Quinlan and Francis Terry's inspiration: Somerset House, London
The father and son team revel in the glory of William Chambers’ classical building on the Strand
Location The Strand, London
Architect Sir William Chambers
I’ve had William Chambers’ A Treatise on Civil Architecture since I studied at the Architectural Association — its cover is falling off now. At the time, there were a few of us there who couldn’t take modern architecture and looked for something better — like John Vanbrugh. But Vanbrugh didn’t have a book, unlike Chambers. Like any true expert, Chambers gave his version of the Five Orders and it’s amazing that he produced such a scholarly book, given the number of commissions he had at the time. He gave readers all the rules and, in doing so, turned amateurs into professionals.
We rebels looked at Chambers a lot at the AA (although we were told we’d fail if we didn’t do a modern scheme in our last year and I gave them what they wanted). Years later, when I was doing rustication at Richmond Riverside and running into problems, I came to Somerset House and looked at how he did it. He is a good man to crib: if I see something beautiful by an architect like Chambers I draw it, measure it and use it.
Somerset House is so easy on the eye. The proportion of the square, the symmetry, the use of rustication — everything has been designed in a thoroughly enjoyable way. I particularly like the little arches over the roads leading out of the square.
Chambers is a past master on elements such as balustrades. I also enjoy how he uses nine voussoirs over the lower arches in the middle of the courtyard facades, then 11 over the middle and only five above the smaller upper ones. He uses Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite orders at Somerset House. The entrance arcade is Doric and the basement level, which would have originally gone right down to the water, is Tuscan. They are all used in the Roman versions rather than the Greek — Roman classicism was what everyone admired at the time. Nowadays, everyone is trying to be original, but that wasn’t what they wanted in Chambers’ day. It was all about doing it impeccably with the best stone. As a result, these sorts of buildings, built well using natural materials, will last for centuries rather than decades, like most modernist buildings.
Somerset House hasn’t been written about much as a piece of architecture, so isn’t particularly iconic. It’s not awe-inspiring like the Pantheon; it’s just somewhere you might happen upon and think is nice, which is somehow very English. It appears so effortless that you might think it was easy to design, but that is Chambers’ skill.
It appears so effortless that you might think it was easy to design, but that is his skill
I’ve built about 100 new buildings, so I’ve had to keep looking at different sources. We’ve got many books in the office, but I’ve always found that Chambers is a very sound book to look at if you want to do something properly. Chambers never repeats himself. In every design he uses different details for different occasions, which makes him such a good architect. As a classical architect, you want your ideas and sources to come through. For Richmond Riverside, for example, I designed a long terrace directly influenced by Chambers’ unrealised design for Richmond Palace.
One of the saddest things is classicism done badly — that gives us all bad press. But Somerset House was exemplary — for Chambers, it was his St Paul’s. When it’s done well, like here, classicism melts into the background with no one really noticing it, which is how it should be.
I was exposed to classical architecture from a young age and I have always considered it a beautiful style. For me, Somerset House is a high point of English classicism. There had been the early, Georgian classical buildings, when they were just getting to grips with Palladianism,then this was one of the first really confident works before classicism became self conscious and academic.
Chambers’ skill was to simply design a beautiful building, irrespective of the source. He wasn’t interested in looking clever — he just wanted to do it right. It must be one of the few bits of London that’s a totally classical space rather than just a classical facade or part of a street. Here, in the courtyard, you’re surrounded by Somerset House entirely.
It is ironic that, despite Britain’s historic political and religious independence from Rome, monarchs from Charles I to George III chose Italian architecture as their national style. Somerset House is a great example of this — a civic building that exudes classical sources from every pore.
The front facade, with its giant three-quarter engaged columns sitting on a rusticated base is a text book Renaissance palazzo design. This configuration has its origin in Raphael’s Palazzo Caprini and was later copied by Palladio and through him it found its way into England with William Kent’s Burlington House, which Chambers would have known well.
Going through the arches, you come to an undercroft with a dense forest of vaulted columns. This, again, is borrowed from Italian palazzos — Michelangelo’s Palazzo Farnese is often cited as a possible source. On entering the courtyard, the analogy with the urban pallazzo breaks down, as it is far lower. Instead, rural courtyards such as Giullio Romano’s Palazzo Te in Mantua suggest themselves. Chambers originally considered a smaller circular courtyard in the spirit of Raphael’s Villa Madama on Monte Mario, but this was abandoned.
The use of rustication throughout the courtyard recalls Florentine palaces. Here, Chambers has taken a motif that can appear crude and masculine and turned it into a polite, tame and very English equivalent.
Classicism always thrives on repetition and the cumulative effect of repeated windows and columns has impact. There is also a slightly French quality — maybe influenced by Jacques-François Blondel, who taught Chambers in Paris — that I like. Looking at it now, more than 200 years later, there’s nothing that seems wrong, that spoils it. It’s beautifully built, too. It feels like a complete unit.
It’s easy to design a one-off country house. But a complex with a variety of functions such as those of Somerset House is much harder. The undercroft entrance is dramatic. The interior is also wonderful. Parts like the Courtauld Galleries are beautiful, with lovely ceilings, and the Nelson stair is an amazing bit of stonework construction.
Most architectural criticism seems to applaud originality, boldness and strength. In contrast, Somerset House aims for charm, elegance and delight, which it achieves without apparent effort. This effortlessness is what makes it a fine work of art.
From naval headquarters to art gallery
Somerset House stands on the 2.5ha site of a Tudor palace that was demolished in 1775 to make way for the new complex, built to house several government offices and learned societies. It was eventually designed by William Chambers, comptroller in the Office of Works, who took the project over after the death of the first choice architect, William Robinson.
Chambers, who designed the pagoda in Kew Gardens in 1762, had trained in France and Italy and was an expert on Chinese architecture and decoration. His brief was to construct “a great public building… an object of national splendour”, which would house important departments such as the Navy Board and the King’s Bargemaster, and which both required direct access to the Thames. As well as offices, the building also had to provide living accommodation for the various heads of departments.
Chambers devised a quadrangular layout, treating the government departments as a series of six-storey town houses, each with its own entrance. The development was phased, with the Strand block to the north completed first between 1776-1780, followed by the Embankment building in 1786 and the east and west ranges in 1788.
Construction was problematic, involving extensive piling on the steeply sloping site. Chambers died in 1795 and the complex was declared finished in 1801 at a cost of £462,323 — nearly twice the architect’s initial estimate.
Much of the interior was relatively plain, with more decorative treatment afforded to the learned societies’ accommodation and two key staircases: the grand Nelson stair in the southern block and the stairs to the Royal Academy exhibition room in the Strand building. Exterior decoration had patriotic and marine themes to suit Britain’s growing imperial ambitions.
Chambers’ riverside elevation was compromised by the construction of the Embankment, which concealed the Aberdeen granite base and landlocked the great arch and its adjacent barge houses.
In the late 20th century, the building was restored and the courtyard, which had become a car park for the civil servants then working in the building, returned to public space, which has been increasingly used for cultural and recreational events.