Who needs Southern comfort when you can have Northern soul?
Architecture, drink and food betray the UK’s Hanseatic past, says Rory Olcayto
‘The South; we all want to be there. It’s an ideal that draws us to it. It’s a mythical place …The south causes the North to suffer a collective delusion about itself, we deny our Northern-ness. We deny it to such an extent we’re unfamiliar with those countries which share our climate.’
That’s Jonathan Meades introducing his brilliant two-part 2008 documentary Magnetic North, which aggressively trumpets North European cultures and ribs our obsession with the Med.
Meades travels from Nord, the north-eastern-most region of France, to Belgium, Holland, Germany, on to Denmark, Poland and Finland, tracing the route of the Hanseatic League. The trade group linked cities in those lands with English league members in King’s Lynn, Ipswich and London until disbandment in the 17th century, partly due to political developments within the league nations but also because of market incursions by the Mediterranean Ottoman Empire.
Signs of England’s Hanseatic link today, especially in the capital, are few. London has forgotten it is a Northern city, despite the Spanish Prêt workers shivering in July and the South American footballers who wear gloves for springtime fixtures. But architecture, drink and food betray this past: the occasional crow-stepped gable, the East End’s seafood and a love of grain-made booze is proof of London’s northern heritage.
No more than a clutch of English architects acknowledge their true kinship. Mole. Walter Menteth. Hudson (sometimes). Naturally Scotland is less ill-at-ease with its Northern-ness. Bare-chested Glaswegians in a rare July sunburst are evidence of this self-awareness, but so too is the contemporary architecture of Sutherland Hussey, Reiach and Hall and, perhaps most explicitly, Chris Platt’s StudioKAP.
The first two are Edinburgh firms, and make hard, flinty buildings, influenced by the townscape of Scotland’s capital. Their principal designers are East-coasters and the towns there - Leith, Dundee and Aberdeen - had strong Hanseatic links. The medieval and early modern architecture in and around them is the evidence, but so too is the appetite for pickled herrings.
Glasgow-based StudioKAP, on the other hand, undeniably Northern, is west coast in nature and, despite a slew of house extensions in metropolitan Glasgow, rural at heart. (It was, anyway, only in the 18th century that Glasgow - ‘dear green place’ in Gaelic - emerged as a major urban centre and shifted trade away from the East). Led by Mac school head Chris Platt, StudioKAP has completed a number of new build homes too, the best of them in rural, west coast Scotland.
In this month’s AJ Specification, you can see its fantastic timber, steel and stone Isle of Lewis home, Linsiadar House (pictured). It lies just across Loch Ceann Hulabhig from the stone circle of Calanais, an ancient monument that has the ‘thrilling grimness, the exhilarating harshness’ that Meades identifies as a northern quality. The house’s design draws upon another unified culture, distinct from the Hanseatic League; that of the North Atlantic. Specifically, Linsiadar House shares an aesthetic with the domestic work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple, the celebrated Nova Scotian studio. The Canadians were for a time, darlings of the Architectural Review (and still should be on the evidence of recent residential projects such as Cliff House) and, like StudioKAP, proudly Northern. The architecture, unsurprisingly, is all the better for it; simple, understated, stylish. But as Meades says in Magnetic North: ‘Where the living isn’t easy, higher levels of resourcefulness are needed to create the chemical illusion of ease.’