Monday, January 30, 2012

Monsieur Francois Mansart

The Veritable Monsieur Francois Mansart  was a relatively famous 17th century untrained architect who not only brought to France his great understanding of classical and baroque orders of architecture but was also responsible in some way for one of most famous roof types in the world, the Mansard. It’s popularity due to his almost trademark roof type became the quintessential French look revived after his death in the years of the second empire style by Haussmann's grand renovation of Paris in the latter part of the 19th century. 


My first real encounter was on a French exchange with a visit to the Eiffel tower at the age of around 15. The grandness of Paris really is best to be seen from above it really shows the extent of the order and planning that was achieved. The Mansard is also incredibly apparent especially towards the Louvre along the Rue de Rivoli. My thoughts centred on the repetitious nature of the roofscape, the endless windows and complete largesse of the buildings. On the ground the Grand romantic boulevards breaking the sky with embellished dormer windows leading ones eye towards the sky. What goes on in that attic space, what views would they have above the streets and canopies of trees, the mysterious and unknown but ultimately beautiful.

 This popular French invention which proliferated through most of northern Europe and America in various configurations is probably  one of the most successful and interesting ways of maximising floor area in city’s or towns that were constrained by height, light penetration and massing limitations.

There is also something intrinsically attractive about this roof type that for many reasons has been lost in the modernistic dogmas of 20th century architecture.  But today through our more enlightened less ridged architectural expression could it be making a comeback. Some see such things as uncomfortably regressive, perhaps because it is an older methodology that has connotations with pomp and imperialism not socialistic ideals architects these days continue to pursue.  It’s artful way of ending and facade and approaching the fifth elevation is an expression of the aesthetic but is in reality a very practical and useful device.

Back in Francois’s day designing grand fairytale like palaces such at the Ch√Ęteau de Maisons in Maisons Laffitte in Paris’s North West the use of the mansard is very prevalent in this baroque masterpiece. Not only was the mansard to become an almost French style of architecture but it blended beautifully into all the neoclassical gothic and baroque styles France and most notably Paris was to revisit in the Haussmann's renovation of Paris. In this built vision the buildings where roughly 20m high with a 45 degree incline in the roof, the height was only measured to the cornice line and this is where this roof type came into play. It allowed more useable floorspace that inturn could add more floors, up to four in some cases.

Examples in London were more evident in the parred down elegance of the Georgian Terrace and through Victorian and Edwardian architecture usually resulting in some of the grandest buildings we have left in London today. Some notable examples being The Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, the remodelled Regent Street and the Midland Hotel in St Pancras.

Today the roof I feel is possibly having a small renaissance of its own through modern interpretation it can be an effective architectural treatment especially when used in an historic setting. Examples say by Foster and Partners recently completed The Walbrook in the city use the curvature of the roof that embodies the principles of the Mansard in a technically advanced less literal way. It’s a clever nod to the past but is definitely looking to the future. Another example in the strand by Grid architects uses laser cut metal filigree formed into a mansard like profile that is a recognition of the area’s fine Beaux Arts and English Baroque buildings. It replaces a rather nasty building that thankfully will not be with us for much longer yet brings a far more contextual architecture back to the Strand .In Hanover square Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands uses the mansard to create a respectful yet forward thinking approach to urban renewal above one of the entrances to a new Crossrail Bond street station.

These additions to London’s architecture pursue a case that there is still a future in the Mansard, It’s maybe not a language to everyone’s taste but this is possibly a good thing that architecture is not blinkered to melding the traditional with the modern.