Archive for the ‘Architectural History’ Category

Basel: City on the Rhine

Münster and Terraces overlooking the Rhine, Basel

Basel has a strong relationship with the Rhine. The city is uniquely located, at a point between the tight, fast-flowing upper courses in Switzerland, and the broad meanders known to Northern Europe.

From its source in the canton of Graubünden, the Rhine passes through six countries and covers a distance of 1320 kilometres. On the edge of France, Germany and Switzerland, the river changes direction, turning from west to north, and forming the ‘Rhine Knee’. North of Basel, the river is a natural border between France and Germany. In the docklands at Kleinhüningen, the three countries formally meet. This so-called Dreiländereck is marked by a sculpture from Wilhem Münger.

Basel is Switzerland’s third largest city, with a population of 190000 inhabitants. The area was originally settled by the Romans and the Celts, who found defensive topography and trading opportunities where smaller tributaries flow into the Rhine. The old centre is characterised by ridged roofs, with many gables, balconies and overhanging eaves. Medieval buildings grew up around the Gothic Münster (1013-1500s), which is constructed on a small plateau.

Today, the city is known for being a centre of pharmaceuticals, banking, and publishing. The river is still important for trade, allowing container barges and tankers from Rotterdam access to Switzerland. Passenger craft also make the journey up-river. Against the current, this can take over five days. Near to the Jura Mountains, Bernese Oberland and Black Forest, Basel is an attractive place to work and study. Famous locals have included Erasmus, Nitezsche and Bernoulli, as well as architects Herzog and de Meuron, who set-up their main practice here. The city was also home to Switzerland’s first university, and now has a large teaching hospital. Grossbasel, on the Rhine’s south bank, is where most of the tourist sights are located. The Rathaus (townhall), has a colourful painted facade, with frescoes in the courtyard. Other attractions include a fountain with moving sculptures by Jean Tinguely, a work by Richard Serra, and a world-class arts museum. Across the river in Kleinbasel, the Messe exhibition centre includes a 31-storey glass skyscraper, which was once the tallest building in the country.

Kleinbasel,with Münster-Fähre ‘Leu’ in the foreground

Crossing from Grossbasel to Kleinbasel, has proved an issue of historical interest. Until the mid 19th Century, Mittlere Brücke (1225) was the single crossing point to the north-east. To provide more crossing places, reaction ferries were established. Serving as flying bridges, these boats used the Rhine current as their sole driving force.

Currently, there are four ferries in operation: Wild Maa, at St Alban; Leu, at the Münster; Vogel Gryff, the Klingental- Fähre, and Ueli, the St. Johann-Fähre. At each crossing point, steel cables are tensioned across the river. A tether line from each ferry is connected to a collar that can move freely along the cable. Positioning the boat at 45 degrees to the Rhine current forces water to strike one side of the craft. A reaction force then propels the boat in the opposite direction. The Basel Fähre is a flat-bottomed, wooden craft, with curved bows and long benches on either side. At the front, a large platform allows passengers to embark and disembark. The rear third is covered by a small hut, from where the Fäärimaa (ferryman) operates the ferry, and passengers can shelter in bad weather. To control the speed, the boat can be positioned at a range of angles, by using rudders. This means that it is possible to slow down when reaching the other bank. To change direction, the Fäärimaa (ferryman) passes a level from one side of the boat to the other, reversing the side of the craft the tether is connected to. Ingeniously, the boat only needs man-power to push off and come into land. After that, the speed is largely dependent on the flow of the Rhine. When the water is high, it is sometimes too dangerous to sail. If the water is low, speed can be increased by attaching different side boards or rowing. The journey on Ueli, the lowest craft on the river, takes the longest, since here the Rhine is wider. Karl Städeli has been a Fäärimaa for nearly 40 years. His fähre, Leu, has a crossing of 185m, connecting the Münster with Kleinbasel. In a full day, his boat travels 9.25 km back and forth across the river.

Münster-Fähre, showing tether cable and lever mechanism

Gradually, as the Wettsteinbrücke (1879), Johanniter- (1882) and the Dreirosenbrücke (1934) were built, the ferries became less profitable. A foundation, the Stiftung Basler Fähren, was created to maintain the boats, promote tourist use, and ensure they remain part of Basel’s urban character. Baslers are encouraged to become friends of the ferry, by joining the Fähre-Verein. Their members are 4000 strong, giving assistance through donations, fundraising and forming a social network.

Klingental-Fähre ‘Vogel Gryff’ at 45 degrees to the Rhine current

Today, the ferries are leased to private owners, and run without state donation. A crossing costs 1.60 Swiss Francs for adults. Each boat can carry a maximum of 34 people, and will usually operate from 9am – 8pm. During the annual Fasnacht festival, the ferries run longer services into the night. There is also the opportunity to try-out ferry sailing, or they can be hired for special events, with aperitifs or fondue as extras. Over the Summer, there will be a special nautical-themed charity concert to raise money for a new craft. This is expected to cost around 400000 Francs. When well-built, the boat can last 30 years in rain, wind and bad weather.

