J. J. Stevenson

Royal Institute of British Architects, Transactions 5, new series (1889):89-104.

Born in Glasgow and a graduate of Glasgow University, Stevenson (1831-1908) turned from a study of theology to architecture. After pupilages in Edinburgh under David Bryce and with Sir Gilbert Scott in London, he travelled and studied in Europe. He practiced architecture in Glasgow with his partner, Campbell Douglas and later in London with Edward Robert Robson, architect of the London School Board. Many of their buildings featured Stevenson's "Queen Anne" facades. Through his friend, William Morris, he became a member of the first committee of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and Stevenson remained throughout his life a firm believer in the importance of historic preservation and restoration. He was a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Institute of British Architects, elected to the latter status in 1879. His buildings include repairs to St. John's College and Oriel College at Oxford, a new building for Christ's College, Cambridge and the University chemical laboratory. Stevenson also designed a number of houses in London and several churches in Scotland at Perth, Stirling, and Glasgow among other places. In quite a different atmosphere, he turned to the design of interiors of large ocean liners, including the Royal Mail steamship, Ormuz and The Orontes of the Orient and Pacific line. In addition to articles and pamphlets on restoration, in 1880 he published a two-volume work, Home Architecture. At the time of his death twenty-eight years later an admirer characterized this as still "a text-book in architectural offices."

The modern reader will find in Stevenson's recommendations on street planning some of the ideas put forward in May of the same year by Camillo Sitte. Stevenson's advocacy of curving streets and his reminder that residential streets do not need to be as wide as major thoroughfares were arguments advanced by Sitte in his Der Städtebau. Similar also to Sitte's point of view is Stevenson's complaint: "Streets seem often to be laid out on the idea that we are to look down on them as if we were birds in the air or up in a balloon. The view we get of them from this position is so rare that it need not be taken into account." Whether Stevenson was aware of Sitte's work is not known, but his statement of these principles must surely be the earliest in English to present these concepts as a guide to modern town planning.

The march of improvement, wherever over the world modern civilisation is spreading, is changing the aspect of cities and towns. There is more space, the streets are wider and more regular, the houses larger, the rooms loftier; there is better sanitation and better building. But the improvements have not been gained without some loss. Our new towns, and new streets in old ones, are dull and uninteresting,; they have not the charm of old ones; we do not go out of our way to see them; if stranded in them in our travels we find there is nothing to detain us, and we get out of them as soon as we can. As travelling has become easy and universal it is less worth doing; there is nothing interesting and characteristic to see, unless it be in some decayed and unprogressive old places which the tide of modern improvement has left untouched.

I think it is not unworthy of the consideration of the Institute to ask whether this is inevitable to examine into the causes of the general dulness and want of interest in modern towns as compared with old ones, and to see whether along with our modern improvements we might not still have the old charm. In an old town there is something attractive at every step; the streets wind irregularly so that we cannot see the whole of them at once times contracting to narrow straits flanked by perpendicular cliffs of houses, at times widening into sunny openings; each building, is different, some large and magnificent, others small and even mean, some low and some lofty; towers and dormer-windows break the sky-line, steeples end the vistas of the streets, projecting oriels vary their surface. The carriage-ways may be rough and narrow and possibly dirty; the pavements non-existent, or diminished at parts to nothing by the projecting houses; but, notwithstanding the smells, we linger and admire, and even produce our sketch-books.

All this is disappearing rapidly--"and a good thing too," it may be said. Streets are widened and straightened projections cut away, uniformity is the rule. The new streets are all much alike; their sides flat straight walls, with holes in them, with more or less trimmings round them; no separate buildings each with its own individuality, grouping into an interesting and characteristic street view, but the different properties undistinguishable, divided only by an invisible central line of party-wall.

Much praise has been bestowed on the new Paris of the late Baron Haussman, and regrets have even been expressed that we could not have had him do the same for London. New streets for traffic were essential in Paris, and the work has been thoroughly done. Wide boulevards carried out by despotic authority with logical thoroughness, have provided communication in all directions, every consideration being overridden in carrying out a grand conception. The dominant idea is the straight line. This was not always possible, even to Imperial autocracy: two thousand years of existence had left some lines and landmarks which had to be respected; but one new street runs dead straight for over two miles, a weariness to mortals; the old Cité of Lutetia which used to rise on the mud island in the Seine, defined by the old tall houses which rose from the water's edge on the lines of the old city walls, has been obliterated, indistinguishable from the streets on either side of the river; the west front of Notre-Dame, on its large new square, looks half the size it did when it rose towering above the old houses. Paris is cleaner and easier to go about in.

