Last edited 18 Sep 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Design codes and pattern books

The design codes and pattern books that shaped the historic places that many of us live in, work in or visit may have lessons for those preparing the design codes of today.

Ramsbury Manor.jpg
Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire, designed by the scientist and architect Robert Hooke, and built in the 1680s.

Buildings have been designed using design codes for more than 2,000 years. The orders of classical buildings in Greece dating from around 600 BC represent a highly refined system of architecture that is a design code of strict mathematical rules and proportion. The rise of classical architecture was popularised in parts of the western world by Palladio in the 16th century. Exacting mathematical calculations, such as the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…) and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, were used to achieve the perfect or divine proportion in architecture. These codes were applied to architectural elevations, features and details, using ratio and section, what we now refer to as golden section.

The design codes of classical architecture were so visually powerful an influence that they transformed architecture in 18th century Britain in the space of half a century. Classical architecture spawned many design codes, which were adapted (some might say debased) through the architectural and social hierarchy. It affected all aspects of Georgian architecture, at almost every architectural level, in city, town and country. Design codes, which were once the sole preserve of the wealthy, have been utilised, adapted and democratised.

An English version of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture was published in 1663 but the purely Palladian style was not particularly well received. The architectural fashion did not really make an impact until the early 18th century. Classical architecture was the preserve of aristocrats and the very wealthy who were subscribers of architectural books, such as the first full English version of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, published by Giacomo Leoni in 1715–1720, or Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, published between 1715 and 1720. The design code these books embodied was understood only by the architects of the day, and the educated patrons who commissioned the great houses.

Perfectly proportioned classical architecture continued to be built by those of status for the duration of the long 18th century. The design codes of classical architecture were also disseminated to the wider public, resulting in what we now generally refer to as Georgian architecture. Classical design codes were used and adapted through the 17th century, resulting in a style that is the pre-cursor of the very English Queen Anne style. Although classical, the style has a charming, homely appeal, often constructed of red brick with stone dressings, taking classical architecture from the aristocratic to higher gentry level.

It is easy to see how a house like Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire could be copied and adapted. Brick had been made fashionable at the end of the 17th century with Hampton Court Palace. It was a much easier and less costly material than stone. From around 1700, symmetrically fronted Queen Anne small country houses began to appear. Even in rural counties like Lincolnshire, small country houses such as Little Grimsby Hall and Gunby Hall, both new builds of 1700, soon provided inspiration and influence, and pared-down copies began to emerge within 30 years in some quite isolated locations.

The middle gentry in the 18th century used their wealth to build new houses in the latest fashionable taste. To achieve this required a decoding of the rules of architecture and proportion. As early as 1693 the Italian architect Andrea Pozzo published his Rules and Examples of Perspective Proper for Painters and Architects, with illustrations showing perspective and sections of architectural features. In 1728 James Gibbs produced his Book of Architecture containing Designs of Buildings and Ornament. According to Gibbs, designs could be executed ‘by any workman who understands lines’. But there is little by way of technical advice other than in plates for window surrounds, in which the void for the window shows a semi-circle touching top and bottom as a guide to proportion. The book contains elevations and floor plans for what Gibbs calls ‘small but perfectly formed houses’.

A wealth of builderspattern books began to appear, decodifying the mathematical rules of classical architecture by separating its elements into component parts and providing mathematical formulae. One of the first and best known is A Sure Guide to Builders: Or, The Principles and Practice of Architecture Geometrically Demonstrated, and made Easy, For the Use of Workmen in general, published in 1729 by the landscape gardener and author Batty Langley (1696–1751). Langley showed with dashed lines the ratio of each component of an architectural feature and advised how this related to the necessary correct proportions. The architect and builder William Halfpenny (died 1751) also produced pattern books. Between them Langley and Halfpenny published more than 50 books on architecture over a period of 30 years. The pattern books were aimed at gentry level, making what was once the sole preserve of the educated elite accessible to architects, mason-builders, individual craftsmen and reasonably educated clients.

Design codes abounded by the middle of the 18th century. Georgian dwellings were almost an exercise in designing by numbers. Classically derived design codes usually resulted in a harmonious elevation, pulled together by its fenestration. Windows could be designed either by using golden section, to the ratio of 1: 618, or as a double square, square-and-a-half or square. They could be set within the numerous styles of classical surrounds in either stone, or without a surround, or with rubbed bricks forming a subtly contrasting surround, with the window set beneath an elegantly splayed flat arch of gauged brick. In these the bricks would be carefully rubbed, with no two shapes the same, their shapes dictated by a radius taken from a point on the window, based on correct mathematical proportions. Recessed door linings were divided to match the panels on the door itself, based on classical orders. These widely used design codes changed subtly with fashion, or depending on status.

Design codes also applied to the interiors of houses. Stairs often had a newel or balusters, or both, sometimes in the shape of miniature classical columns. Staircase halls were often panelled, as were principal living rooms, whether dado height or full. Panelling, window linings, shutters, architraves, doors and skirtings and even fire surrounds could all be attributed to classical orders, shared widely in builderspattern books. Historic shopfronts used design codes based on the pared-down essentials of classical architecture. Today they are still used widely, set out in local authorities’ shopfront design guides, telling of pilasters, cornices and proportion.

In towns where grandness and symmetry were needed, a terrace could be passed off as one large classical ‘palace-fronted’ house. Even in rural Lincolnshire, Bridge Street Terrace, Louth, is a palace-fronted house of 1825 concealing four terrace houses behind it. The first impression is of one large house, and only closer inspection reveals there are more doors than it should have for one house, and internally blanked-out central tripartite sash windows.

There were solutions too where the polite met the vernacular, where design codes by the late 18th century were pared down to the bare minimum. Church Precincts, Westgate, Louth, is a good demonstration of a melding of styles. It has a reasonably well-proportioned, symmetrical elevation of three or five bays, with a plain but elegant door flanked by a pair of vertical sliding sash windows, but its gables are raised and tumbled. Even this seemingly odd pairing of two utterly distinct design codes of the pared-down, classically derived frontage, with the tried-and-tested vernacular detail, utterly practical in its origin and far from any classical derivations, somehow results in an unwritten design code which can now also be described as locally distinctive.

Historic design codes continued to be used in all styles of architecture, albeit under new rules to suit each new architectural style, until somewhere in the mid-20th century, when design codes had been abandoned and failed to reach many of the national housebuilders. Given that many of us live in, work in or visit built historic environments, many of which at least in part have been influenced by 18th-century design codes, whether grand or simple, perhaps we can learn some lessons from historic codes.

The harmonious proportions of a neat Georgian frontage, with windows of golden section, brick voussoir headers splayed elegantly above, and a good pattern-book doorcase, are pleasing to most with an eye for architecture. This is not to say that copycat architecture is necessary, resulting in what is sometimes mockingly termed ‘conservation officer’s Georgian’. There has to be a place for learning from historic codes when new design codes are formulated.

This article originally appeared as: ‘Patterns of influence’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 172, published in June 2022. It was written by Liz Mayle, a historic building consultant and former conservation officer based in Lincolnshire, and chair of the East Midlands branch of the IHBC.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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