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The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

St Wilfrid's Crypt ' where we can experience the numinous. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
St Wilfrid's Crypt ' where we can experience the numinous. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. ‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

No, not another quiz – and you’ll certainly recognise these opening sentences from novels; Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ and George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen-Eight-Four’. The first two are very obviously looking into the past; the third is too – not just because we are now well beyond the year in which Orwell set his novel, but because, like all good novels, it’s told in the past tense.

Art Deco lift doors at the Chrysler Building, New York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Art Deco lift doors at the Chrysler Building, New York. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The modern fad for setting in the supposed present tense never occurred to Orwell, or he’d have written ‘It is a bright, cold day...’ in an attempt to add a spurious immediacy.

What has this to do with the architectural subject of this column? The answer is time-travel.

There are people who believe that time travel is possible – or may be possible in the future.

The late Stephen Hawking was, at best, doubtful; the party to which he sent invitations after the event, to test time-travel theories, resulted, not unexpectedly, in no one going.

The fire-damaged Baroque hall of Seaton Delaval, Northumberland. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The fire-damaged Baroque hall of Seaton Delaval, Northumberland. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Yet we can all time travel, with little effort, even of the imagination, by visiting places from the past. Indeed, architecture, of all the arts, can offer an experience of the past in the easiest way.

The only effort it requires is the travel.

It’s possible to get that time-travelling experience by looking at the exteriors of historic buildings – especially when they are of sufficient scale.

The awesome size of, say, York Minster, or the Roman settlements of Leptis Magna in Libya or Italica in Spain, or even of industrial monuments like Lister’s Mill in Bradford, can provide an immediate link to the past.

But perhaps we get the greatest hitch into the past when we find ourselves inside an enclosed space from distant ages. And it’s possible to go very far back.

The great Neolithic chambered tomb of Maeshowe on Orkney, with its massive corbelled roof and side chambers for burials, dates from around 2,800BC and is a most impressive work of architecture.

Even older, about 3,200BC is the passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland – a less-architectonic work of massive stones. And Mousa Broch on Shetland, a youngster of about 100BC, gives the same feeling of touching the past.

It’s possible, too, to have such an experience in some Roman structures – the Pantheon in Rome, for example, and the Maison Carrée in Nimes, built around 4AD are two examples.

When it comes to Saxon times, we know exactly where to find our link with our ancestors. St Wilfrid’s crypt in Ripon Cathedral allows us to sample the same numinous experience as the saint’s contemporaries must have felt – as can visitors to his Hexham crypt. And the remains of complete Saxon churches, like those at Baron-on-Humber, Bradford -on-Avon and Escomb, also put us in direct touch with those often-troubled times.

If we want to travel back to the Middle Ages, we have many more architectural wonders to supply that need.

The medieval cathedrals and parish churches of Britain will nearly all have at least a portion of their fabric in which to feel the pull of the past.

Sometimes it’s the smaller details that can move the viewer – perhaps a chantry chapel or a chapter house will have that effect.

And so we move on through the ages. Tudor mansions can provide atmospheric places – think of the uneven floors of the long galleries at Haddon Hall or Little Moreton Hall. And then, after the Civil War, we reach the age of the English Baroque, where the experience is of a different quality – we find the cool regularity of the classical style blended with a feeling for the ebb and flow of interior spaces – the central halls of Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and (though fire-damaged) Seaton Delaval all have that pent-up energy.

When we reach the true Palladian and Neo-Classical architecture of the 18th century, we may feel that such moving experiences may be harder to find; yet It can still be found in grand rooms like Lord Burlington’s Assembly Rooms in York’s Blake Street, in Robert Adam’s alabaster-columned hall at Kedleston in Derbyshire, or James Wyatt’s elegantly-cool reception space at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk.

Victorian spaces, too, can be impressive – the No 3 Covered Slip at Chatham Royal Dockyard, built in 1838, is a thrilling space; so is the main hall of the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London, opened in 1882.

Both immediate bring to like the power and confidence of the age. So do the great railway stations – York and Newcastle, for example.

In the 20th century Art Deco provided impressive interiors; cinemas were treated especially elaborately, with places like the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, dating from 1937, and the Odeon in London’s Leicester Square still surviving to give today’s movie-goers a taste of history. In New York, the foyer of the Chrysler Building is at least as good as its iconic exterior. And what about today’s architecture?

What are we constructing in the 21st century that will survive to thrill our descendants and make them feel they can have at least an inkling of our age?

History has a way of sifting the good from the bad, so what may survive in 100 or 1,000 years may not be what we expect.

It may be that our great construction projects may last – in London in particular, perhaps, where the new underground railway stations are as impressive as any Roman temple.

And what of our own neck of the woods? We should expect our most important buildings from the past – those recognised as the most important by the listing system – to survive.

Yet of what we build today, how much is worthy of preservation, in the hope of inspiring the future?

Perhaps not much; maybe we should think more carefully about what we are leaving to the future.