinary precautions shall be insisted upon to secure proper sanitation, to prevent the use of grossly inferior materials, and to prevent these plague spots being formed in our midst; for it must be borne in mind that every house built under the system I have condemned not only tends to the individual discomfort of the special occupier, but adds materially to the unhealthiness of a neighborhood.

In the building of new and the rebuilding of old houses, it is essential that proper regard shall be had to the rapid growth of sanitary science, and not only to comply with, but "anticipate as far as possible, its many requirements, and especially those of them which will, I believe, in a few years be considered by the population at large as absolutely necessary for habitable dwellings, not only as regards the actual sanitary fittings and appliances of the houses themselves, but also as regards their actual construction from the foundation upward, and also more especially as regards the light and air spaces with which they are surrounded."

If our towns are to be reconstructed and added to on healthy and proper principles, each house must be properly constructed, and certain fixed rules insisted upon, as regards proper general health arrangement and sanitation; for "the same rule," to quote Dr. Richardson, "applies to accumulation of health as to the accumulation of wealth." "Take care of the pennies," says the financier, "the pounds will take care of themselves." "Take care of the houses," says the sanitarian, "the towns will take care of themselves." It follows, therefore, that so far as common-sense laws can be applied to the rebuilding of the houses of closely packed communities, they should be on some general and uniform system, so far as laws of health are concerned, which all must follow. But this only applies to sanitation; so far as general arrangement is concerned, the wants of the individual must necessarily be consulted; and, so far as the artistic improvement of our towns is concerned, I am strongly of opinion that the greater the variety of designs, the greater will be the artistic character and general picturesqueness of our streets.

To sacrifice internal comfort, light, and ventilation to some special order of fenestration, Greek, Roman, or Italian, or to the cramped and narrow lines of a mediæval fortress or building of by-gone ages, seems to me to convey nothing but poverty of thought, or narrow-minded conventionalism, as opposed to all true principles of architecture as it is to the wants and requirements of the people of the nineteenth century. Comfort and convenience of arrangement, ample light and ventilation everywhere; protection from damp and miasma, impure and unhealthy smells; warmth, freedom from draught; pure air, pure water, general cleanliness, and attention to all laws of sanitation, are first of all to be considered in every house. The architect or artist can so fashion the external clothing of a good framework as to make it agreeable in its outline and general constructive decoration; but the elevation should be subservient to the plan and constructional requirements necessary to provide all these desiderata, and should not be made the paramount feature in the design of a new house, or in the rebuilding of an old one.

I have lately been reading a powerfully written article by Dr. Richardson, in which he sets forth, in vigorous but not exaggerated language, the various communicable diseases which are "promoted or introduced by the errors of construction in the dwellings of our communities"; and I have been much struck by the number of preventable ills which he associates with bad ventilation, damp, bad drainage, impure water-supplies, want of light and through draught, uncleanliness and foulness, or stuffiness of modern dwellings; and I hope you will permit me briefly to refer to and quote some of his remarks.

To begin with, typhus, typhoid, relapsing and scarlet fevers, are mainly due to foul air, impure smell, or water, or closely packed and unventilated rooms, while the poisons thrown off by these diseases are retained in the walls and flooring, if badly constructed; while impure air arising from dust and dirt accumulations, and bad sanitation, tend to other illnesses in a minor degree, such as dyspepsia, nervousness, and depression, "during the presence of which conditions" (to quote Dr. Richardson) "a person is neither well nor ill." Another of our worst English diseases, "pulmonary consumption, or consumption of the lungs, has been largely promoted by the presence of unchanged and impure air in the dwelling-house," while "neuralgic and miasmatic diseases" are brought about by the same causes, assisted by atmospheric moisture or damp, so often to be found in houses built either upon clay or in moist situations, where the ordinary precautions of covering the whole surface area with concrete or some other damp preventive has not been carried out.

Dampness is more or less directly the cause of all the malarious diseases—ague, neuralgia, and rheumatism—and here the speculative builder comes in, with venom certain and incurable, with soft, spongy bricks which absorb a large amount of water, with mortar composed of road drift or scrapings, foul and unhealthy; with damp and unseasoned timber, ingredients in the plague-spots which warmth of fires bring out in vapor, and wherein moisture seems ever present, dimming the mirrors or condensing on painted walls, or absorbed in paper or distemper, which, on every damp day, becomes a visible barometer, marking plainly the change of temperature. In badly-constructed and ill-arranged houses, how often do we hear the inhabitants complain of what is technically called "draught," which means sudden and irregular change of temperature! Unpleasant as it is in itself, it is most insidious and dangerous in its results, bringing about colds, chills, and general "disturbance in the circulation of the organs of the body."

