Mark Girouard, the British architecture historian, who held an allday seminar at the Smithsonian last Saturday, has given us more than a fascinating account of "Life in the English Country House." He has found a way to get educated people interested in architecture again. That will not only enrich the educated; it will also help improve architecture and our "built environment," as the jargon has it.
Architects of our time are getting away with what they are getting away with because their clients (ultimately all of us) hve only a vague idea of what we expect of them and no idea of what they are talking about.
For example: "There is a focus in my architecture on dematerializations," the noted Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman wrote in the current issue of Quest magazine. The focus, Tigerman said, is on "buildings in which the scale is ambiguous, ones made out of materials that, unlike would or brick, are not tactile or identifiable, but something else. Then the house begins to be nothing. It is no longer couched in the conventional language of 'house.' One enters a disorienting, shifting dream world."
One surely does.
Architectural history, the way it is told by most historians, does little to orient us. They give us mostly Who Struck John, irrelevant genealogy and cost accounting:
"In 1793, no doubt inspired by Mansart, his niece Lorabelle had the south chimney extended by 3 1/2 feet at a cost of $97.50. The innate vitality of the now Italianate masses are expressing Bernini-like variations of the plasticity of the order in concert with the advance and recession of the plane of the wall."
We are seldom, if ever, told about the lives and aspirations of the people who created the building, about the life style that shaped the architectural style, which in turn shaped the life style.
This is what Mark Girouard does so magnificently. In telling us about 500 years of English country houses, he also tells us about the 500-year rule "of an integrated and powerful class, which knew the kind of buildings it wanted and had the confidence and money to produce them."
Girouard's readers and listeners are enthralled. Girouard's Smithsonian seminar the other day went on from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. and was attended by 300 people, some 150 having been turned away for lack of space. The beautifully designed and illustrated book ($25.00. Yale University Press) is a best seller in Great Britain and selling extremely well in this country.
"I suppose much of this is nostalgia," Girouard told me in a brief interview before his marathon seminar.
He is a lean, tall youngish-looking man of 48, wearing thick glasses, a shy, scholarly air and burgundy velvet suit -- the perfect picture of an Oxford don. The book is based on a series of Oxford lectures, but Girouard now lives in London, devoting all his time to research and writing.
"The English country house," he continued, "is, of course, most everyone's dream house -- not just in England, everywhere. It seems to have inspired most of what you see in American suburbia. So people are curious. In fact, that's what prompted me to do this book -- curiosity. There are lots of books on the English country houses, but none tell you what went on inside."
Girouard provides a feast of informational tidbits and anecdotes to nourish the curious. Royalty would deal with uppity noblemen, he tells us for instance, simply by visiting their country house. That meant exhaustive redecoration, if not an entire new wing -- at punishing expense.
In a large part, the story of English country-house life is the story of the changing relationship between the lords and their servants and between community and privacy. In the medieval house everyone ate together, usually in a rigid ritual that makes the Japanese tea ceremony look like an office Christmas party.
At certain medieval ceremonies, each course of a meal was often announced by a fanfare of music. The noblemen would take off their hats to greet the food. And so large was the feasting crowd and so great their enjoyment of it that it was one of the jobs of the ushers of the hall to walk up and down shouting "speak softly my masters."
The noise of this tribal togetherness, suggests Girouard, may have been one reason for the lord using the hall only as a symbol and eating his dinner in chamber. As the servants were gradually moved out of sight, the top floor tended to be given over to the maids and manservants in a dormitory known as "barracks."
On one occasion in 1780 at Castle Blunden in Ireland, the girls upstairs were serenaded and teased "en chemise" by the "old boys" in the barracks. "In our confusion," one of the girls recorded for history, "we overturned the pot-dechambre," its contents meandering across the lobby into the barracks. A good thing that just about this time the first water closet was patented in England.
By the end of the 17th century, wrote Girouard, "the gentry walking up the staris" were tired of meeting "their last night's faeces coming down them."
Back stairs were invented and, aside from providing relative privacy, also brought an important change in English and, for that matter, Western society: They dissolved the single community, the enlarged household, like that of the Capulets and Montagues, in which all classes not only ate with their lord but were also protected by him in return for fierce loyalty. The gentry no longer mixed with the servants but with the gentry in the next country house. So did the servants.The solidarity of the clan was replaced by solidarity of class, with the power moving down the social scale to the largest class, from the gentry, to the middle class, to the working classes and proletariat.
The British nobility retreated into the saloon and developed an inexhaustible appetite for social life and, to a lesser extent, culture. Sumptuous libraries, art galleries and, most importantly, smoking rooms were added to the country house. Tobacco, says Girouard, "had a stronger influence on Victorian planning than tea." He tells us how the decor of these rooms determined the decorum of the people in them and vice versa.
One of his important theses is that the country house was not built so much for pleasure as for power. They served on the local level as the seat of a landowner, that is, as the seat of local government. On the national level it was the seat of the landowner who was also a member of parliament, helping to run the country.
Architecture, as someone has said, is at the crossroads of art and politics. English country houses are a perfect example of this. They are not simply designed in forms that follow function; rather, the real function the real life which the architectur is intended to serve -- and by which it is served -- is far more complet and unexplored than has been as sumed. Function is often symbolic.
The towers of the medieval country houses, for instance, seldom served a military function, as is commonly asserted. The house built by the Duke of Buckingham at Thornbury, Girouard tells us as an example has six towers at the front entrance. But it is nonsense to consider it a fortress. Around the corner large glass windows light the great chamber and other rooms.
Rather than for defense, towers were often built for hospitality. They were frequently used as guest lodgings, housing distinguished visitors and their entourages on small pieces of land. And, like corporate office skyscrapers today, they were intended to raise the prestige of their builders above the humdrum, denoting magnificence and luxury rather than a practical purpose.
"I'd say the reason the English country houses are so satisfying as architecture is that they are Iargely the creation of their clients, people who built for themselves and knew all about building," said Girouard at the end of the interview. Most architects were primarily general contractors.
"In fact, many of the noblemen who built these houses were amateur architects themselves. An example is the Earl of Burlington, who built Chiswick House in 1725 and helped establish Palladian architecture in England. But Burlington and most of his colleagues expressed not just an Italian architectural style, but gave form to the ever-changing English upper-class life style.
"I wish architects today would also pay more attention to just how we live and want to live," said Girouard.