But it is not all gain. Its interest is largely gone, rents have enormously increased, and the cost of rebuilding has saddled the city with a debt which has made it one of the dearest places in the world to live in.

It is a question whether, with some greater consideration for old associations, some less abject worship of the deity of the straight line, all the convenience wanted might not have been obtained, cost saved, and the city left more interesting. Many Frenchmen, especially artists, think; so. But art seems losing its influence in its old home. Those who know France and Frenchmen mourn the decay of the French character, spoilt by the luxury fostered by Imperialism, by Bourse speculation and greed. In her lowest need, while paying the indemnity after the German war, France clung to her art, voting subsidies to foster it. But the artistic monstrosity which is being perpetrated in the Eiffel Tower, against the protests of her best artists, seems to me to show that even her love of art is leaving her.

It is the same in Rome. The new streets necessary for her expansion as the capital of one of the Great Powers excite universal condemnation for their dreary ugliness. Florence, which till our time was much as the Medici left it, is degenerating by way of improvement into dreary commonplace, and the latest project proposes to sweep away the whole heart of the city and substitute a wide straight street of the modern type. In provincial towns also the old picturesqueness is disappearing. At Rouen, when I was last there, the clock-tower over the Rue-de-l'Horloge was getting into the state of disrepair which parsons allow their churches to fall into when they want thoroughly to restore or rebuild them. In Cairo the proclivities for Western civilisation of the late Khedive have replaced the old streets with shoddy imitations of the second-rate houses of a French suburb, and the charming old mosques of the Khalifs are fast going to ruin.

In the towns of the New World, in America and Australia, the new wealth produces costly and handsome buildings, but rarely any street views which an artist would care to make the subject of a picture.

At home, with us the old tradition of picturesque street architecture survives, and of late years has shown new development. There are towers and dormers and projecting windows. But I have never heard of artists being inspired to copy them. The streets somehow have not the charm of the old ones. We allow the old characteristic monuments of our streets to perish. There was no need for destroying Temple Bar. Widening the street north of it would have been better for the traffic. And now we have an active band of enthusiasts for improvement bent on the destruction of the Church of St. Mary-le-Strand, the greatest ornament of the street.(1)

If this is the case (and in making these assertions I think I am stating a general impression), the causes of it are worth the consideration of a body of architects like the Institute; for, if architecture be an art, including something more than merely stable building and sanitation, correct estimates and knowledge of accounts, our prosperity, and even our existence as a profession, depend on the public caring for and fostering it as an art, as a means of making our towns interesting and beautiful, places which we can love and care to stay in.

Of the causes which produce the dullness of our modern towns as compared with old ones, some are probably irremediable. The picturesqueness which arises from decay and instability the most enthusiastic worshipper of antiquity would not desire to reproduce. The interest of old associations, of historical events, of even the uneventful lives of generations passed away, we cannot have in new buildings. It is this consideration which makes the rebuilding of old halls of the City Companies like the Carpenters', and of the old Colleges at the Universities, a loss to mankind, even if the new buildings which replace them equalled the old ones in their architecture. Another charm of the old towns which we fail often to attain arose from their buildings being better in their architecture. From whatever causes (and these it is not my present purpose to investigate), there were no monstrosities. There was a standard of criticism. Every age had a style of its own, understood even by common country builders. Buildings were criticised and abused; King James's Gothic was laughed at by classic-purists; the tower of the schools at Oxford was denounced for the infraction of the canons of architecture in setting the five Orders one above the other; and it is said that the architect of the Whitehall front of the Admiralty committed suicide in shame of the bad proportions of his portico. If architects nowadays were as conscientious there would be more room in the profession.

It must be admitted that of late years there has been a marked improvement in our street architecture. Architects are actually employed now for street houses, sensibly augmenting the amount of the work of the profession; houses have often an individuality of their own, not, as hitherto, indistinguishable from their neighbours on each side; and while the old dulness is too often still reproduced, or, what is worse, monstrosities bred of conceit and ignorance are perpetrated by builders and even by architects, a large number of private as well as public buildings have of late adorned our streets which would be a credit to any age or style. The old system which prevailed while national styles still existed, which ensured us good buildings from common builders in every county town and village, has gone for good--the human race will submit, no more in building than in other things, to the trammels of tradition; whatever excellence is produced will be due to the knowledge, the skill, and the genius of individuals, which, copied by others, will produce fashions rapidly changing, instead of the old slow steady progress of traditional styles. We must make the best of our circumstances. It is no use advocating the revival of the old system of styles--as well try to revive the dead--or advising the suppression of architects in order to have good architecture. In their efficiency lies its only hope, and we may congratulate ourselves that among our body there are many, and an increasing number among its younger members, who, grounded in the knowledge of what the art has done, restrained from extravagance by being permeated by the merits and restraints of old work, possess the originality and genius to develop old styles and fit them to our modern use.

