Park Crescent east, November 2016.
From Georgian London, John Summerson:
The earliest architectural feature of Regent’s Park is the very lovely, unpretentious, neatly detailed Park Crescent (1812). It opens out at either end to the New Road (Marylebone Road of today) and is continued northwards by Park Square (1823-5). The design of the Square is less happy, the facades being crowded and coarse in design, but the arrangement as a whole, considered as a formal approach from a thoroughfare to a landscaped park, is admirable, and the simple appropriateness of Park Crescent with its Ionic colonnades is beyond criticism.
It’s not every day that you see a Nash Terrace being destroyed. As of November 2016, this is what the west side of Park Crescent looks like:
As a footnote to the entry above, Summerson adds: ‘In recent years the whole of Park Crescent has been rebuilt, the new facades, however, being scrupulous copies of the old.’ He was writing in the 1960s; Park Crescent had been damaged by bombing in the war and the facades cleared and replaced in the 1950s. So in fact, the familiar Regency terrace was never, in my my lifetime, anything more than a simulacrum.
An architect friend notes that the firm carrying out the work have good credentials for restoring historic buildings and, in any case, Nash’s first priority was always the scenic exterior. Summerson sums up Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces with this chilly flourish: ‘Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of magnificence and bathos …‘
So it was conceived as a fake and was remade as a different kind of fake in the post-war era. This knowledge should make me feel better, but somehow it doesn’t. The reason the site is being developed, inevitably, is to provide luxury homes for the super-rich; and, should you be super-rich, you can watch a video of the development here and browse one of the flats for sale (for £5.5M) here. The blurb for the 3 bedroom apartment mentions an ‘indulgent’ master bedroom, and a photo of the en suite shows a television installed in a cabinet above the bath (handy for keeping tabs on financial markets via Bloomberg or catching the latest edition of Supermarket Sweep). The illustrative interiors in the sales material as are tasteful and antiseptic as any expensive hotel suite anywhere in the world, which is the default mode for such developments. These are dwellings fit for any self-respecting Master of the Universe or dictator in exile, although any resting despots would undoubtedly want to tart up their London pied-a-terre more than just a bit.
We have banged on before about the aggregate of unease that, post-Boris, post-Cameron, London is being transformed into a theme park replica of itself: a city made over for the (very) well-heeled to live and shop in, a sanitized urban consumption zone. It isn’t just a town planning issue or a conservation issue, it’s a usage issue. Summerson’s disdain aside, there was something strangely comforting in the knowledge that behind Nash’s sweeping facades were ramshackle structures consistent with the building philosophy of Georgian London (or, for that matter, the post-war era). The sheer opulence of the new quarters behind Park Crescent makes one choke; it is just another case of planning consent granted to nurture the sensibilities of the platinum Lamborghini set. Who is this brave new city for?
Work has already started on the evisceration of Park Crescent east … the Amazon Property hoarding has appeared near the junction with Portland Place – and outside no. 7 we noticed the poignant notice below …
All photos © David Secombe 2016.
Cumberland Terrace, NW1. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.
From The Magus by John Fowles, 1966:
Beyond her stretched the grass, a quarter mile of turf to the edge of the park. Beyond that rose the Regency facade, bestatued, many and elegantly windowed, of Cumberland Terrace.
A wall of windows, a row of statues of classical gods. They surveyed the park as if from a dress circle.
[…] The afternoon sun made them [the houses of Cumberland Terrace] gleam with light, that Olympian elixir of serene, remote, benign light one sometimes sees in summer clouds.
Although John Fowles’ epic and impossibly romantic novel about the power of myth and storytelling is mostly set on an isolated Greek island, he chooses to end his story in NW1. In the final chapter of the novel, Fowles’ rattled ‘hero’ and his girlfriend have an angsty scene in Regent’s Park, where Nicholas wonders whether they are being spied upon from the windows of John Nash’s Cumberland Terrace. This is a brilliant example of a novelist employing a real location to enhance the themes of his narrative: Fowles exploits the theatricality of Nash’s park-side architecture to suggest that his punch-drunk protagonist continues to be an unwilling player in a drama staged for an unseen audience.
It is a fitting conceit, as the glimpses of Nash’s terraces from the park bely the (relatively) prosaic houses behind the grandeur of the facades. This louche and rather endearing architectural trick led Sir John Summerson, the celebrated eminence grise on all matters Georgian, to stick the boot in thus:
It is magnificent. And behind it all – behind it are rows and rows of identical houses, identical in their narrowness, their thin pretentiousness, their poverty of design. Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses, with other blocks of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of fantasy and bathos which only the retrospect of a century can forgive*.
Summerson’s aristocratic disdain is a bit hard to stomach here, and I think we are entitled to give Sir John the bird on this one. Fowles seems to have a better idea of what Nash was up to, and what he succeeded in doing. Nash’s terraces are there to enhance the public space, they exist to ennoble the walkers in the park, they lend drama to the business of taking the air. It is also at least possible, if not likely, that if they had been ‘dream palaces’ in a more concrete sense they would have gone the way of so many of the grand, inconvenient mansions of Piccadilly and Mayfair, swept away by ruthless economic imperatives well into the post-WW2 era. We can be grateful that the modest ambitions of the houses behind Nash’s palatial frontages have proved adaptable to changing circumstances, and so ensured their survival.
Unforgivably, Summerson also neglects to mention that Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who had to contend with an invasion of Cybermen outside Cumberland Terrace in 1968: although one could say that it fell slightly outside his brief.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.
(*Georgian London, Sir John Summerson, 1945/1969.)