It is unnecessary to dwell further upon the numerous ills which we have it in our power to lessen, or altogether get rid of, by attention to the general construction of the houses we live in. I can only insist generally, with Dr. Richardson, that "the intention and object of domestic sanitation is so to construct houses for human beings, or, if the houses be constructed, so to improve them, that the various diseases and ailments incident to bad construction may be removed to the fullest possible extent. The diseases need not be looked upon as necessities of existence, but may be recognized as results of ignorance, or as accidents which, though they may not spring from sheer and wanton ignorance, are removable by accurate foreseeing and all-providing knowledge."

In towns, where, for the most part, all houses are built in groups, either in streets, terraces, or squares, and rarely detached, the general aspect is naturally fixed by the location of the building, and the laying out of the street or terrace of which the particular house already forms or is to form a part; and, therefore, it is of the utmost importance as far as possible to secure as much light and sun as can be obtained by the slightly varied aspect which is given by semi-octagonal or circular projecting windows with side-lights, more especially where the plotting of the site lies more or less due north and south.

Nothing can be more miserable and unartistic, nothing more insulting to good taste, than the dreary monotony and vulgarity of most London streets, old and new. How much more artistic and picturesque could our streets be made if broken up with bays and gables, cutting up the sky-line, like the streets in many of the old towns in Germany and Belgium; and how much more cheerful and healthy would be the rooms wherein these bays are thrown out, and through which sun, air, and light can be obtained in more ample quantity, than by means of the two or three parallelogram-shaped openings which generally form the windows in most London fronts! Anyway, there is an old adage, which is more or less true, that, "where the sun does not enter, sickness in some sort or way is sure to obtain." We do not get too much sun in smoke-covered towns; and surely every possible allowance, consistent of course with what is due to the comfort and enjoyment of our neighbors, should be made for flat-sided projections, by which more sun and light can be given to our homes.

Fancy being on the south side of a street, where the windows face due north, and into which, for nearly the whole of the year, the sun can never shine, save very occasionally in thin, slantwise streaks. Were it not for the generally disagreeable views that are obtainable from the backs of town-houses, I should be often inclined to advise that all the best rooms in such a case should be placed at the back, with projecting bays, and so to obtain, as far as is practicable, some glimpse and use of the sun during all hours of the day.

Why, too, can not the backs of our houses be made more decent, if only by means of glazed bricks varied occasionally with bands of color? when we see the backs of some of the grand, stucco-covered palaces of our western suburbs, we are apt to think of the old rhyme which, written on some piece of modern church or chapel architecture, says that—

"They built the front, upon my word,
As fine as any abbey;
And, thinking they might cheat the Lord,
They made the back part shabby."

Of course, I know glazed bricks are more expensive than the common stocks, but the extra expense would be amply repaid by the extra light and better air, for the glaze naturally makes the brick not absorbent, and every shower of rain would wash the walls, so faced, clean.

Why should we not have every new house in such places as Berkeley or Grosvenor Squares built with projecting oriels and bays, and high-pitched gables? The gables would add materially to the light and comfort—not to say anything of the artistic character—of the rooms, while the latter would surely be preferable to the generally miserable so-called dormers, which are, as a rule, set back behind the balconies or parapets, in the attics of most town-houses; these, I am told often, are quite good enough for servants, a selfish, cruel, if not a suicidal opinion; for, if we are to have servants in health, and fitted to carry out their daily occupations, with comfort to themselves and justice to their employers, their rooms should be just as light, airy, and cheerful as any others in the house. Let the sun call them in the morning if you can, and give a greeting in a light, cheery manner to the commencement of their daily labor. In addition to the manifest improvement to the elevation and rooms of the house, all these irregularities tend to promote movement in the air, to give light and shade, and thus to help toward health in the building, and pleasure in our walks abroad.

In speaking upon the next part of my subject, that of design, I desire to recognize and appreciate, in the largest possible sense, the varieties of taste which must necessarily prevail in an age where, as a rule, precedent and fashion are all-predominant; but I do insist that the external design, properly considered, that is, the general elevation of the street front, should and must be subservient to the internal requirements; and that the light, air, ventilation, and common-sense requirements of the house must in no way be sacrificed to the external design, for no beauty of mere architectural effect will compensate for discomfort and bad internal arrangement.

