A Palimpsest of Habitation
by Edwin Heathcote
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A central London home is a palimpsest of ways of inhabiting. Along with the decorative preoccupations, and the social hierarchy, the lives and lifestyles of its inhabitants and the everyday bustle of the city that surrounds it are inscribed into the walls and the rooms they contain.
Like all of the grand London dwellings with their carefully articulated but restrained facades, the houses of 3-10 Grosvenor Crescent embody the changes in taste, in the perception of luxury and in the use of space which has characterised the long lives of these buildings. The relative rarity of such grand, urbane architecture in the use for which it was originally intended is indicated in their listing, the legal protection of their fabric.
But what is it that has allowed these houses not only to survive but to thrive and to reappear at the top of the market as hugely desirable dwellings? Partly, of course it is their central location but it is also the generosity of their conception, the scale of the rooms, the carefulness of their detailing and a kind of English restraint which manages to blend delicate decoration with uncluttered volumes.
It is intriguing to see how these houses have been able to adapt to modern requirements with such seemingly seamless ease (it is, of course, the skill of the architects which make it seem easy). The basic functions of a house are, of course, still the same as they were a century and a half ago- to provide shelter, calm and, perhaps less often considered - but almost as important- meaning. Benjamin Franklin said that 'A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.' The French thinker Gaston Bachelard meanwhile wrote 'If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.'
The home is layered not only with history and association but also with a rich reservoir of meaning. From the representation of Greek and Roman myths embodied in the mouldings and the cornices to the anthropomorphic symbolism of windo\fv'S as eyes- allowing the dweller to see the world beyond and admitting light to the mind of the interior, each architectural element is replete with myth and meaning. Take the mouldings for example. An egg and dart pattern runs through the frieze. The egg is the symbol of cosmic creation, of birth and beginnings and it alternates with the dart, a stylised arrow- which symbolises both love (think of Cupid's arrow) and death. Or the elaborate ceiling roses. This might have once had the most prosaic of functions - to vent the gas from a gas-lit chandelier centrepiece but it also carries within it mythological memories. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, gave her son, Cupid (him again), a rose that he in turn gave to the god of silence, Harpocrates, to ensure that his mother's sexual indiscretions would remain secret. In this way the rose became the symbol of domestic discretion. You might be familiar with the phrase "sub-rosa", which comes to us from the middle ages, when a rose would be suspended above a council chamber, ensuring that the occupants would be sworn to secrecy once outside. The ceiling rose represents the private nature and the sanctity and intimacy of the home.
We could also look at the façade. The portico - the symbol of welcome and shelter taking the visitor into the embrace of the building as a prelude to entrance, is supported on fluted Doric columns. Muscular and powerful, their proportions represent a male body. The ground floor is defined by inscribed lines evoking rustication- the joints and chunky stones of a building which grows directly from the rock. It symbolises the firmness of the foundations.
Further up the façade are composite pilasters, a slender, more organic female form with acanthus leaves sprouting beneath the volutes which were taken to represent the coils of hair on a woman's head (think Princess Leia). These are a deliberate blend of abstraction and representation, as if nature were taking back control of the architecture- all buildings will pass back into the earth. Then take a step back, the elevation is configured in a tripartite manner, base (rusticated, solid), middle (the attenuated IMndows of the piano nobile and attic, the storey above the cornice. The subdivision corresponds with that of the columns which are the basis of all classical architecture, base, shaft, head - and also with the human body's legs, trunk and head. These buildings are rooted not just in myth but in the familiar proportions of the body, which is what makes their proportions feel comfortable.
These buildings also convey a changing sense of what it means to dwell today. Once these were houses of grand formality. Sited in the genteel centre of the city, these were always places of representation - they were designed to suggest a certain status. As a result, rooms were generous and ceilings were high - a surfeit of space suggested money was no object- even here.
The biggest rooms were on the front and were meant to impress. They were public places, for guests and visitors. Service spaces were downstairs, the kitchen was the realm of servants and baths might well have been taken in the bedrooms with servants dragging hot water up the stairs. The bathrooms that there were would have been cold and functional. Now, in this most recent renovation, some of the building's most generous spaces are given over to bathing. Bathing has returned to the bedrooms with some of the grandest spaces given over to ablutions. Bathing is now a luxury and the spaces are designed to fully express this moment. The kitchen, once exiled to the bowels of the house, is now a public space, the heart of the home.
The hierarchy of space shifts, the way we use homes changes but the meaning remains and, with each successive rebuilding, adaptation and redecoration it gathers new layers of meaning. As lives are increasingly lived in the non-places of airports and hotels, conference centres and CBDs, and as much in cyberspace as in physical space, the grounded, historic fabric of the home becomes an anchor, a container of meaning which attaches its owner to place and space, to the city and its history.