COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Stonehenge ' 900 years in the making. (S)
Stonehenge ' 900 years in the making. (S)

David asks whether building in haste leads to repenting at leisure.

The gestation period for an elephant is 645 days, for a blue whale between 330 and 365 days; for a unicorn it is (apparently) 334 days.

A rat, on the other hand gets it all over within a couple of weeks. And we all know how quickly bacteria multiply.

Buildings, too, have widely-varying times of gestation.

Estimates for constructing the various phases of Stonehenge suggest that it took about 900 years to reach its final form.

The Egyptian pyramids took around 20 years. Most buildings, of course, were put up much more quickly – an Egyptian mud hut or a prehistoric roundhouse with a heather-thatched roof would have been thrown up as quickly as possible.

But what we might call ‘statement buildings’ – churches, castles, great houses – would take longer and would, of course, last longer, too.

We know this longevity at first hand here in Ripon; St Wilfrid’s crypt, constructed in 672, still survives beneath the later building.

Indeed, the whole cathedral demonstrates the length of time that it takes to get a building into what (as far as we can currently judge) is its final form.

It displays all the styles of ecclesiastical architecture from the Norman to the Perpendicular – plus the various changes since the Reformation, not least the west-end narthex, its most recent addition.

Many of our English Cathedrals show the same sort of long adaptation and development – but not all.

A striking exception is Salisbury Cathedral, which was built almost entirely between 1220 and 1258.

In those 38 years the cathedral, a replacement for the one at Old Sarum a few miles away when that site was abandoned, rose from the water meadows to become one of the glories of the 
Early English style of architecture.

It has been criticised for being cold and mechanical – the same charge levelled against the west front of Ripon Cathedral, which is contemporary.

St Paul’s Cathedral in London took even less time to build – from the laying of the foundation stone in 1675 (the site had first to be cleared after the Great Fire destroyed its predecessor in 1666) to being officially declared finished on Christmas Day 1711 (though in fact carving and statuary were still to be put in place as late as 1724, a year after Sir Christopher Wren’s death at the age of 90.

Coming into the 20th century, the two cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, in Liverpool are an object lesson in fast or slow construction.

The design for the Anglican Cathedral was, as was becoming common, subject to a competition.

There were many entries, including fine designs by W R Lethaby and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but the winner of the competition in 1904 was the young Giles Gilbert Scott. Scott (grandson of Sir Gilbert Scott, who restored 
Ripon Cathedral between 1862 and 1872) was just 22 years old and still an 
architectural pupil; his master, Temple Moore (designer of St Wilfrid’s Church, Harrogate) sent in his own competing design.

Scott was at first asked to work with the ageing G F Bodley, but after Bodley’s death in 1907 Scott radically altered the design.

The cathedral look from 1904 to 1978 to build – probably the last, and one of the largest, great gothic buildings ever to have been built by using the traditional methods of masonry.

It’s a great contrast to Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, although a huge classical-style basilica designed by Edwin Lutyens was begun before 
Thye Second World War, later abandoned.

The new circular cathedral, designed by Frederick Gibberd, was begun in October 1962 and completed in May 1967, less than five years later.

There are signs that this building haste has caused long-term problems with the structure.

It is not, of course, the lot of many people to design and build a cathedral, a castle or a stately home.

And because we live in an impatient age, we want to see our buildings, whether private or public, shoot up as soon as we can.

We have only to watch programmes like Grand Designs to see that impatience is a great spur to builders.

‘We’ll be in by Christmas’ and ‘It will come 
in within budget’ are the usual mantras from these optimistic builders, often to the accompaniment of 
quizzically-raised eyebrows from presenter Kevin McCloud.

They push the boundaries of building techniques even beyond the usual steel frames and prefabricated wooden walls in the quest to complete the building in the fastest possible time – often only to fall flat on their faces when problems arise.

Some succeed. Woodsman Ben Law’s self-build wooden house in Prickly Nut Wood in West Sussex was a triumph because he took his time and knew his materials intimately; he later advised on the wooden ‘shacks’ at The Bivouac near Masham, which won a Ripon Civic Society Award.

Others barely struggle to some form of completion after vastly-extended periods of building.

Of course, fast-building techniques can be successful, but only if they have been thoroughly planned, if the 
materials are of the best quality and if the builders are skilled.

We cannot, perhaps, go back to the days when we could make a building project stretch for centuries – perhaps we have lost that sort of vision in the short-term world we inhabit.

To some people it seems that even planning the controversial HS2 rail link is looking too far ahead – it’s a whole 15 years before it is scheduled to reach Birmingham, far too distant a time even to contemplate.

Yet there is much to be said, in construction as in life, to take things more slowly and to ensure that the legacy we leave for the future is not like the fast-breeding rat but longer-lived, like the elephant and the blue whale.

And if it could be as elegant as the unicorn, so much the better!

– Find out more about Ripon Civic Society at www.riponcivisociety.org.uk