The House on Camelford Street.
Figure 1. The ‘holiday home waiting to be rediscovered’. (September 2014)
There was a house for sale in Camelford Street, and it had just come back on the market. So far this sounds like a TV property programme. In this case the house had been ear marked for development, but the costs were prohibitive. In the language of the estate agents, the two-bedroom terraced house, just off the seafront in Brighton, was in need of ‘complete refurbishment and modernisation’, and at anything approaching the asking price, offered no room for profit. So Camelford Street was back on the market with the proviso that anyone foolhardy enough to take up the challenge could be starring into a bottomless pit. Unsurprisingly, the estate agents were more positive. This was a Holiday Home Waiting To Be Rediscovered.
So why am I telling you this? Not because you have any intention of buying a weekend cottage in Brighton, I am sure. But because my encounter with this building raised several, interesting questions on the nature of authenticity and fakery; and how the ‘stories’ that architecture and design are said to tell, are probably best enjoyed when they do not make –complete- sense.
On the face of it No 14 Camelford Street was a conventional historic building in peril, or at least a ‘listed’ building that had fallen on hard times. For the benefit of readers outside the UK, listing is the process whereby an individual structure, or a group of buildings is deemed worthy of national record because it preserves important aspects of a period style, and/or the signature of an important architect, and so contributes to the architectural identity of a place. The system had its intellectual origins in a 19th century appreciation of what thoughtless development could destroy, witness the work of William Morris and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, as founded in 1877, and more recently, the systematic stock taking of the nation’s assets that followed the Second World War (Saint 1996). These days, the listing process is administered by English Heritage, with the top flight, Grade I national icons at one end of the scale, i.e. the country houses, the cathedrals, and even recent iconic structures like the Lloyds Building, and the far more numerous, but locally significant, Grade II buildings at the other. No 14 Camelford Street was typical of the latter having been listed in August 1971 as part of a small group of relatively well-preserved late 18th-century cottages. In keeping with this status, the exterior was officially protected and could not be altered without proper consultation and consent. And now we come to the intriguing part; most of the elements that signified the authenticity of this house, its so-called period features, were fakes.
Figure 2. Georgian-style embellishments on the façade of 14 Camelford Street.
Let me start with the black tiled façade. From a distance this looked like a treatment not infrequently employed by builders around 1800 to ‘classicise’, or upgrade an unfashionable timber framed dwelling. There are prominent examples of this ‘mathematical tiling’ in Brighton and nearby Hastings, so what might be described as commercial opportunism, or ‘social climbing ‘is now seen as a legitimate part of the Sussex coastal vernacular.
Figure 3. Mathematical tiling, c.1800, Croft Cottage, Hastings, East Sussex.
But can the same be said of the perfectly smooth, industrially manufactured tiles that had been cemented to the front of no 14 Camelford Street? We know that these must have been added before 1971, as the listing would have prevented such a change. Another obvious anomaly was the elaborately carved porch and the -real- Georgian front door. These made the house look grander, in the same way that real mathematical tiles could made a vernacular building look swanky, but not with a view to making the façade more up to date. Rather, sometime in the 1960’s, the original bare brickwork (as preserved next door) was found ‘wanting in eloquence’, it needed its authenticity ‘upgrading’. A hundred years earlier the house had been the dwelling of an artisan. The 1851 census mentions a watchmaker and his family as being in residence (1). But following the remodelling, a new kind of scenario emerges. In the early 1800’s, the former home of a fashion-conscious merchant perhaps, as indicated by the ornate porch, is remodelled by an officer from the Napoleonic wars. He may even have served in the Royal Navy. Why else should there be the model of a galleon in the front window of the house?
Figure 4. The former home of a ‘Georgian sea captain’?
So where are we to place Camelford Street in the history of architectural ‘development’? Perhaps this is the wrong term, if it gives the impression that the history of architecture and design has been progressive, or teleological. We have only to recall what is probably the best-known building in Brighton- the Royal Pavilion. As a mock oriental pleasure palace developed by the Prince Regent at the end of the 18th century, it demonstrates the romantic or picturesque tendency in architecture; that is the use of different styles of ornament to tell stories and to create pictures. Thus the Royal Pavilion is framed in its own landscape, like an oversized garden ornament, and inside, there is a Chinese style banqueting room and a more or less ‘Indian’ music room. The approximation is obvious and adds to the fun. What could more amusing than a cast-iron staircase shaped and painted to resemble bamboo? Or a light source- a chandelier- suspended from the under side of a palm tree, and decorated with water lilies and dragons?
The enjoyment is arguably greater now, than it was in the late 18th century. The intervening modern movement has taught us to be suspicious of architectural charm and to look on ornamental excess with a sort of guilty pleasure. That, at any rate, was the argument of the Post-modern architectural theorists of the 1960’s and 70’s. The puritanical modernists had insisted that ‘less is more’, while the Post-modernists championed story telling and ambiguity: ‘less is a bore’ (Venturi 1966:25).