Basel’s Fähre are a small example of the life the city harnesses from the Rhine. Along the river, terraced banks provide a place for people to relax, view the Basel skyline, and watch the ferries crossing back and forth. Basel just wouldn’t be the same without the Rhine: it’s the driving force that keeps this dynamic city moving.

Basel: On The Rhine, City Plan

Wallpaper City Guide (2012) Basel, Phaidon.
Basel Tourism
Basel Fähre-Verein


Arts and Crafts Houses in the English Lakes (Part II)

August 13, 2011 1 comment

Broadleys, Storrs Park

Broadleys is another ‘Arts and Crafts’ house found in Storrs Park. Ten minutes down the road from Blackwell, Broadleys is now home to the Windermere Motor Boat Racing Club. Charles FA  Voysey (1857-1941) was nine years older than MH Baillie Scott. Voysey is sometimes hailed the ‘pioneer of modern design’, due to his preference for plain interiors (e.g. oak panelling) and concentration on simplicity. Trademarks include wide over-hanging eaves, steeply pitched roofs and broad chimneys. Whitewashed walls, lead casements and custom designed furniture complete Voysey’s designs.

Broadleys served as a holiday home for A Currer Briggs of Leeds. The house overlooks Windermere to the west, incorporating three bow-front windows that extend over two storeys. Voysey divided the space to form a double-height entrance hall with the drawing and dining rooms on either side. Servant accommodation is kept in a wing to the north, while gardens terrace down to the lake and moorings below. Voysey’s style would strongly influence suburban housing before 1930.

Arts and Crafts Houses in the English Lakes (Part I)

Blackwell, Storrs Park

Windermere railway station (opened 1849) popularised tourism in the English Lakes. Fifty years later, Storrs Park provided wealthy businessmen with the opportunity to construct their own country retreats. Blackwell (1900, MH Baillie Scott) and Broadleys (1898-1901, CFA Voysey) are two fine houses designed according to Arts and Crafts principles.

Taking their cue from activists like Ruskin and Morris, Scott and Voysey developed a housing style based on simplicity and social life at the time. Interior volumes flow into one-another, with discrete rooms (such as the drawing room, library, dining room) for each domestic activity. Entry is typically from the North, with a large hall for meeting and entertaining guests. Importance is placed on the house as an object in the landscape. Terraces and sunken lawns require careful garden planning.

South Elevation, Blackwell

Blackwell was commissioned for Sir Edward Holt (1948-1927), a wealthy brewer, in 1898. The house is sited on the highest point of land within Storrs Park. Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, a promising architect, was asked to design a family holiday home, where Holt would entertain guests. The house is both informal and traditionalist, with an asymmetrical design and complicated roof profile. The multitude of chimneys and simplicity of material finish lend a picturesque feel. Formal gardens incorporate a south lawn, accessed from the principle rooms, and lower west lawn, facing the lake. The Holt family owned land down to the shores of Windermere, allowing them to influence the wider landscape beyond their home.

The Drawing Room


Scott described the interior of Blackwell as ‘a charmed territory where everything shall be in harmony’. This is reflected in the attention to detail, handicrafts and bespoke furniture within the house. On entering, a long panelled corridor provides access to the ground floor rooms, ending with a view over the lake. The hall forms the heart of the house, allowing the family to meet guests, and referencing the halls previously found in Medieval life. Space is generous, creating an opened interior. Scott uses a double height space, overlooked by the Minstrel’s Gallery. Flexibility is incorporated with sliding doors that allow servants to pass in the corridor outside.  The dining room opens off the hall in a way that fore-runs open-plan interiors. Details, such as the inglenook fireplaces and broad stairway, romanticise English life, echoing the phrase ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’.

Furniture at Blackwell is mainly bespoke, designed by Scott himself. The architect tried to create a total work of art (gesamtkunstwerk), bemoaning ‘every architect…must have his enthusiasm dampened by a prophetic vision of the hideous furniture with which his client may fill his rooms’. Morris’ Sussex Corner Chair (1860’s), crafted from beech and rush, makes an appearance. Designs incorporate harvest themes, flowers and birds. Many furnishings were built at ‘The Handicrafts’ in nearby Kendal, owned by Arthur Simpson (1857-1922). Examples include the Daffodil  dresser (c. 1905), and writing bureau (c. 1910). Both architect and craftsman developed a strong friendship, resulting in the commissioning of Simpson’s own house, Littlehome. Other interior decoration includes the Peacock frieze in the main hall, and blue ceramics for the fireplaces.

