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TELLING DETAILS

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 29th May 2009
Look out for the detail, urges David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

How often do you stop and look at buildings? Not just glance at them to make sure that you aren’t going into the Post Office when you meant to be at the building society, but really look. It may be that you are so familiar with Ripon’s buildings that you scarcely give them a thought.

But if do stop to look, you will learn a great deal about them – and about your own taste, too. This column has often pointed out particular buildings or features on them, and that may have encouraged some readers to think more about what they look at. Both Poet Laureate John Betjeman and architect Mies van der Rohe’s thoughts have appeared here – Betjeman exhorting us to look up above the shop fronts and ground floors to see what a buiilding is really like, and Mies telling us that ‘God is in the detail’.

Betjeman and Mies were hardly natural allies – the one a defender of Victorian architecture, the other a modernist architect who delighted in straight lines and sharp, crisp angles. But both were right; and Ripon is as good a place to prove it as any – as a few, perhaps random, examples can show.

Windows give a building character. And unusual window shapes add something special. What’s called the Venetian window can be seen in several places in Ripon if you look up. It consists of an arched window with narrower straight-headed windows on either side – there’s a fine example on the back of the Town Hall, best seen from Water Skellgate, and another on a house in Park Street, opposite the Spa Baths. The design is also called a Serliana after the 16th-century Italian architect Serlio, who first published it in a very influential book. It was taken up in Italy by Palladio; when English architects became devoted followers of Palladio, the Serliana was widely adopted, so it’s no surprise to find it in Ripon.

There are other Palladio-inspired windows around, too; the first-floor windows of the Skipton Building Society on the corner of the Market Square and Kirkgate, for example, have all the hallmarks, including the triangular pediments and the brackets that support them.

Other details abound throughout the city. The faces on the Spa Baths have often featured in this column, and there are plenty of faces carved into the cathedral and the other churches. Less obvious, perhaps, is the finely-carved lion’s head that looks out fiercely from the former Cathedral Primary School building on Low St Agnesgate.

Words and numbers, too, play their part. Everyone approaching the city centre along Harrogate Road will have seen the bold lettering on the front of the former Williamson’s buildings - an object lesson in how to use lettering to make a statement without vulgarity. Less noticeable, though just as decorative, is the date-stone over the door at the back of the building, proclaiming ‘1925’ in an elegant font. This is not a cutting-edge building; by 1925 Mies van der Rohe was already building glass skyscrapers in Germany, and four years later his masterpiece, the Pavilion he designed for the Barcelona Exhibition, was constructed. But it is on the right scale for Ripon and finely designed.

Wording, too, in other places – on the Temperance Hall, now the Small Shops on Duck Hill; on the Clock Tower; and, very easy to overlook, on the base of the bronze statue to the Marquess of Ripon in the Spa Gardens, where the sculptor F Derwent Wood ARA has put his name. There will be more to be heard about Wood at the Marquess of Ripon centenary celebrations on 9 July.

Finally, a neat and pretty solution to ensuring ventilation. Air bricks and gratings are all very well, but on the Turk’s Head pub on Low Skellgate there’s a cast-iron grille that has two love birds facing each other against a leafy background. It’s a delightful composition, like part of a William Morris wallpaper, and very much in keeping with the festive feel of the whole façade of the pub. It would certainly have pleased John Betjeman – and, like other details in the city, it can still please all of us if we keep our eyes and our imaginations open.




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