This post has more than a whiff of ‘what I did on my winter holidays’ about it. In the final weeks of 2013 I made a couple of architectural pilgrimages in England and France. They may not seem to have much in common at first, but from a museum exhibition display perspective, there are surprising and important connections.
At the Palais de Chaillot, which was built across from the Eiffel Tower in the late 1930s to house a major international exhibition, there are vast spaces dedicated to the display of French architectural history from the Middle Ages to the present. A centrepiece within the modern gallery is a full-scale replica of one of the apartment units designed by Le Corbusier for Marseille. Between 1947 and 1952, the famed Swiss modernist developed bold new plans for affordable communal living.
These cities in the sky, containing over 300 apartments in a single elongated block furnished with amenities, were designed on a principle called the Unité d’Habitation. Beton brut, rough-cast concrete with a texture and massing that would later inspire the Brutalist movement in modern architecture, clad the exterior walls. Inside, the chilly mid-December Paris world disappeared, replaced with simple wood furnishing, bright colours, and plenty of windows, and even a large image of the south of France’s coastline on a nearby wall. The structure and its details ensured that the apartments were cheerful, full of light, and easily personalised.
When I visited the gallery to walk through the replica of this ‘dwelling unit’, a huge party of schoolchildren buzzed around me. They looked in every cranny, opened closet and cupboard doors, switched lights on and off, and ran up and down the stairs. Within seconds, it was as though they’d made this space within the gallery their (albeit temporary) home. As it’s a reconstruction, touching and looking are invited, and there was a strong sense of affinity with these tightly organized spaces tinted yellow, blue, and green. Visitors are encouraged to wonder what it would be like to live in one of these small purpose-built apartments, imagining themselves in spaces like the ones in Marseille with their uninterrupted views of the Mediterranean and their 1950s promise of a new way of creating community in a vertical village.
What could this possibly have in common with a rambling house on the outskirts of Wolverhampton designed for a wealthy client in the late nineteenth century? Stylistically, Le Corbusier and the Liverpool architectural firm of G. E. Grayson and Edward Ould couldn’t be more different. Grayson and Ould favoured Arts and Crafts uses of vernacular materials, terra cotta, and neo-Tudor white and black cladding. They were eclectic, designing churches, houses, banks and train stations, and they primarily worked in the north of England. Wightwick Manor, now owned by the National Trust, was commissioned by Theodore Mander and built in two phases between 1887 and 1893. I decided to take a look four days before Christmas when it was in full festive splendor.
An industrialist and philanthropist, Mander was typical of the late nineteenth-century ambition to increase personal wealth whilst developing the local community’s services and facilities. Wightwick includes vast amounts of Morris and Company wallpapers and fabrics, and stained glass and interior decorations (including a fantastic plaster animal frieze in the Great Hall) by Charles Eamer Kempe. Papers like ‘Acanthus’ twist across the walls in one of the main bedrooms. Renaissance-style glass depicting allegories of virtues encircle spaces for greeting and entertaining. From the 1930s the Manders collected Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement art. With over 4000 items, the house is now home to key Victorian works including Edward Burne-Jones’ Love Among the Ruins, Philip Webb’s animal cartoons for Morris and Company tapestries (a recent acquisition), paintings by Elizabeth Siddall and Evelyn De Morgan, ceramics by William De Morgan, and drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Simeon Solomon. One of the finest and least well-known objects in the collection is The Mill, an enormous embroidered textile completed at the Royal School of Needlework to designs by Edward Burne-Jones.
Like the Le Corbusier apartment in the Paris architecture gallery, at Wightwick Manor (and many other National Trust sites) visitors are encouraged to imagine these spaces as sites for everyday life, from eating and sleeping to parties and art collecting. The simplicity of the apartments in Le Corbusier’s tower blocks were a combination of aesthetics and economy. At Wightwick, the simplicity of exposed wooden beams in the great hall and the sense of medievalist revivalism was a question of taste and fashion, and a kind of rebellion against the ostentation of previous generations of country houses. But what different lives were led in Marseille’s vertical village in 1960 and Wightwick in 1910. In the Le Corbusier reconstruction in Paris, we connect with the past by opening the cupboards and running our hands over the furniture. At Wightwick, we peer into it by viewing paintings and drawings with the added context of interior details; as we cross the thresholds into these reinvented places, the family home is neither museum nor domestic space.
Dr Ayla Lepine
All photographs were taken by the author, unless otherwise stated.