The cry we sometimes hear for a new style is foolish--no individual, no single generation, could create it; the old styles are the result of the continuous improvement of successive generations; but, while taking them as our models, we may show true originality by modifying them, and adding new developments to suit our modern necessities. In what has been already done there is good hope for the future.

But even good architecture does not make our modern streets as interesting as old ones. There is a prevailing sameness in them; each building, however good its architecture, is only a portion of a street frontage, and its architectural effect is lost. In Venice the old palaces mostly stand isolated, each separated from its neighbour by a canal--sometimes only a few feet wide, but enough to give it isolation. The curves of the canals put the different buildings in different lights, and give individual prominence even when they are not separated from their neighbours by an open space. The present infatuation for making streets straight is really curious. No trouble or expense is thought too great to effect this object. For the sake of it the building plots, which are best rectangular for each separate building, are left any awkward shape they happen to turn out. Old buildings, valuable for their beauty, and even for their use, are pulled down when a slight alteration of the street-line might have saved them. There seems to be an idea that a straight line is the perfection of art. But it is not a beautiful thing. Nature abhors it. In Greek temples there is not a single straight line; when statues are placed beside them their pedestals often a little out of square.

An artist, says Mr. Ruskin can draw every line except a straight one. The modern passion for it arises from confounding mathematical perfection with the perfection of art, and also perhaps because it saves the surveyors trouble. To condemn it as the rule for streets will seem to many absurd. It is the easy and natural line to follow. But whenever art has been highest it has been avoided, as in the entasis of classic columns and Gothic spires.

Streets seem often to be laid out on the idea that we are to look down on them as if we were birds in the air or up in a balloon. The view we get of them from this position is so rare that it need not be taken into account.

The designer seems often to think he has achieved a work of art when he has made an arrangement which looks pretty on his paper plan. What is wanted is that the streets should look well as we walk along them, and all experience proves that this is best attained by some departure from the absolute straight line. This is characteristic of all the streets most celebrated for their beauty--the High Street of Oxford, Grey Street in Newcastle, the Grand Canal of Venice, the Lung'-Arno at Pisa and at Florence. As such streets wind, even if it be but gently, the buildings lining them are placed at an angle of perspective in which they are better seen, each building stands out better in its own individuality, and the change of angle gives varying effects of light and shade, just as the varying light on a moulding makes it more interesting than a flat band of stone.

An architect, if he only knew it, has cause for rejoicing when the site of his building gives him a broken line of frontage. If he works the irregularity into his design he has a legitimate chance of being original. The subtle charm of the front of St. Mark's at Venice arises partly, as Mr. Street pointed out, from the line of front being broken, the centre being set back. But the restorers have started their new work apparently with the intention of rebuilding the whole front on a straight line, perhaps one of the most remarkable instances of the blindness of men who get possessed with this fixed idea. The authenticity and the antiquity of the church the obvious intention of the original designers, the charm of the effects of time, even the considerable cost, all go for nothing compared with the paltry object of their worship. They think themselves much cleverer than the old builders, and flatter themselves that they are correcting their mistakes. But with the piazza open in front, there was no need for the designer to break the line of building unless he wished. If he had desired a straight façade he could have stretched a line and built to it.

Ought we, then, for the sake of appearance, purposely to break and make irregular the straight line of our streets, which is the obvious and natural way of laying them out? To many this will seem absurd. But we do it on our buildings for the sake of appearance, in the entasis of columns and spires, in the intakes of towers, in the curves of roofs. There is no consideration of convenience against it. It is urged that a street should be straight, as a straight line is the shortest distance between two points; but any addition to its length from all the bending wanted for the sake of appearance may well be considered a negligible quantity. No doubt it would give more trouble in laying-out streets and in designing the buildings; but all art gives trouble; it is in overcoming difficulties that its triumphs have been achieved.

No rule could be laid down for doing it. To attempt it would do the very thing which it is the object to avoid: the wearisome regularity. And there is some danger that to make streets irregular without obvious cause might look like affectation. Designers sometimes start with the idea of making a pretty-looking plan with the curves carefully drawn, forgetting that the result will never be seen in the actual work. What the experience of existing streets shows to look well is not that the building-line should be a continuous curve, but a broken line made up of a succession of straight lines, each the frontage of a separate building, which thus has its front straight in plan. This arrangement sometimes comes naturally from the configuration of the site of the town--as at Durham, where the old streets wind round the peninsula which the cathedral crowns; or at Bourges where each successive extension of the town has been a concentric circle round the old hill-fort of the Bituriges which Caesar stormed.