A good plan will make a good elevation; but an elevation in which specific rules which might be fitting for a Greek temple or a mediæval fortress are insisted on, is in no way suitable to an ordinary house, in which the first essentials are lofty and well-arranged windows, and proper light and air space.

Gothic tracery and pointed openings are not suited to ordinary sash windows, and it surely is inconsistent with modern street design to attempt anything in which one or other of the so-called five orders of classic architecture has to be worked into a house in which the frontage is perhaps eighteen or twenty feet at most. When it was attempted in the beginning of this century, in the terraces of Regent's Park, generally two or more houses were embraced in the design, a manifest inconvenience and absurdity when one owner wants to paint his front red and the other yellow.

The fashion of the day is running into modern Dutch, or so-called Queen Anne, and inasmuch as this style admits of ample fenestration, and does not limit the size of light-openings, and relies for its piquancy and character on honest red brick instead of sham plaster and vulgar imitation, we may be thankful for small mercies, and be content with a revival of a sixteenth and seventeenth century Renaissance school of architecture, which gives us at least color and picturesqueness in our London streets.

I go so far as to say that the man who builds a red-brick house in a town, where want of color tends to make everything glaring or, where smoke-covered, gloomy, is a benefactor to his species; and I go still further in saying that to a great extent the materials used should, in a manner, be those which are peculiar to the country and locality. Stone of various kinds is indigenous to certain localities, and naturally suggests itself to the particular neighborhoods.

We have plenty of good brick clay; we can obtain readily first class red bricks and terra-cotta, and both these materials are more lasting and more suitable to London smoke and the deleterious action of London atmosphere than almost any stone which exists.

Glazed and colored brick, and faience, and terra-cotta, admit of almost any variety of design; they give picturesqueness, warmth, and color where they are wanted.

I should like to see London streets made picturesque and beautiful in color, with terra-cotta and glazed faience, which every shower of rain would cleanse and improve, and should like to see every stucco fronted building decaying and unlet. As a rule, this sort of work is not only imitation of stone, bad in taste, bad in construction, and unfit to last any time, but glosses over inferior building, and covers a multitude of sins which it would be well for the occupiers, from a mere common-sense and sanitary point of view, to lay bare. We do not want pseudo-Italian palaces, or bad copies of French street architecture, with forced arrangement of fenestration and cutting up of wall-space, utterly at variance with home requirements; nor do we want so-called mediæval structures, in which light, ventilation, and air are sacrificed to narrow Gothic or pointed-headed windows and doorways.

So far as I can judge, it seems to me that the so-called Elizabethan, or later Renaissance, of this country is infinitely more charming and more suitable to every-day wants and requirements than any other style, Greek, Roman, or Gothic; anyway, we want to express in our external work a sense of comfort and utility, and to provide ample light and air-space for the rooms, of which the front wall is only the external casing; and any style which combines these desiderata will commend itself to common-sense people.

Good architectural effect may be perfectly well obtainable with a good common-sense plan, and there is no possible excuse for a design, whether classic, Gothic, or Queen Anne, which does not first of all recognize the internal necessities and conveniences, and which is not subordinate to a great extent to every-day internal requirements of a well-arranged and comfortable house. While I advocate first of all that the elevation or design should be made subservient to the plan, I do not see the necessity of following the types of various schools of French, Italian, or thirteenth, fourteenth, or fifteenth century Gothic buildings; and, when I see the pretentiousness of imitation of either of these schools, I am bound to confess that it suggests nothing but an ignorant conceit, which would not for a moment have been carried out by the great architects, whose works we admire, had they had all the modern improvements which increased knowledge and higher skill in invention have brought about.

In our monumental buildings, and even in our ordinary street fronts, architecture should be much more intimately allied with the sister arts of sculpture and painting. Even a porch in which the ornament is modeled with care by an artist, or the corbel of a projecting bay, will redeem an otherwise bad design from commonplaceness; a proper regard for proportion and arrangement of outline in the most simple building shows the work of a true artist, much more than the overlaying of his work with useless ornament or carving, or the overcrowding of parts with feeble enrichment stuck on balustrading and pediments. In house-design, it seems to me that, first of all, the de sign should convey some expression of the comfort and general planning of the building, and that its fenestration should show, above all, proper regard to the lighting and ventilation of the rooms, and generally bear the characteristics of the material with which it is carried out.

