Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Old city, open city

Once a month, there are free guided tours of Somerset House, the handsome eighteenth-century building beside Waterloo Bridge that used to house different government offices (registers of births, marriages, deaths, Inland Revenue, that sort of thing), and is now home to the Courtauld Institute Gallery and some fountains in the courtyard.

It's named for Thomas Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was uncle and Protector of the child king Edward VI in the mid-16th century (and, rumour has it, a little too physically affectionate to the only slightly older Princess Elizabeth, which has been held to explain her attitudes as Queen to men and marriage). He decided a grand riverside palace was required for his status, and cleared local riverside properties (the Protestant reformation conveniently absolving him of any need to respect local church buildings). His ambitions leading his enemies to find a way of bringing him down and executing him for treason, his palace then became an all-purpose government building.

In those days, government offices tended to be squeezed into any available outhouses of the monarch's palace, so a grand building like this was quite useful for putting up foreign guests and international conferences. As a result, it quite quickly, and perhaps ironically, became a place where Catholic worship was tolerated for diplomatic reasons, a practice extended when it was used to house the Stuart queens and their attendants, who tended to come from Catholic countries. Part of the tour takes you round the Piranesi-like lightwells around the courtyard and into a service cellar where a few tombstones of French and Portuguese servants are preserved.

The present building was the first designed with government and public offices in mind, and squeezes a lot of space in. The point of the lightwells around the courtyard was to let light into offices set into the slope from the upper street-level down to the riverside (complete with river entrance for the naval officers who occupied part of the building). Down below, the space for the lower orders is utilitarian (imagine working here when every copy of every newspaper had to be physically stamped to show duty paid), but upstairs the space for the nobs is grand and light: this photo shows the Nelson staircase.

Not the most important building, or the most significant bits of information I've ever learnt, but it was something to do on a cold wet Saturday afternoon (pity the poor children who were dancing through the fountains on the snowy Sunday as part of the Olympic Torch hooha). When (if?) the summer comes, the courtyard is an impressive public space to sit - much better than the civil servants' car-park it used to be - but for now, there's a distinct air of not being quite sure what the bulk of the building is for, since the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms moved out.

For the moment, it's housing Open City, an interesting and stimulating exhibition on some of the work being done by Design for London, the Mayor's design agency (can't you tell it's election year?), on the "public realm", the spaces and streetscapes under pressure from competing demands for security, safety, cars, buses, pedestrians, etc., etc. This wall shows the range of interests that have to be accommodated.

There's an interesting range of projects described in the exhibition, from improved access and use of the Victoria Embankment (30 years overdue, in my view), to the "Bankside Urban Forest" (not the new trees outside Tate Modern, but a scheme to open up dead spaces in the warren of streets and commercial/industrial premises behind it), to huge open space conservation and regeneration projects in the south and east of London (some kick-started by the Olympic park development, but much larger in scale and range).

The public are invited for their comments: as you can see, there is a lot of disenchantment to be responded to...

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