Alex Lifschutz

My Kind of Town: Bloomsbury exemplifies a long-life, loose-fit approach to architecture

Near the end of my social science course at Bristol University I decided to become an architect, a task I still haven’t quite achieved. Strangely, for such a momentous decision, I knew almost nothing about the subject although one clue to my interest might have been the fact that that architects had come a narrow second to pilots in a poll of most admired professions. My closest – indeed only – connection was a friend who had an architect sister. So I went to meet Celia Scott and her partner Bob Maxwell in their house on Old Gloucester Street in Bloomsbury. “Don’t apply to the Bartlett”, said Bob, who it turned out was a senior lecturer at UCL. “The AA’s the place for you”.

A few months later I attended an interview at the AA carrying some terrible photographs I had shoved into a portfolio, and was accepted into an institution rooted in a place, Bloomsbury, that has been part of my life ever since. I admire the perfection and regularity of its mostly Georgian architecture, and the messy and hugely creative life that occurs within. Bloomsbury is Europe’s largest university campus although this isn’t readily apparent from its neat streets and squares, which have the demeanour of a discreet embassy district. A closer look reveals the contrast between the well-ordered exteriors and much altered interiors, mostly bustling with activity.

‘Don’t apply to the Bartlett’, said Bob, who it turned out was a senior lecturer at UCL.”

The only outward manifestation of the AA’s irreverence are the occasional banners strung out of the upper windows of the seven Georgian houses, formerly bourgeois family homes, that now accommodate 1000 students and staff. Zoom in and you see the entrance at 35 Bedford Square has been barred by railings and the door replaced by a fixed French window. This was done to create the lecture hall, a memorably awkward space. Nobody knows who blocked the entrance, nor who removed other party walls during the 1960s, causing the interiors to sag.

This is because neither planning consent nor Building Regulations sign-off were ever sought for changes to these grade-l-listed buildings; things were just done to meet the immediate needs of the time. Architect Clare Wright recently obtained a retrospective consent for over 100 years of alterations. She also provided a masterplan for the future, her work being vigorously opposed by some who dislike the idea of any fixed strategy for future improvement. This grass-roots passion for territorial control reflects the paradox of Bloomsbury’s architecture in the contrast between the spontaneity of its internal life and its external urbanity. A further paradox of the AA is the way in which its adaptable, repetitive, authorless buildings have spawned the most immutable, distinctive and eponymous architectures of our time – Zaha Hadid’s work being merely one example.

its adaptable, repetitive, authorless buildings have spawned the most immutable, distinctive and eponymous architectures of our time”

Like much of Bloomsbury’s stock, Bedford Square was constructed between 1775 and 1783 by individual builder-developers to a pattern-book design by a surveyor rather than an architect. How ironic that such elegant streets and squares could have been shaped not just by the forces of speculative property development, but also by building regulations. The 1774 Building Act forbade combustible materials on the elevations and thus gave birth to the elegant Georgian proportions, slender window profiles, flat rooflines and minimal adornment so in tune with modernism.

Some years ago our practice was fortunate to be appointed to masterplan UCL’s Bloomsbury campus, with the principal aim of seeing how its constantly changing and expanding educational repertoire might best be accommodated. Our audit of 80 buildings showed that the earlier structures, including the Wilkins Building of 1827, were readily adaptable to new insertions. It was the most recent buildings that struggled with change because of their specificity of design.

I left the AA some 35 years ago, struggling to find a way to unite very different ideas – how to achieve perfection of form, use minimum bombast and material in design and construction, encourage appropriation of space by future occupants and make memorable buildings that would improve with age – hence my fascination with Bloomsbury and the architecture of time.