The builders of old streets, fortunately for their artistic aspect, had no theodolites. The lines, when not dominated by some obvious natural configuration of the ground, seem to have been determined by some accident, following perhaps an old footpath bending to avoid some obstacle or marshy ground, but keeping a general straight direction. Slight as are the bends of Oxford Street and the Strand, or of Grey Street in Newcastle, they are all that is wanted to give interest and effect.

In the New World any departure from straight lines and rectangles is more difficult, as these are often the basis of the division of the country. Instead of the natural divisions of rivers and mountains, a parallel of latitude or longitude, a thousand miles or two long, is taken as the boundary-line of a State, and this primary factor is apt to project itself into all minor divisions of the land. In mapping out a new country it saves a deal of trouble, and there is, I must confess, a simple grandeur in it which is fascinating. It was the idea of Imperial Rome. She stamped her mark on the countries she conquered in the lines of her roads running straight across them, with a sovereign, one might almost say a brutal, contempt for natural features or even convenience of traffic, disdaining to turn even to avoid the steepest hill. But the Roman spirit was not artistic. Grandeur and admirable organisation characterised her rule, but also a singular defect of artistic development. Everywhere in her empire, from Palmyra to the Tyne, there is to be found the same rather dull and illogical style of architecture, with badly-carved Corinthian capitals and coarse mouldings. In this question, viewed as a question of art, one need not take the Romans as a guide; and, as a matter of convenience, there is no reason why the natural configuration should not still be a determining factor in the lines of streets, as the bends of a river or the windings of a hillside. On an open level site variation would be more difficult. But even there excuses might be found for breaking the uniformity, if it were not for the fixed idea that straight streets are an object of perfection to be striven for at any cost; but at least let us not spend our energies and the public money in rectifying bending streets where they exist, and let advantage be taken, in laying out new ones, of every circumstance which gives an opportunity of departing from the dull regularity of a dead straight line.

I presume the recent improvements at Charing Cross, Piccadilly Circus, and Hyde Park Corner may be taken as exhibiting the highest development of modern ideas which the circumstances would admit. I will assume that the convenience of the traffic was the main object aimed at. Now it is obvious that where two streets cross there is double the amount of traffic of each of them, and the space at the crossing should consequently be doubled in extent. Oxford Circus and the old Piccadilly Circus were properly designed to carry out this idea, but the Hyde Park improvement ignores it. Piccadilly, at the point where Hamilton Place strikes it, is no wider now than it was before, and it is therefore not surprising that the block of the traffic there is as bad as ever it was. Several plans were suggested for this improvement--some with tunnels or subways, in the vain expectation that vehicles would use them; one, by our Council, better in every way than the one carried out--but none I think in which there was recognition of the necessity of providing doubled space for doubled traffic. If Piccadilly had been widened to ninety feet of roadway as far eastward as Park Lane by frankly bending the southern pavement southwards, it would have given no more space than was needed for its own traffic and that of Hamilton and Grosvenor Places and the entrance to Hyde Park.

Besides giving for double traffic the same space as for single, several other principles seem to have guided the designers of these improvements; one, that the routes for vehicles should be in the gentlest possible curves; that a cab cannot turn in a right angle; that, compared with this, the convenience of foot-passengers at the crossings is an altogether secondary consideration; and that it is of sovereign importance that a roadway should never vary in width. I venture to think that all these principles are wrong: that the convenience of foot passengers ought to be the first consideration, that a cab can turn in a right angle, and that making a street a little wider at parts than the minimum is not only no harm, but may be a practical convenience in giving an opportunity for faster vehicles to pass slower ones. The Hyde Park Corner improvement provided a crossing on the south side for foot-passengers, about 300 feet long, with an island in the middle. To attempt to cross meant undertaking a voyage of considerable difficulty and danger. Cabs cross diagonally, consequently occupying a much larger portion of the space for foot-passengers than if they crossed at right angles, chasing you from behind and charging you in front. This crossing has now been abandoned and the islands removed, proving that experience has shown the badness of the conception. I do not know who was the designer of this improvement, but I should like him to have had personal experience of its practical result by frequent exercise on the south crossing. While the ways for vehicles have been made so smooth, it is found in practice that they do not use them. The omnibuses to Victoria, instead of availing themselves of the gentle curves provided for them, persist in going to the corner of the Hospital, preferring to encounter the difficulty of turning at a right angle to losing the chance of picking up passengers.

A large part of the cost of this improvement was incurred in moving and rebuilding the Wellington Arch. It was better where it was. It has been stuck down in a hole, below the level of the main thoroughfare, on a slope, instead of its former level base, and without any apparent relation to anything around it. This part of the scheme was intended, I presume, for architectural effect, for the arch might have been left as an island in a crossing, as in the Institute plan. As regards both convenience and architectural effect the designer of this improvement may be congratulated on having made almost every mistake that was possible.

