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The House on Camelford Street (Part 2)

I can illustrate the ‘cleverness’ of Camelford Street by reference to the structural alterations. While the typical 1960’s refurbishment may have involved knocking through the reception rooms for the purposes of comfort, the priorities at Camelford Street were more theatrical. On the ground floor the dividing wall was retained, while the chimneybreast and passage wall of the front room were removed. This allowed for the installation of mirrors to one side, and the creation of a false perspective, so that the size of the lobby was in visual terms- doubled. The effect was complemented by the trompe-l’oeil decorations; like one half of a ceiling rose and a ‘pair’ of mahogany double doors that was in reality, just one door.

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Figure 9. Trompe-l’oeil decorative techniques in the lobby.

 

There was also a playfulness of scale. The lobby was dominated by a Neo-Regency staircase which descended mysteriously into the basement; to the side, the wall was ‘panelled out’ and hung with an overpowering embossed wallpaper and, best of all, there was the presiding presence of a stuffed fish, or more accurately, a framed alcove, complete with shells and dried seaweed, that had originally contained a stuffed fish. I later found this exhibit, complete with its fixings, in the next-door room.

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Figure 10. The display cabinet for the stuffed fish built into the depth of the wall.

 

To a certain extent the showmanship of Camelford Street was in direct sympathy with the Royal Pavilion. As I walked through the building I realised how the Neo- Regency front lobby was just the prelude to a more extensive maritime, ‘fruits of the sea’ decorative scheme. Not only was there the stuffed fish in its display cabinet, but a deep red stair carpet with an underwater foliage design leading up from the lobby. The walls of the staircase were coloured an Aegean blue, and in the first floor master bedroom, there was an uncompromising olive and ochre wallpaper decorated with what seemed to be sea anomies and daisies!

 

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Figure 11. The stair carpet with undersea foliage pattern.

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Figure 12. The master bedroom.

 

The juxtaposition was Surreal and this leads to another important aspect of the decorations at Camelford Street: the romanticism was filtered through a 20th century sensibility. For instance the Neo-Regency staircase underwent a dramatic transformation between the ground and the basement levels. As the staircase turned back on itself, it became ‘modern’, in the sense that the composition of the handrail assumed the rigor of a Mondrian painting. This signalled the entirely different mood of the basement. This space had indeed been knocked through in the mid 20th century and the resulting open plan provided an opportunity for two features that were then, the height of fashion: A sunken seating area, a device associated with informal counter-cultural living, and an exposed brick side wall, a trope pioneered by architects keen on the Brutalist quality of materials ‘as found’. In the 1960’s this invariably involved the removal of existing fireplaces and plasterwork, but at Camelford Street, new bricks provided a sort of decorative veneer, with an elaborate system of built-in shelving, mirrors, concealed lighting- from a suspended ceiling-and even a sink cum bar. Hence, in its original state, the lower floor of Camelford Street must have resembled a basement nightclub.

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Figure 13. The basement with its sunken seating area.

 

The description sounds glamorous except for the fact that the gadgetry had not worked in years and the wall-to-wall carpeting, which covered not just the floor, but the sunken seating area, was beginning to sprout moss. The contrast between the 60’s fantasy and the present day reality was poignant and helped to crystallise my thoughts on Camelford Street. From a 21st century perspective the modernity was endearing. The basement may have had the pretensions of a James Bond film set, but in reality there was no central heating or gas supply. Moreover, the suspended ceiling and fitments were hand built, one offs.

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Figure 14. The basement ‘bar’, suspended ceiling and Crittall type, glazed metal door leading to a tiny garden terrace overshadowed by the balcony extension.

 

There was a remarkable attention to detail. Not least the geometric shaped furniture handles, laboriously constructed from blocks of wood, and used to unify the ‘modern’ parts of the house. In the 1960’s it would have been perfectly possible to obtain Bauhaus-inspired door furniture from any architectural supplier, but at Camelford Street, the modernism was ad hoc and personalised. It had an ‘artisanal’ quality that was not only evident in the Brutalist rear additions, but in the functional heart of the house- the kitchen.

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Figure 15. The artisanal quality of the ‘modern style’ kitchen fitments.

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Figure 16. The ‘deconstructed’ kitchen units, plus the displaced fish.

 

This room was in marked contrast to the ground floor lobby. On one side of the mahogany doors there was the enchantment of the Neo-Regency decorations. On the other, a gallery-like ‘white cube’ that also did service as a kitchen. In practice this meant that the cupboards and the combination breakfast bar/sink were conceived as an arrangement of independent sculptural elements, rather in the way that the pioneers of modernism, such as Gerrit Rietveld of Red Blue chair fame, had ‘exploded’ the functions of the domestic interior, and reconfigured them in accordance with a higher aesthetic ideal. This is why it is scarcely adequate to describe the kitchen of Camelford Street as a place in which to prepare food, or to eat breakfast. Rather it was a stage set in which to perform and reflect upon the rituals of everyday life.