When reviewing Blackwell, Herman Muthesius dubbed it ‘one of the most attractive [houses] that the new movement in housebuilding has produced’. The German author wrote ‘Das Englische Haus’, mentioning the finest houses of the time. The home was modern and forward looking, using electricity and central heating. During the Second World War, Blackwell was converted to use as a girls’ school, Huyton College. This continued after the war, until 1976. Blackwell reopened in 2001, after conservation work. Now in the hands of the Lakes Arts Trust, the venture is celebrating its tenth anniversary. For more information, visit

St George’s Quay and Freeman’s Pools, Lancaster

Lune Mills, St George's Quay

In a secluded part of Lancaster lies St Georges Quay. The docks were built in 1750, when the city was a hub for shipping imports and exports. Boats involved in the Slave Trade would bring raw materials, such as sugar, cotton, rum and mahogany, leaving with furniture and manufactured goods.

When shipping declined, St Georges Quay became home to Lancaster’s linoleum business. In the 1840s, James Williamson (senior) established a successful coated fabric business. His son, James Williamson (junior), vastly expanded the company using a  site that had been a former shipyard. This ‘mammoth works on the banks of the Lune’ concentrated on coated fabric products for the low-end consumer. Cork linoleum began production in 1887. An expanded mill, covering 21 acres, housed processes for embossing, rolling, measuring, block printing and dyeing. Cork was brought to Heysham from Spain and Portugal, then transferred to the factory via rail. In 1894, the firm employed 2500 men. Lord Ashton commissioned several philanthropic works, including the Queen Victoria Monument (Dalton Square), Lancaster Town Hall, and Williamson Park, dominated by the Ashton Memorial. Since Ashton’s death (1930), the lino business fell into decline. Production ended around 1999, leaving a derelict site that has been prone to vandalism.

Freeman's Pools, The Lune Estuary Path

Freeman’s Pools are part of flood protection measures for St George’s Quay. The six hectare site provided clay for constructing the flood embankments. Afterwards, landscaping created a series of inter-connecting lakes. Completed in 2008, Freeman’s Pools are host to a manner of invertebrates, mammals and wading birds. These include frogs, water voles, great crested newts, Terns and Lapwings. Planting the lake margins with wildflowers and wet grassland has increased biodiversity. Shallow excavations known as scrapes form habitats for the invertebrates. Aquatics, such as reeds and rushes, provide cover. Over 8000 trees have been planted. The Black Poplar is an especially rare tree, with only around 7000 left in the UK. For this reason, the area has been designated a County Biological Heritage Site. Freeman’s Pools is on the Lune Estuary Path, linking Lancaster with Glasson Dock.

Gresgarth Hall, nr Caton

August 3, 2011 1 comment

Gresgarth Gardens, nr Caton, Lancashire

Gresgarth Hall and Gardens fuses the natural landscape of a river valley, with a stately home and formal gardens. The house is perched on a meander of Artle Beck, near the Lancashire town of Caton. Although there may have been a pele tower on the present site since the early fourteenth century, the house has been remodelled several times. A large bay window, overlooking the river terrace and subsequent Gothic Revival style enlargements, were later additions. In the 1800s, Thomas Edmondson landscaped the grounds in the Romantic style. The present owners are Mark and Arabella Lennox-Boyd, the latter being an award-winning landscape designer.

Ornamental Lake

Recent developments have involved planting the river terraces with Mediteranean plants, native to Arabella’s birth place in Italy. The lake was re-landscaped, creating the illusion of a river opening out to face the house. Circling the lake are several different areas of planting, including a kitchen garden and orchard. There are over 6000 varieties of trees and shrubs. Across the beck, the grounds open out into wildflowers and the surrounding countryside.

Together, the house, beck and gardens present a harmonious and picturesque landscape. Gresgarth Gardens opens on selective days. More information can be found at

Back with more… Dockwray Footbridge

Former Romney Bridge, Kendal

After a brief break, ‘A View from Rob Hebb’ continues with some posts from the South Lakes and Lancashire. So far, there have been over 100 views each month. Thanks for the support. I’m glad its been worthwhile and readers have enjoyed it.

This suspension bridge was formerly sited on Romney Road (constructed 1907), in my home town of Kendal. The bridge was dismantled and re-erected on land near Dockwray Hall industrial estate, with support from Kendal Civic Society (1993). It now links the industrial estate with Mintsfeet and Queen Katherine School on the opposite bank of the River Kent.

Piazza delle Erbe, Verona

Piazza delle Erbe and Torre dei Lamberti, Verona

At the centre of Verona lies the Piazza delle Erbe. This long rectangular square has enjoyed continuous use as a market for 2000 years. Trade in Northern Italy was important for the authority of small city-states.

Verona is still very much shaped by the original Roman settlement. Streets in the city centre follow a grid plan, taking into account Roman monuments. The Amphitheatre is easily the largest building in Verona. The Piazza delle Erbe stands on the old forum site. A market column (capitetto), was used for proclamations during the Middle Ages. A fountain is dedicated to the Verona Madonna. Less than five minutes walk from the Piazza, the Casa Giulietta attracts tourists interested in the world-famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.
The Piazza is dominated by the Palazzo della Ragione (12th century) and the Torre dei Lamberti above. The tower reaches a height of 84 metres, with an octagonal upper storey.