Making an entrance: Part 2

London is not one of Europe’s great ‘planned’ cities. It feels more like a collection of distinct localities – one might even say ‘villages’ – than a coherent, homogenous, whole. The City itself has been continuously inhabited and built-over since Roman times but the outer areas, to the north, south, east and west of the original ‘square mile’, developed at different times and with different characteristics as ‘Greater London’ came into being. New districts were added in successive centuries, with suburbs developing very rapidly during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The 1890s saw the beginnings of an electrified underground railway which greatly accelerated London’s urban sprawl. In the twentieth century, as expansion continued, some of the Victorian suburbs became the less desirable ‘inner’ suburbs and by the mid-century were suffering an interval of decay and neglect. During the 1920s and 1930s, London’s outward suburban expansion continued to such an extent that it had to be forcibly halted by the imposition of a ‘Green Belt’ at the end of the 1940s.

More than in any other European capital city, well-to-do Londoners have traditionally aspired to live in individual houses rather than in tenement blocks. The Victorians could seldom resist the temptation to call even small terraced dwellings “villas” although the word properly applies to substantial houses in the countryside. Grand architectural schemes are rare in London’s history and where they do occur, as in John Nash’s Park Crescent, the overall design necessarily takes precedence over identification of the entrances to separate dwellings. In the photograph below, paired ionic columns suggest a colonnade at street-level which unifies and dominates the two quadrant arms. Nash’s colonnade was illusory; railings, steps and light-wells prevent its use as an actual place to promenade. The various shared entrances are almost hidden from view until you draw level with them.

Georgian front doors
Park Crescent 1812: only two quadrants were actually built of the huge circus Nash planned at the southern end of Regent’s Park.

With urban space always in short supply, city buildings are necessarily crammed together and entrances can offer one of the few opportunities to distinguish the dwellings, one from another. By contrast with Park Crescent, in the photograph below, the building is still conceived as a unitary design but the projecting porches with their neo-classical detailing set up a rhythm which confirms the existence of separate households.

Victorian front doors
Notting Hill: A grand 1840s terrace with a clearly expressed piano nobile above the individual projecting porches.

Building houses in squares around a central garden was a design solution successfully used in the Georgian and early Victorian periods. The monolithic character of the buildings along each side of the square is relieved by setting forward the houses at the ends or in the centre of terraces and by careful variations in the detailing and spacing of windows. Again, the attention given to the entrances establishes individual identity within the greater composition.

Georgian front doors
Mid 19th century terraced housing in Highbury, north London.

Please click here for Making an Entrance: part 1

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