If importance is wanted in an elevation, let it be got by good sculpture in such portions of the building as are nearest the eye-line; a porch properly treated with good modeled decoration, either in figure or relief ornament, can be made as imposing as you like, while balcony fronts can be of good wrought-iron, like some of those in the old picturesque towns of Spain and Germany, instead of lumpy and heavy with balustrading, which not only shuts out light from the rooms, but suggests an element of danger by their utterly false and generally insufficient construction; but I confess to a feeling of astonishment when I see friezes and cornices of buildings in narrow streets, some forty or fifty feet from the street-level, covered with elaborate carving and enrichment which it is impossible even to look at without craning the neck, and which can only be appreciated by the servants who inhabit the attics over the way. There is no possible reason why street frontages should not be made picturesque and beautiful instead of tame and ugly, and the commonest of fronts can often be redeemed by some good bit of detail and decoration in the shape of red brick, terra-cotta, or glazed faience. Picturesque fronts, with projecting oriels or bays and gabled roofs, need cost no more than some of these wretched travesties of Italian or French architecture, with so-called Mansard-roofs and cramped dormer lights, and would give grace and charm, and color, where now commonplaceness, vulgarity, and bad taste reign supreme.

Too often the first principles of proportion are lost sight of, owing to the want of proper culture of the eye, and details which might be well suited to a Genoese or Roman palace are stuck on to a narrow street frontage.

There is no need why London street architecture should not embody every modern improvement, and be carried out in a common-sense and picturesque style, suitable for every-day wants, and in conformity with all the various scientific principles of sanitation which the nineteenth century has produced, "instead of resuscitating old forms and old features, which our forefathers would have gladly changed" had they had the knowledge or benefit of modern improvements. I have no desire to see any one uniform style of building, but, whatever style is taken up by the individual owner, it is first of all essential that it should be made to adapt itself to the internal requirements, and that there be ample light, and common-sense treatment of the window-spaces, so that they be arranged in the rooms in proper places, and not thrust into corners, or raised so high from the floors as to be prison-like, to suit the external design; and whether Greek, Italian, Queen Anne, or any date or period of so-called Gothic art, it must be governed by present wants, and possess every sanitary and modern invention which may make the individual house more comfortable, more healthy, and more convenient for the purposes for which it is required.

Renaissance, whether German, Italian, or French, freely or simply treated, and all the later phases of the Jacobean and English Elizabethan periods, are capable of being successfully adapted to present home-life and modern requirements. So far as my experience goes, the public generally are unaware of the real advantages and merits of terra-cotta for facing street fronts. When properly burned, it is absolutely impervious to smoke, and is unaffected by acid fumes of any description; it is about half the weight of the lightest building-stones, and its resistance, when burned in solid blocks in compression, is nearly one third greater than that of Portland stone; it is not absorbent—a great desideratum when damp has to be considered—it is easily molded into any shape, for strings, cornices, or window-sills and architraves, and can be easily modeled for figure or other enrichment. It can be got in good warm yellow or red color, and, when glazed, can be produced in almost any tones of soft browns, greens, reds, or yellows; and its strength, durability, and imperviousness to all the destructive influences of town atmospheres, to my mind, recommend it as the building material most adapted for facing street frontages.

Let me say a few words about iron railings. To what disastrous order of things we owe the prison-like bars and straight lines of the ordinary front railings in our streets, I am at a loss to understand; but surely nothing can be more hideous or more unartistic. Why cannot we redeem the general want of taste in London streets by something like good design in balcony-fronts or area-railings? They may be made just as secure, and just as useful, if made ornamental in form, like the beautiful iron-work of the old towns in Spain, Italy, and Germany, which can be seen in the humblest street front as well as in the princely palaces; or like the English work of the last century, some few specimens of which remain.

It is in these small matters that the taste of a people is shown, and it is by these minor features of design in the necessities of street architecture that picturesqueness and grace are to be obtained.

Let me close this lecture by a quotation from one delivered over a quarter of a century ago, by a writer who was then one of the greatest of living word-painters:

"If you build well and artistically, you will talk to all who pass by, and all those little sympathies, those freaks of fancy, those jests in stone, those workings out of problems in caprice, will occupy mind after mind of utterly countless multitudes, long after you are gone. You have not, like authors, to plead for a hearing, or to fear oblivion. Do but build large enough and boldly enough, and all the world will hear you; they can not choose but look."—Abridged from the Journal of the Society of Arts.