When I learnt to knit my Nan always reminded me the back should be as neat as the front. This principle is something that has always stayed with me and I tend to be just as fascinated with the rear of buildings as the front.
A building’s behind is often forgotten by owners and visitors alike. Indeed it may be private and inaccessible, and naturally the front is the public face, and the rear – well that’s where real living happens. Through the centuries it has been the preserve of the wealthy to have the choice to commission ashlar fronts and brick rears. Centuries on the more styled buildings with stark architectural contrasts – such as proud Georgian terraces – are the ones that remain and are our cultural reference points.
The Royal Crescent in Bath Spa is an example of such ‘fascadism’. The Grade I listed curved Georgian terrace is a wonderful piece of not only architecture but urban design. The Georgian terrace tried to recreate for the Lady and Gentleman a stately home in the town. The grassed landscape in front of the terrace includes a ha-ha – a ditch within the field often used to the front of stately homes to show the building off to its most grand.
Creating a piece of urban design was foremost for architect John Wood the Younger: completed in 1774 The Crescent is still a defining feature of the city. The serene and classically proportioned façade, however, conceals a mis-match of brick shapes to the rear. Buyers could purchase a portion of the development by length and separately complete the rear construction of the block. For the sake of urban conformity this makes sense – everyone gets what they want – an impressive entrance, a belonging to a great sweeping urban gesture, yet the rear could be built out according to the size of the household and coffers. As a wholistic piece of architecture, however, this doesn’t come close to the knitting principle. What this ‘Queen Mary Front, Mary Ann Behind’ approach does reveal is perhaps arguably of greater interest.
A recent visit to the river through the centre of Newbury made me consider the front/back conundrum.
Backing onto the river at the town centre is a series of properties with direct individual access, but not for the general public. A couple of cafes have made the most of their portion to create seating with a view of the river but the neighbouring buildings seem to architecturally ignore the river. Personally I’m happy to sip a coffee overlooking the butt-end of a building provided the environment is clean and quiet. The higgledy-piggledy constructions in themselves tend to reveal a narrative of growth, re-hash, economics and pragmatism. Usually not so easy-on-the-eye but rich in social history.
The rear is often the ‘engine’ of the building that enables its front-face to continue to adapt and maintain relevance in an ever-advancing world. It is perhaps a shame that often this part of an older building has had little attention paid to the details. Cheaper construction materials, quickly erected, with a mix of mechanical services barging their way through can result in an architectural mess. I would suggest, however, that it should not be assumed rear buildings offer nothing by way of historical interest – and like the rear of The Royal Crescent – may have their own story to tell. A peek at ‘real life’ going on behind the scenes can reveal practical demands of daily life from a particular era.
In modern developments of existing buildings it can be a quick and easy solution to dismiss its rear as a non-factor, but I would suggest it may be missing a trick to overlook working with the existing grain of the building. After all a façade retention scheme can often go horribly astray as highlighted by Oliver Wainwright his recent Guardian column ‘fascadism’ (click here to read the full article).
The examples Wainwright uses are clearly extreme and obvious cases of insensitivity. Perhaps key early decisions to engage with complete buildings beyond the street front can offer opportunity to engage with site-specific social history to inform a richer architecture.