Article published in the Summer 2015 SPAB Magazine
As undergraduates we read a book called ‘Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture’ and in this, the essay that sticks in my mind is Adolf Loos’ ‘Ornament and Crime’. New to the study of architecture it didn’t take long for me to realise that a lot of the richness of pre-modernist buildings comes from their ornament. Marx and Morris were there to provide alternative commentaries on how this was achieved and how it might be achieved. Re-reading the Loos essay from 1908 proved hilarious: ‘anyone who goes to the Ninth Symphony and then sits down and designs a wallpaper pattern is either a confidence trickster or a degenerate’. The Loos preference for things without ornament soon had a helping hand by the Great War depriving us of a generation of craftsmen and has now been compounded by the current economics of industrial production.
For those of you that do not know it, Scarborough is a natural and satisfying site for a town, with a castle on a promontory jutting into the North Sea above a natural bay and protected harbour. It is helped by having freshwater run-off from the North Yorkshire Moors. Its evolution as a small town is a classic English story from iron-age settlement to post-Norman-Conquest castle but had a rather destructive Civil War history leaving few surviving medieval buildings - there are only six pre-1714 grade I and II* listed buildings. The Old Town is mostly eighteenth century and the the town’s expansion and absorption of nearby Falsgrave at the discovery of the Spa waters accelerated after the arrival of the railway in 1845 to its present population of about 50 000. It is usually known as a sea-side resort and is mostly late nineteenth century in flavour with brick buildings generally, with some of them neo-classical stuccoed, yet also some stone terraces aspiring to the Edinburgh New Town.
Conspicuous in Scarborough are the decorative painted timber gable-boards on ‘post-railway’ buildings. Unlike the parapeted neo-classical buildings near the seafront, there are many buildings (particularly in Falsgrave) that present a gable to the street: sometimes these are what one might call a ‘Dutch Gable’ in brick or terracotta and sometimes they have an overhanging roof finished with a timber board which is pierced, carved and painted.
In July 2014 I was able to make an inventory of 120 of these gable-boards by photography. This continued a long-term interest I have with the effectiveness of making holes in timber - my first encounters of this type of work were in Russian villages. There, it was very much the local joiner applying himself to ennobling what is fundamentally a log-cabin. As a Lethaby Scholar I have also seen, drawn and photographed much very accomplished carved work, but for me none of this beats the simplicity and economy of decoration from a plank pierced with holes.
The decorative gable-boards (as distinct from barge-boards which hug masonry) vary in complexity from a simple plank with holes cut through it, to very seriously carved efforts. I concentrated only on these pierced and carved gable-boards - there are others which are compositions rather like small roof-trusses planted on the exterior of the buildings. Conventionally, the quality of the work is a status symbol - one can find a developer terrace of twenty houses where only the two end houses have their gables turned to the street with simple pierced planks, while large individual villas (Londesborough Road) have very ornate carved gable-boards on the steeply pitched main gable plus over the dormer windows. Rather unfortunately, black gloss paint has become the default decoration which makes detail difficult to read, particularly in sunlight. Examples which have the colour value of mid-grey (though in any colour) in a flat finish, read better in all light conditions.
Gable-boards serve the function of protecting the ends of the purlins and of tilting the roof slates back into the roof pitch so that the rainwater does not flow over the edge of the roof. The minimum required to achieve this is quite clearly a simple plank, but visually, these would be rather heavy as their job is to cover the purlin end. In the Scarborough examples, this plank has been enriched by piercing and carving. The
joiner will have first of all calculated the size of the plank to fit the dimensional constraints of the building. The boards often meet a finial at the ridge (to join the two gable-boards together) and have another particular detail at the eaves of the gable. Between the ridge and the eaves is the pierced and carved pattern, often a repeating pattern, which can be drawn on the board and cut in the workshop on the plank already sized to fit the roof.
While looking at the gable-boards, I evolved quite quickly a typology for the patterns used. The most common is a simple repeat where a motif is repeated along the length of the board. However, a simple semi-circular repeat with a little more enrichment rapidly evolves into something else. It is fascinating to see how just a few changes to a simple shape can change it from evoking say Art-Deco to evoking Neo- Gothic. As well as the simple repeat there is the AB repeat and also a periodic repeat before the designs of freer forms which are a single composition without a repeat along the length of the board, symmetrically matched on the opposite side of the gable. I have compiled together several here to show the variety.
A simple fretwork pierced design can be cut very quickly these days with an electric jig-saw and because the boards are so far from the ground, no finishing to the cut edge is required. This is indeed what I did for my own stair balustrade which is pierced planks shown here unpainted. I also did a similar design for a client using a computer drawing which controlled a mechanical router cutter. The result of this was as you might expect from a machine - it was too perfect. The minor variations from cutting decoration in timber by hand add a quality equivalent to the pencil line compared to the computer drawing.
What is particularly noticeable with timber are the limitations imposed by the grain, particularly when you are cutting holes in it. If there is an insufficient length of wood to hold the plank together in its width it may split and fall off due to seasonal movement (or just a weakness in the timber). This was one of the spot-the-difference pleasures of the Russian buildings, which is also to be found on the Scarborough gables.
There are 283 listed buildings in Scarborough including the Railway Signal Box and not one of them has a decorative gable-board which is part of my study. This is perhaps not surprising, given the intentions of listing - they are ‘only’ late-nineteenth century buildings after all. Many ‘Scarborough Gables’ are to be found within the Falsgrave Conservation Area which is what provoked me to write this article - I witnessed one of the decorative timber gable-boards being replaced with a flat expanse of black extruded PVC on a building in the Conservation Area. Scarborough Council confirmed that such a change is Permitted Development and that they would take no action.
English Heritage say that Conservation Area criteria are established by each appropriate Council. Therefore, if Scarborough Borough Council do not make these gable-boards something worth protecting as part of the essential character of the town, they will disappear one by one just as the venerable timber sash window- frames has been replaced almost wholesale by rigid PVC. For people like myself (I know you are out there), plastic reduces the desirability of a property, but houses in Conservation Areas increase in price more than the mad British norm. So when you come to sell, there is all that windfall gain, but no money for a couple of days honest work from a joiner to repair or replace exactly what brought you to the Conservation Area in the first place.
These gable-boards are not medieval oak but they are mostly easily repairable and reproducible by an averagely trained joiner. It has to be acknowledged that after 140 years, some of them might fall apart in the hand, but the study proves that most of them are in surprisingly good repair. Just as surprisingly for a maritime climate, most of the original slate roofs of the same buildings have never been replaced and it is this impending job that threatens the loss of these gable-boards more than anything. My small study began as an appreciation of that late-nineteenth century exuberance but now risks being a last witness. Perhaps Loos will have his way.