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, 22nd January 2010
Ripon’s buildings can take us on a Grand Tour, suggest David Winpenny

In these recession-hit times, it may be difficult to afford foreign travel and to take time to enjoy exotic styles abroad. How fortunate, then, that the architectural styles of other countries can be seen right on our doorsteps in Ripon.

In the 18th century young noblemen went on the Grand Tour of Europe. Some went to sow their wild oats, some to escape their family. The more enlightened of them, though, were genuinely interested in what they saw, and returned to this country eager to produce here the architecture that they had seen.

For most of them, Italy was the place above all others to which they looked forward. So it is not surprising that Italian architecture started to appear on the streets of cities across the kingdom – not least in Ripon. And, of course, Italian architecture is classically inspired, so we can expect to see columns and capitals on the buildings.

Foremost among Ripon’s Italian-inspired buildings is the Town Hall, designed by John Wyatt. It has all the elements of a building inspired by the work of the greatest of Italian architects, Palladio. Palladio was one of the first to use the classical temple front – columns with a triangular pediment above – on grand civic buildings and on houses. The Town Hall is an example. True, the columns with their ionic capitals are not free-standing – Palladio would have sniffed loudly at such parsimony. It has the pediment – though the utilitarian clock is no substitute for figurative sculpture. Still, it is a laudable effort.

Not far away, the Skipton Building Society’s premises are in the form of an Italian Palazzo, a handsome façade with a rusticated ground floor, like the Town Hall, and its upper windows crowned with small pediments. Then there is the Ripon City Club on Water Skellgate, which is in the Italian-influenced style called Mannerism, where classical elements are used in ways that neither classical not strict Palladian architects would have – odd columns, scrolls and ‘aprons’ beneath the windows.

There is another Mannerist building, on North Street; the former Post Office, now Monty’s, has typically Mannerist surrounds to its ground floor windows. Nearby is a building in ‘Venetian Gothic’ – all pointed arches and multicoloured brick. More conventional are the so-called ‘Venetian windows’ – a central arched window flanked by two lower straight-headed ones – to be seen, for example, on the Park Street house opposite the Spa Baths and on the back of the Town Hall.

Also on the Town Hall, and in some neighbouring buildings, is a window-type with foreign influence. This is the semi-circular ‘Diocletian’ window, imported by English architects after studying the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian’s palace in what is now Croatia. And as we are heading further east, let us visit Greece, which has also influenced some Ripon buildings, like the terrace of houses on Harrogate Road and, a century later, the HSBC bank at the top of High Skellgate, with its columns and incised decoration.

The HSBC could also, though, be called an International-style building – or even a totalitarian one. In form, material and decoration it has reminiscences of some of the Italian buildings erected under Mussolini – think, for example, of Milan’s megalomaniac railway station – or of the Soviet-era structures in the centre of Moscow. Among other buildings in Ripon influenced by Internationalist ideas are, perhaps the BT building off Allhallowgate, which has a faint (very faint, perhaps) resemblance to Peter Behren’s influential Berlin turbine factory of 1910, the art Deco façade of the former Palladium cinema and the metal-framed, curving windows of some semi-detached houses, which are a reminder of seminal buildings like those by German architect Erich Mendelsohn.

Where else can our architectural Grand Tour of Ripon take us? To France, perhaps, with the handsome French Gothic of the tower and apse of St Wilfrid’s church, and the adjoining presbytery with its resemblance to a chateau, complete with turret and patterned roof. Not far away, the roof of the former Abbott’s workshop has a mansard roof, named after the 17th-century French architect Francois Mansart. We could go Dutch, with curved gables on several Ripon buildings, including houses in Magdalen’s Road, the former Labour Exchange on Water Skellgate and the gatehouse to Sharow View on Allhallowgate.

Or we could go over the border to seek German influence – buildings in the north west corner of the Market Square resemble German ‘fachwerk’ houses, with wooden ‘beams’ (in this case applied laths) contrasted with white infilling. Then there are tall Germanic-style terraced houses on North Street as it curves into Palace Road, and some pretty German-style brick band decoration above the doorways of a pair of houses on Water Skellgate. We could even go Scottish with the ‘crown’ that tops the Clock Tower – influenced, perhaps, by examples in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

There is not much influence from further afield. Only Egypt gets a look-in, with the pyramid to Charles Piazzi Smyth in the churchyard at Sharow – and of course the obelisk, which Hawksmoor introduced to Britain after seeing them in Italian squares, bringing us full circle in the Market Square, just as the Grand Tourists came home from their travels, full of ideas and foreign influences.

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