The improvement made at Charing Cross when Northumberland Avenue was formed, so far as convenience is concerned, has not, I think, been found in practice a marked success. The same principles seem to have determined it--gentle curves for vehicles, keeping the roadways a fixed width even where extra space would have been an advantage, and ignoring the convenience of foot passengers by long crossings which carriages cross diagonally. It forms a sort of archipelago of queer-shaped islands, whose forms have been determined by these rules; and the crossing for foot-passengers from the south pavement of the Strand to Cockspur Street (about 200 feet across, with the risk of being run down in making the different islands) makes it one of the most difficult pieces of navigation in the Metropolis.

The late improvement at Piccadilly Circus, with its narrow building sites controlled by ancient lights, its queer muddle of roadways, pavements, islands, and crossings, adorned by the Pavilion, with its absence of any idea of architectural effect, will remain as a monument to keep green the memory of the Metropolitan Board of Works, which has ended its career unwept, unhonoured, and unsung. The problem, perhaps, was a difficult one; but if the designers could have departed so far from their fixed ideas as to allow their roadways to vary in width, to give increased space for crossing lines of traffic, treating it as an open space instead of a ganglion of streets which on no account must vary in width, even when increased space would be of advantage for accumulated traffic, and if the general architectural effect had been considered, of which there is no sign, a result more worthy might perhaps have been achieved.

I do not know what hope there may be of a change in these respects. It means the adoption of new aims and ideas in the designers of our streets, the abandonment of the notion that varying width is any objection in a roadway, that a straight line is the perfection of art, that artistic results can be produced by a theodolite, with the endeavour, and also the artistic capacity for laying-out streets so that their buildings shall group into an artistic architectural composition.

Another cause of the dull regularity and uniformity of modern towns is the working of Building Acts. These are a necessity; but the effect of a uniform law is to produce uniform results, to put a prohibition on variety. It is true they only prescribe a limit, as that party-walls shall not be less than so many bricks thick, or that buildings shall not be more than a certain height. But the limit is apt to become the rule, and the nature of rules, as the word implies, is to produce regularity. This tendency has often been noticed in sanitary regulation. A code of rules may be up to the level of the science and ideas of the time when they are made; but they cannot foresee future advance and improvement, and therefore frequently result in checking it and in preventing development. I am sure this has frequently been the experience of my brother members.

On the other hand, it would not be advisable to leave to officials the decision as to what might be allowed, unless one could guarantee their wisdom and willingness to give sympathetic consideration to suggested improvements and new developments in construction and architectural effect. Some of them might do so; with others it might be merely an irresponsible tyranny, or an insistence on fads.

For the sake of liberty there must be rules. While architects, working for rich and generous clients, might be able to improve on existing methods, the jerry-builder, who wants to put up as cheap and shoddy a building as will be allowed, has to be taken into account. One principle is obvious, that the restrictions should be as few as possible, for every restriction tends to hinder variety and new development. Another principle is that restrictions should be limited to sanitation, safety, and sound building. They should not trench on the province of the art of architecture, which, so long as it does not contravene these necessary rules, should have absolutely free expression and development. I think the Building Acts of London, and still more of other towns might with advantage be amended in these respects.

I never, for example, could understand the necessity of the provision that the woodwork of windows should be kept four and a half inches back from the wall-face. I have heard it suggested that it is to prevent fire spreading; but, if the fire is attacking the windows, its having to go four and a half inches more is no appreciable additional protection. Besides, when window-frames are attacked by a fire it is from the inside, the strong draught of air inwards to supply the fire generally preserving them unburnt. Others say that it is to avoid the risk of their falling out in case of a fire--which, however, they have no tendency to do. Another explanation of the restriction is that it is intended to prevent the reverting to the old system of making external walls a wooden framework, with the interstices filled in with brickwork. But this could be done by a simple definite prohibition. I suspect its authors enacted it with a view to architectural appearance, as windows flush with the wall were supposed to contravene classical propriety. The rule is constantly broken by allowing outside sun-blinds and wooden shutters. It is a serious hindrance in attaining architectural effect in simple brick buildings; it makes the windows shabby-looking outside, and the walls in side look thin. In any future revision of the Building Acts this restriction should not be retained without better grounds than seem to have been shown for it. Even the restrictions against wood construction beyond the wall-surface seem more stringent than necessary on account of fire or stability. Houses do not catch fire from the outside of their fronts, and making such structures both stable and lasting is a problem of the simplest nature.