Except of course for the fact that most 20th century buildings had never been entirely rational, but carried on in a spirit of commonsense romanticism. What could be more reassuring and appropriate than a Georgian style bank or telephone box from the 1920’s or 30’s? What could be more patriotic and expressive of middle class aspirations than a mock Tudor semi?
Moreover it is easy to overstate the iconoclasm of the modernists. One of the recurring gibes against the architectural profession in the UK has been its preference- in private- for old buildings. Why have the designers of cutting edge buildings –one thinks of Basil Spence in the 1950’s, and more recently Richard Rogers- opted to live in Georgian houses? One answer, popular among the promoters of modernism since the 1930’s has been the supposed affinity between the careful proportions, intelligent detailing, and sense of place of pre-Victorian housing–especially the squares and crescents -and the clean lines of the best modern design (Sharp 1940). Indeed many modern architects have been ardent supporters of the listing process. A more general, sociological explanation is that the architects were drawn from the same milieu as other inner city ‘gentrifiers’, and from the mid 20th century began to colonise what were then, cheap and conveniently situated period houses. In other words, the cult of the period home was a lifestyle phenomenon. And by the 1970s it had even attracted a special label- ‘the knocker-through’, courtesy of the playwright and humorist Alan Bennett (Thompson 1979). This was a reference to the practice of removing the dividing wall between the front and back rooms of the standard terrace to create a spacious and comfortable living area. That was the private, fashion-conscious zone of the house. By contrast, the public side – the façade – was governed by a less fickle sense of propriety. In what was effectively an architectural version of not raising one’s voice in public, of observing ‘good manners’, to quote one architectural authority, the façade was preserved and/or restored to its original condition (Edwards 1924).
To a certain extent this describes the situation at Camelford Street. I have already explained how the street side of the house demonstrated an enthusiasm for the Sussex seaside vernacular. Meanwhile, around the back, the treatment was thoroughly practical, and in terms of architectural fashion- state of the art. Until comparatively recently the rear windows of Number Fourteen enjoyed a southwesterly sea view, and in keeping with the idea of a holiday home, a balcony was added to each of the upper storeys. Sad to say, these sun traps now overlook a car park, but it is still possible to appreciate the Brutalist conception. There was no effort to disguise the modernity of the structural additions – the scaffolding poles, the metal-framed windows and doors – and by the use of careful proportions, these elements were drawn together in a bold sculptural composition.
Figure 5. The Brutalist-style additions to the rear of 14 Camelford Street.
So that was the exterior of 14 Camelford Street: a period front and a modern back; and another example of how many small terraced houses in ‘up and coming areas’ were refashioned, or gentrified in the mid 20th century. And if I had been unable to enter the building, there would be little more to say. But the ‘house was back on the market’, and there was the opportunity to explore.
At first I could only peer through the letterbox, but that was intriguing enough. It was like peeking into Tutankhamen’s tomb. Or looking through the periscope of a time machine that had landed in a House & Garden magazine feature from the early 1960’s. For the mise-en-scène resembled the reception area of a West End hairdresser, a nightclub, or a boutique. The decorations were not only ultra-fashionable, but extremely camp.
Figure 6. First glimpse through the letterbox.
I use this term in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s pioneering discussion of 1964. In her Notes on Camp she makes a useful distinction between the unintentional and intentional forms of the sensibility (Sontag 1964). Nazi regalia and Italian opera are characteristic of the former strand. They have had campiness thrust upon them, as it were. By contrast, the wordplay of Oscar Wilde represents camp at its most deliberate. Here the trivial becomes extraordinary, everything is turned into style, and the audience has the satisfaction of feeling that it is the co-producer of a clever private joke.
Figure 7. The reception space created by the removal of the front corridor wall and the chimneybreast.
That was my experience on entering Camelford Street. The fact that the decorations were in an advanced state of decay was all to the good. The worried expression on the face of the estate agent was even better. I laughed out loud. I was somehow sharing a joke with the ghost of a 1960’s designer.
Usually when making the case for a ‘hidden masterpiece’ one is obliged to embody this intelligence, to track down an author, in order to argue for the originality or the historical significance of the scheme. That is the conventional art historical approach to architecture and design. It suggests that a decorative scheme, or any creative work is best experienced in its original state, when it conforms most closely to the intentions of the author. But at Camelford Street the moveable furniture was already gone and there was the evidence of irreversible decay. Moreover, while a minority may have seen the interiors as an extraordinary survival, many more – the estate agent included- were likely to perceive a depressing relic of 60’s bad taste. I could see value in both perspectives, but increasingly came to see Camelford Street, not so much as the masterpiece of some unknown genius, but a sounding board for the imagination.
Figure 8. The entrance hall of 14 Camelford Street.