Saturday, September 10, 2005

It is heritage weekend...

...and once again, many interesting (& probably a few dull) buildings outside the Capital are open for visits from the general public free of charge, from the obsessed to the merely curious.

Today, we went to Halifax, for a chance for me to go inside three buildings that I've seen hundreds of times over the last seven years.

Our first port of call was the Magistrates Courts in Blackwall, just up the road from the Halifax Head Office (as was pre-HBOS) and just down the road from Provident Insurance. We were shown round the three main courts as well as the state of the art cell block. Whilst it was good to be guided by practicing Magistrates, their spiel was rather dull, being lifted from a potted history document. When they veered off-script, however, they became much more interesting. Time and "modernisation" haven't been too kind to the building but it still bears the hallmarks of competent design and construction that I doubt the courts in the centre of Leeds will share in the 22nd Century.

One particularly incongruous modern addition is the secured dock, bullet proof glass and strong mesh ceiling in court 1, with a similar floor to near-ceiling arrangement in the much smaller court 2 which is more chapel sized compared to the more imposing court 1 which is a substantial space. Interestingly, the larger court has been internally reversed through 180 degrees but retains the style & woodwork to the extent that it is not at all obvious other than some unaccounted for space at high level beyond the Bench which presumably was the original public gallery. One visual coffee stain that would pass by the untrained observer is the shadow of the roof space catwalk above the Art Nouveau laylight inserted in the ceiling panel presumably at the turn of the last century.

The cells are a modern re-work of the upper level block (the lower ones being abandoned for prisoner use) but whilst clean and bright are extremely bleak indeed. All they have inside is a long bench on the far wall and that certainly isn't a place I'd wish to visit in anger, so to speak.

Our second stop was the Town Hall, designed by Sir Charles Barrie best known for the houses of Parliament. Again, this building has been mucked about with internally, although the ornate schemes remain. It has a very large internal hall that we would now call an atrium, although it doesn't let in too much light from the very peculiar multi-domed ceiling glazed in deep blue starred stained glass. Despite being fairly brightly lit it feels dismal and gloomy, the effect of the high-bay Sodium lighting & the green-ish colour scheme. The Council Chamber was inserted into a rather loft court room in 1901 and is slightly sombre with dark polished mahogany but a well designed and intimate space. The current Mayor's Parlour is a vibrant room and an antidote to the more sombre spaces elsewhere.

The grand staircase is marred somewhat by a picket-gate style unusual lift (with two entrances at right-angles) that is a period piece in its own right but does distort the openness and balance of the staircase visually. Another much larger glazed dome is above, beyond which is the tower and huge spire complete with an extremely busy facade and statuary worthy of closer study. The clock has a Westminster Chime although the bells sounded slightly sharp to me.

David ensured he sat in the Mayor's chair of course, a pastime of his in Public Buildings!

Our third and final visit was to Somerset House, a much mangled and almost forgotten Georgian Mansion House in the centre of the Town. It has one remarkable surviving large room with absolutely stunning rococo plasterwork. I took two snapshots of the detail (actually six, with three combinations of flash setting) and here they are below. They are available light so aren't pin sharp, however the flash ones are much flatter and don't do the bas relief justice. If you click on them, you can see a much bigger image. You can place these shots in context by following the hyperlink above. It also seems from this picture that there is concealed cornice lighting, although it wasn't lit on our visit.

This is Britannia above the Mantlepiece. Note the date, 1766.

This is Neptune on the ceiling in the centre of the room, viewed from the entrance door side facing three double height bay windows.

David put up with the visits but would have preferred less talking by the guides and more sitting in the various seats...

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