The rules relating to fire-resisting materials and the best forms of construction to prevent fire want revision. Wood is condemned on this ground, while iron is allowed; but wooden beams resist fire much better than iron, which stretch, and push out the walls; while cast-iron flies with the water. But this is a subject which merits another Paper by some one of practical experience in fires. One proviso is beyond doubt, that as to party-walls, which however, is as old as the time of King John.

The prohibition in Building Acts of such projections, whether of wood or stone, beyond the wall-surface or the building-line is one of the main causes of the monotony of our streets, and their revision in this respect is, I think, worth the consideration of the Institute. It is impossible in a town to allow the same freedom as in the country, where there are no contiguous houses. The rights and convenience of adjoining owners must be considered. A man must not build so as to block out his neighbour's view along the street. Projections should not therefore come within an angle of forty-five degrees from the boundary; even a farther distance might be better. An exception may be made in the case of porches, which in ordinary London houses are generally at the side, and only one storey high; though the practice prevails of putting glass conservatories on the top of them, which not only shut out the view as much as a more solid structure, but give a flimsy character to the architecture of the street. The conditions being observed of respecting our neighbours' rights, the removal of restrictions on projections would do much to enliven our street architecture. The tendency is to increase these. The signs hanging on ornamental brackets, which were an interesting feature in old streets, are forbidden. I was told by an architect that a District Surveyor had objected to an ordinary balcony at the first-floor, though it projected only over the area belonging to the house. Hanging oriels, a charming feature of old English architecture, are forbidden even over one's own ground-- with the idea, I believe, that the constructive skill of the present day is inadequate to build them safely.

The amount of surface projection beyond the building-line must necessarily be limited, else it might result practically to advancing the whole building-line. If a proportion of, say, a fourth or fifth of the surface of the front were allowed to be projected anywhere on the façade that the architect thought good, but no portion of it, except low porches, within, say, fifty degrees of the boundary, an amount of freedom in their designs would be given to architects which would go far to enliven the monotony of our streets. The extent forward of the projection must also be limited. A limit of four feet, unless perhaps for open porticoes, would give an architect all the freedom he needed.

There need be no objection to projections over the ground belonging to the building. In old towns they were permitted over the streets, and I do not know that any practical harm would ever result from them now, so long as they left the pavement clear, while they would add an important element of beauty and interest. The portico of Hanover Chapel at the top of Regent Street projecting over the pavement gives the street, in spite of the stucco houses, an element of ancient grandeur; and at Newcastle the similar portico of the theatre gives Grey Street the same effect.

It is worthy of consideration whether it might not, be possible to draft a regulation which might permit such projections, with marked advantage to the picturesqueness of our architecture, and without injury to public rights. It is easier, of course, to forbid them.

Some restriction is necessary as to the heights of buildings, partly with a view to amenity, partly to preventing the shutting-out of sun and air. There is already such a restriction in the right of ancient lights acts, however, in a perfectly haphazard and irregular manner, depending on mere accident, and consisting in stealing a neighbour's property if he does not look out, at cost and trouble to himself, to prevent it. I believe England is the only country where the law recognises such a custom.

It does not hold in France or Scotland, nor, I believe, in any of our colonies. In Scotland a man must depend for his lights on his own ground. It is a private, not a public right and it has no value in securing general light and air. It rather tends the other way, enticing the owner to build near his boundary, and even on it, on the chance that the attempt may not be noticed and his neighbour's property be gradually stolen. I gathered from the expression of opinion at a recent meeting, when an excellent Paper was read on the Building Laws of Paris, that my brother members would approve of its abolition.

This could not be done at once. Owners could not be deprived of rights already acquired and sanctioned by law. But they might be compelled to take compensation for them assessed according to the injury done them by a building a man might erect on his own land, instead of the possessor of ancient lights having, as now, the absolute power of preventing a man using his own land, or of extorting compensation in excess of the injury. In any case, the injustice might be stopped for the future by a simple proviso that, when not already acquired, no rights of ancient lights should in future arise.

In the public interest there should be some limit to the height of buildings. Mere height is no harm in a tower or spire, for its area is moderate, but such a huge mass as the structure known as Hankey's Mansions at Westminister is an injury to London; and it is all the worse that these, as well as the similar buildings next the Knightsbridge Barracks and the Albert Hall, are beside open parks, where their huge mass is conspicuous. Even the architecture of the Albert Mansions does not redeem their offence of swamping by their size the Albert Hall, which ought to have remained prominent among the neighbouring buildings.