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Figure 17. The kitchen as a domestic stage set, with its modern movement promise of sunlight, efficiency and health.

 

Again this insight informed my general attitude towards the house. Camelford Street was interesting because it showed how stylisation and theatricality could make the domestic seem strange. While few of us might want to live in a pocket-sized version of the Royal Pavilion, a hall of mirrors, or even a 60’s style nightclub, such spaces offer the possibility of an alternative existence, or existences.

And this led me to consider the cultural significance of Camelford Street. In treating the home as a performance space, in using modernism as just one of a number of themes, Camelford Street could be regarded as an early example of Post-modernism, or at least a project that served as a bridge between the 19th century cult of styles and the late 20th century reappraisal of narrative.

From this perspective, the author of Camelford Street might well be compared to those mid 20th century designers who are now praised for steering the notion of the contemporary in a more poetic direction. For instance, the Italian painter cum interior designer Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988), a master of found historical ornament and trompe-l’oeil effects, or the French metalworker, turned designer Jean Prouvé (1901-1984), who had introduced a hand wrought, ad hoc quality to modern furniture in the 1950’s.

 

So was Camelford Street a possible candidate for the 20th century design canon? It is difficult to say without access to a broader body of work. And even if it had turned out to be the masterpiece of some neglected genius, this may have jeopardised the very qualities that made it special. For as I have already noted, one of the bugbears of a signature building is the idea that one should restore the structure to its original condition, to the moment when it expressed most forcibly the unique vision of its author.

 

The matter was of particular concern to the English artist John Piper (1903-1992). In the 1930’s and 40’s he established himself as a latter day Romantic, capturing an authenticity in his pictures of churches and ruins that was grounded in the passing of time, and a sympathy between architecture, as a living entity, and the rhythms of nature. In 1947 John Piper’s essay Pleasing Decay was a warning to the over- zealous post-war town planner, and might well have influenced the decision to stabilise rather than restore, the shrapnel damage suffered by iconic national buildings, like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery (Piper 1947). More interesting still is how an authenticity based on the accumulation of memories and the specificities of place can act as a corrective to more impersonal, if accurate, measures of time. In today’s era of atomic clocks, continuous news and instant messaging, the pleasing decay of a house like Camelford Street has the ‘out of time’ quality of a lost world.

 

That is why I decided not to take up the challenge of the ‘holiday home waiting to be rediscovered’. The renovation could so easily have destroyed the magic, as its atmosphere was a unique combination of deliberate whimsy or 60’s campiness overlain with half a century of neglect and decay.

So let me end with an extract as quoted by John Piper. Although it comes from the 1900’s, it is only necessary to update the technological references to appreciate why places like Camelford Street continue to fascinate in the age of Instagram and Google Earth:

 

“To walk in quest of any object that one has more or less tenderly dreamed of, to find your way, to steal upon it softly. To see at last, if it be a church or a castle. The tower-tops peeping above elms or beeches- to push forward with a rush, and emerge and pause and draw that first long breath which is the compromise between so many sensations: this is the pleasure left to the tourist even after the broad glare of photography has dissipated so many of the sweet mysteries of travel; even in a season when he is fatally apt to meet a dozen fellow pilgrims returning from the shrine, each as big a fool, so to speak, as he ever was, or to overtake a dozen more telegraphing their impressions down the line as they arrive”.

Henry James English Hours 1905:75

 

 

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Figure 18. The terminus of the staircase on the top floor. Modernism and the Neo-Regency resolved.

 

References

(1) http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__8648.aspx accessed 3/1/15

Edwards, A. Trystan (1924) Good and Bad Manners in Architecture. Phillip Allan and Co, London.

James, Henry (1905) English Hours. William Heinemann, London.

Piper, John (1947) ‘Pleasing Decay’ The Architectural Review. September.

Saint, Andrew (1996) ‘How Listing Happened’, in Michael Hunter ed. Preserving the Past: The Rise of Heritage in Modern Britain, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Stroud.

Sharp, Thomas (1940) Town Planning. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.

Sontag, Susan (1964) ‘Notes on Camp’ The Partisan Review, December. pp.515-530

Thompson, Michael (1979) Rubbish Theory. The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford University Press.

Venturi, Robert (1966) Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Museum of Modern Art Press, New York.

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