David Winpenny finds the link between winter sunshine and Ripon’s buildings
Winter can be both a blessing and a curse for anyone who likes to look at buildings. There are seemingly endless days of gloom, interspersed by heavy rain or persistent drizzle. On such days most of our buildings can appear unattractive and dull, sometimes looming menacingly out of the dreary daylight, at others sitting sullen and as if indifferent to passers-by.
Yet winter can have its great advantages, too. Winter sunshine has a special luminous quality, missing in summer, that can add a silvery sheen to buildings, making them particularly attractive. This winter light has the advantage of making even some of the least attractive buildings more interesting; the best have added qualities of vivacity and zing.
Goethe said that ‘architecture is frozen music.’ Like many metaphors, this works on several levels. Just as music can be simple or intricate, so can architecture. A tune can be plain or ornamented; so can a building. And, as music will only work properly if it has a strong underlying structure, so the basic structure of a work of architecture must be sound.
Winter sunshine can help to emphasise the qualities of a building, just as a good performance can provide extra insight into the qualities of a piece of music. And one of the qualities of buildings that can be particularly enhanced is ‘articulation.’
To a musician articulation refers to how a note is played – is it short or long – or to the transition between notes; is it slurred or accented, smooth or agitated, for example. A musical score will give an indication to the performer how the notes are to be played, but the work will require the interpretation of the musician.
Architecture is sometimes described as ‘the articulation of spaces’. In some ways this is meaningless. Spaces themselves cannot be articulated; it is the buildings that provide the articulation. But, of course, architects manipulate space by placing their buildings in locations to which their design has to respond. And the interiors of buildings enclose space. Architects ‘orchestrate’ their work, paying attention to both the details and the articulation.
This is rather a philosophical point – but its practical applications are all around us. Good architects know how to make their buildings manipulate space and to provide interest to the viewer at the same time. In the Middle Ages the builders of Ripon Cathedral were masters of enclosing space and of making the building interesting. Look at the south side of the nave, for example. There is a practical need for all those buttresses, to ensure that the weight of the roof doesn’t push the walls outwards. But the designers made them beautiful as well as practical, allowing light and shade to play over them. They seem to change in different light and are, of course, especially attractive in winter sunshine.
It was not just the medieval architects who knew the value of light and shade and of the articulation of their buildings. The city’s pre-eminent classical building, the Town Hall, uses articulation to enliven its façade. We may wish, though, that the city had been richer or that the benefactress was more generous when Wyatt was commissioned; then the Town Hall might have had free-standing columns rather than columns that are attached to the front of the building – something that would have certainly increased the play of light and shade, as well as, perhaps, making it more imposing.
Even the more humble of the city’s buildings of the past have their own articulation; look at the Georgian terraces along Low Skellgate, for example, or the Victorian ones on and adjacent to Priest Lane. The position of the windows is carefully judged, the window frames are set back into the openings to allow some shadow, and some of the doorcases are ornamented. Some of the Victorian bank buildings in the Market Square are equally well articulated, and the Spa Baths spare no effort in articulation – ‘frozen music’ indeed.
And what of today’s buildings? Have we lost the art of true articulation in our buildings? Does the winter sun reveal nothing glorious in Ripon? Not much, it must be admitted, though the new Booth’s supermarket building goes some way towards it with its large, empathic windows. Perhaps we are too close yet to see what is of value from our own age – and how much will survive both the illumination of the winter sunshine and the criticism of the future.
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