The consideration that parts of a building, such as a tower or spire, may be carried high without harm makes an absolute limit unadvisable. Such a limit tends to dead monotony, as the experience of Paris proves. It is, of course, the easy thing to do. There would, no doubt, be some difficulty in framing a restriction which, while keeping down the general height, would allow portions to rise in the air, giving breaks and variety in the sky-line. This result might perhaps be attained by allowing a building to rise higher in one part in compensation of its being kept lower in another, by allowing a fixed area for the facade, to be disposed in any form the designer pleased, so that by reducing the general height he might vary his sky-line by dormer-windows and occasional gables; and additional liberty might be given, at the discretion of the authorities where it could be shown found to be for the public benefit.

If the result were desired, and it is surely desirable, it would not, I think, be found impossible to draft a regulation to permit and to promote it. The usual method in existing regulations is to limit the height of walls and roofs of buildings in proportion to the width of the street they stand in; in Paris no projection, however small, is permitted beyond a definite line. If the intention was to secure monotony the proviso is admirably calculated to produce it.

Low sunlight do not necessarily make a healthy or pleasant town; what is wanted is sunlight and free circulation of air, and this would be better attained by regulations which would part of the ground unbuilt on, even if the buildings on the remainder were allowed to rise higher.

The present laws produce results such as are to be seen in the suburbs of Manchester--endless rows of mean, low houses, to which no genius could impart architectural beauty or interest.

Nor is it a healthy mode of building, for the air is stagnant, there is nothing to cause its movement and circulation. In old towns, though the streets might be narrow and the houses tall, there are occasional wider, open, sunnier spaces, where the air becoming hotter a current is drawn to them from the narrower, colder streets, thus causing movement and circulation of the air.

Supposing the number of inhabitants or the cubical contents of building to the acre were fixed, it would give a pleasanter and healthier arrangement to make the buildings higher and leave more ground unbuilt on. In arranging a workman's town, a cité ouvrière this would leave pleasant open spaces and squares and playgrounds for children, instead of the monotonous streets arranged for carriage traffic where none such is wanted. It seems a pity that building-laws should prevent such experiments being made, that they should compel in each town- or country-district one uniform mode of laying-out land for building, and that there should not be alternative methods suited to different requirements.

The provision of the last Building Act, that a space should be left behind each building proportioned to the length of its frontage, is proper and right in its intention to secure that a building shall have air and ventilation at the back as well as in front; but it is so drawn as to produce absurd results. A huge, high building of flats has an open space of about 3 feet wide behind it, one of 20-feet frontage need have only 200 feet of area behind, while one of 21 feet is compelled to have 300 feet. It seems to have been framed on the supposition that the officials who were to enforce it were incapable of doing a sum in arithmetic above the lowest School Board standard. Why the area behind should not simply have been proportioned to the length of frontage is a mystery perhaps clear to the mind of the late Metropolitan Board of Works.

A requirement of most Building Acts is that all new streets should be constructed for carriage traffic. There are many cases where this is not needed. as we see in some old groups of workmen's houses, or in the new arrangement of some parts of the City, where alleys not more than 20 feet wide are paved only for foot traffic, giving greater cleanliness and quiet. In some towns in the North the building-laws insist on not only a street in front of the houses but a mews-lane at the back, both open to carriage traffic--producing dust, and increasing needlessly the quantity of space to be paved and kept clean, the mews-lane being always dismal and ugly.

The London regulation that all new streets shall be open at both ends to carriage traffic was no doubt prompted by the public inconvenience, which was felt on some of the great building-estates of London, of traffic across them being forbidden, and the streets closed by gates at the will of the ground-landlord.

The freedom and convenience of traffic is a fundamental public right, which ought to be secured when vacant land is built on. In London it has been singularly neglected, causing crowding and congestion of the traffic, making us lose our tempers and our time. There are only two continuous routes from the city westwards, the Strand and Oxford Street. North of it, though the streets are wide enough for traffic, they give no relief, for they have no continuity. Running, as a rule, north and south, they block the few disjointed streets which run westwards, which, had they been continuous, might have given relief. It is proposed to make a new underground railway under Oxford Street. It would be more to the public interest to make this, if possible, the occasion of a new route to the west.

It was probably this evil which was supposed to justify the astounding powers recently granted to the Metropolitan Board of Works, to compel owners of estates to lay them out as the Board might choose to dictate. The Metropolitan Railway was allowed to be made without a single route across it between High Street and Gloucester Road, and westward there is a block half a mile long without a single street running westward across it. But this evil is in no way remedied by compelling proprietors of isolated estates to run across them streets, which though open to traffic, are useless for general traffic, being out of the line of it and leading nowhere That the two routes we have actually serve, in some sort of way, for all the enormous traffic of London to the west, proves that there is no necessity, so far as traffic is concerned, for compelling every new street, though it never can be a traffic route, to be constructed as if it were. What is wanted is not despotic power over isolated estates, but general power to run continuous routes for traffic across different estates which lie in the necessary line. But this may, perhaps, best be provided, as at present, by a separate Act for each case. If proper and ample provision be made of continuous streets for the necessary lines of traffic, no public good is gained by making the intermediate streets which lead nowhere all open to public carriage traffic

