29 MAY 1993, Page 37


Deserted Bastions: Historic Naval and Military Architecture (RIBA Heinz Gallery, till 5 June)

Recharging our batteries

Alan Powers

Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby is a char- acter designed to win our sympathy. For a man of such good sense, it seems entirely appropriate to be obsessed with military fortifications. No doubt someone could have told him that his fossees, cuvettes and ravelins of Marlborough's wars were out- dated and obsolete military hardware, but their purpose is more than merely to defeat an enemy. They are bulwarks of the spirit against surprise attacks.

It must be for similar reasons that archi- tecture has always derived strength from military imagery, since the time in the Renaissance when fortifications and siege machinery were an important part of the architect's task. In Urbino, one can look at the friezes of military machines by Francesco di Giorgio which Federigo da Montefeltro installed on the outside of his palace.

Travelling ten miles or so out of Urbino, one can visit the enchanting rocca or castle of Sassocorvaro, a strange anthropomor- phic combination of points and bulges out- side, and inside an exquisite simple courtyard in a stripped-down version of the style of the Ducal Palace of Urbino itself, The Chatley Semaphore Tower at Cobham, now restored and open to the public designed by the same Francesco di Giorgio.

In England, Sir John Vanbrugh, himself an ex-soldier, brought battlements and machicolations back into polite architec- ture at a time when they were themselves obsolete. His romantic mediaevalism was nowhere better applied than at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich in brick forms of mas- sive strength and sober bearing.

Vanbrugh's work at Woolwich (some of it only attributed) is only the tip of the pal- isade as far as military architectural remains in Britain are concerned. The rich- ness of the architecture controlled by the Ministry of Defence is revealed in the cur- rent exhibition organised by SAVE Britain's Heritage at the Heinz Gallery (21 Portman Square, W1). If you cannot see it before 5 June, send for the catalogue (£7.50, including postage, from SAVE, 68 Battersea High Street, London SW11 3HX), which describes the current state of these buildings and successful attempts to convert them for alternative uses, as well as cataloguing wasteful losses and botched repairs which have been carried out under the cloak of official secrecy.

Part of the fascination of defensive works is the strange landscapes they inhabit. In the Tudor period and after, these are most- ly found to the south and east of the coun- try, although extending to the naval dockyards of Plymouth and Devonport. The eastern approaches of the Thames Estuary are full of naval works and fortifi- cations, from the perfect star plan of Tilbury Fort to the sprawling dockyard at Chatham, which was handed over with most of its buildings intact to the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust in 1984. Now run as an educational museum and tourist attraction, it is a model of its kind, with practical activities like rope-making, sail- and flag-making in the Colour Loft and repair of historic vessels in progress in the dry docks. The series of covered slips, where ships were built under cover, are magnificent structures. They belong to what the late J.M. Richards called 'the functional tradition', the no-frills architec- ture of industry which is very hard to date, and which Richards held up as an ideal for emulation in the 1950s.

In the tradition of SAVE, no powder and shot is spared on those who have demol- ished good buildings needlessly. At Portsmouth Dockyard, for instance, two iron-framed sliphouses similar to those at Chatham were demolished in 1973. Not all the buildings demolished or now at risk are masterpieces, but they represent a good quality of building, usually capable of con- version, particularly as housing. At Rich- mond, Yorkshire, the local architect and house-builder Malcolm Tempest has creat- ed new housing to the rear of barracks which successfully continues a formal mili- tary idiom.

Marcus Binney, chairman of SAVE, draws particular attention to the Royal William Victualling Yard at Plymouth, which is in need of a new civilian use. It would be the perfect place for the ex- Polytechnic of Plymouth to begin its new life as a university.