Picture of the Obelisk and Civic Society Crest Banner: a montage of Ripon architecture
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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 12th December 2008
Going up! David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society looks at how buildings display tendencies to verticality.

The current financial crisis has frequently been talked about on television to the accompaniment of an aerial footage of London’s Canary Wharf towers soaring in the sunlight above a bank of fog. It’s an impressive piece of film (though how appropriate it is to financial gloom is perhaps doubtful). And it is verticality that occupies this column this week.

Ripon has nothing approaching even half the height of the Canary Wharf towers, nor of other iconic buildings like London’s Gherkin or Birmingham’s Rotunda. Anything approaching their bulk or stature would certainly be out of place here. In fact, Ripon has been fortunate that the guardians of its planning have allowed little to rise to any height at all.

Because of this, the views of the city’s tallest building, the cathedral, are uninterrupted from the approaches. And because it is elevated on its ridge, it can dominate the city. It can be argued that the views of Ripon cathedral against its background of hills are more picturesque than views of York Minster across the flat vale of York, even though York’s buildings, too, have been deliberately kept low. And how do these views compare with those of Durham Cathedral from the East Coast Main Line . . . ?

The other accents that dominate the Ripon skyline are the Obelisk, the spire of Holy Trinity Church and the tower of St Wilfrid’s Church. Each of them is of a distinctive shape, and gives the city is particular character.

But what about vertical accents that are more obvious when you are at street level, rather than viewing the city from a distance? Some of them will be obvious. There is the Clock Tower at the junction of Palace Road and North Street, for example, which celebrates Queen Victoria by shooting upwards and holding aloft a golden crown. Another clock tower, the one of the Grammar School, is also an effort at determined verticality. Then there is the laundry tower on the threatened Spa Baths, which has some of the same art nouveau decoration as the main Baths building.

These are all structures in the public domain, but it is perhaps the less obvious buildings that have a particular vertical emphasis that help to vary the street scene. Some of the larger houses on the periphery of the city have belvedere towers – probably influenced by the designs for Queen Victoria’s holiday home at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. The Presbytery at St Wilfrid’s Church has a staircase tower that is capped with a conical roof – while it is no higher than the roof-line, it is a charming feature.

Then there is the use of the height and narrowness of a building itself that adds a vertical accent in the street – the early-19th century house at 77 North Street, now occupied by Hutchinson and Buchanan’s solicitors, provides a welcome change in height that takes the eye upward. Opposite, there is a row of later Victorian gables above the shops that culminate in the curious gable-with-a-column over the Gothic-arched shop front.

At the corner of Palace Road are more Victorian terraced houses where the frontage breaks forward above the doors into a sort of tower, which ends in a half-hipped roof; it is an interesting stylistic quirk that gives interest to the facade.

Of course, there are some vertical emphases that are not so attractive, though they might be practical – things like the communications array on top of the BT building on Allhallowgate, or the radio mast on top of the police station. On the other hand, there are some modern buildings where the vertical detailing is good; the new building that will house Booths supermarket has, for example, a good set of tall windows on the side adjacent to the service road off Blossomgate.

And what of the future? When the present recession comes to and end, there will no doubt be another spate of building in the city. Can we hope that architects pay as much attention to the verticality of their elevations as to the planning of the footprint or the roof-line of their buildings? It would help the variety of Ripon’s streets if they did.

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