It is rather a boon, not only to the inhabitants, but to foot-passengers (for we cannot all always ride in carriages), to have now and then, as a change from the roar of the streets, quiet ways of smooth clean flags, where perhaps grind-organs might be forbidden. That such quiet havens, which used to be frequent, should now be everywhere ruthlessly suppressed is, I think, unreasonable, and serves no public good. The late Board claimed the power to forbid the construction of a court of workmen's dwellings within a single gate. Happily they lost the case at law. But why should they want to prevent it? Why should we not be allowed, if we choose, to arrange our houses in a group like a cathedral-close or the quadrangle of a college?

There is now, I suppose there always was, a disposition in reformers and officials to make people square their lives and conduct by what the former deem for their good. Once it was the theologians who made the claim, and got the civil power to enforce it for them; now it is the doctors and sanitary people--in both cases, of course, only for our good. The theologians have resigned, and allow us to believe as we please, or at least attempt only moral suasion; but their mantle has fallen on the sanitary doctors. If these had their will, the civil power would see that we do exactly as they think we ought to do, the only drawback being that they are not themselves infallible.

At one time open drains were the heresy to be suppressed, now they are made as open as possible by blowholes into the street. For my part I should not care to live in Dr. Richardson's Hygeia, with its walls of glazed white bricks. In theology, in medicine, in sanitation, and in architecture, the principle holds good that no law should prevent us doing as we like, so long as we do not harm our neighbour or run a risk of it; that regulations and restrictions are evils, albeit necessary ones, preventing the freedom of natural development; that no restriction should continue, still less should be imposed, which cannot show clear necessity and reason.

One evil of restrictions is that they necessitate officials to work them and enforce them. Your true official does not reason, any more than does a foot-rule. He is a sort of foot-rule, his function to try whether two things tally. The most perfect official, it is said, never does anything that he can possibly help doing. Why should he trouble himself with being reasonable ?

It is the good fortune of architecture here in London that the officials who look after it are not, in their nature, or in the first place, such. The District Surveyors of London are practicing architects first, and only in the second place officials to enforce a law; and this, while it gives them a higher standing and authority, gives them also, from their practical experience of the working of the laws on their own works, a wider and more practical view of its requirements beyond the mere letter of it, and a sympathy with those they have to look after, whether architects or builders, which conduces to fulfilling the essential objects, not the mere letter of the law.

The various points and suggestions to which I have ventured to direct your consideration are perhaps specially worthy of attention at the present time, when the institution of County Councils will flood the country with new regulations, and new officials to enforce them.

There is a danger, I think, that the new bodies, in the zeal and enthusiasm and, perhaps, the over-confidence of youth, will proceed at once to frame regulations and restrictions out of their inner consciousness, or to copy those of London or some large town--needless in their case, and perhaps killing off the distinctive features in the modes of building remaining in the district. There is a danger that variety and individuality may be crushed out. Let us hope that no new regulations will be enacted unless they are proved by experience to be necessary; that while cleanliness and health, sound building, and prevention of fire are seen to, it may be remembered that there may be different ways of promoting these, and that the legal enforcement of some one method prevents development and improvement.

It may possibly be thought presumption in one who has no practical experience in the administration of the Building Acts to venture, in the presence of many whose duty this is, criticisms on them and suggestions as to their amendment. But the fact that it has been their duty to enforce them tends to stifle any tendency to criticise them, while the experience of being under a law is perhaps a better school for learning, its defects and how it hits, than administering it, though for any revision of the Acts their experience would be essential.

The result I would aim at is surely worth trying for--to make our towns more interesting and beautiful, to give them variety and individual character, making them a collection of buildings each with its own individuality, not, as they are too fast becoming, mere lines of uniform straight streets, without character, without sky-line; and, if it is possible, to give a new aim in laying-out our streets, looking not to the beauty of the plan, which can never be seen actually, but to the effect of the elevations of the buildings. If there are, besides, provisions in our building-laws which prevent the freedom and expansion of our architecture, it is to the interest, not only of our profession, but of the public, that they should be removed. However we may differ as to the methods of accomplishing this I know I can claim your sympathy in the aims and objects I have been endeavouring to enforce.

1. Since this Paper was read, the repair of the Church of St. Mary-le-Strand has been commenced by Public subscription, under the superintendence of Mr. J. Macvicar Anderson, Vice-President  

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: jwr2@cornell.edu 
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