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Living Architecture: Supporting Cast - architectural ironwork

Living Architecture: Supporting Cast - architectural ironwork

What do you give the building which has everything? Simple: the finishing touches which make things not only liveable, but more interesting, too.

Wrought-ironwork-Royan-FranceSo far in this series we’ve discussed the more basic aspects of traditional architecture, so now it’s time to move on to some of the features which show clear signs of thoughtful design input. Inevitably, this conjures up visions of purely decorative embellishments added to architect designed homes to reflect the personalities of wealthy owners able to employ highly skilled artists and artisans. In reality, however, budgetary constraints have tended to confine such niceties to ecclesiastical structures, or in modern times, to landmark buildings created for big corporations. In future issues we’ll be celebrating some of the more influential decorative styles, but in the meantime let’s take a look at some of the multitude of items which perform more down-to-earth practical roles, and how their inspired creators have managed to inject real style and personality into them.

After getting to know natural materials like stone, brick, timber, slate and terracotta it’s now time to meet les ferrures – hardware items made mostly from iron, with occasional support from materials like brass, bronze and steel. Before the age of mass production, most of the smaller items needed to finish things off and hold them together were produced by ferronniers – highly skilled individualsCast-iron-Re-France whose work combined the practical skills of a blacksmith with an artistic awareness of the aesthetic potential of each item to be produced. This explains why the training of modern day professionals falls to the Institut National des Métiers d’Art (INMA), who describe the discipline as l’art du feu et de la courbe. You get the feeling that campaigners for form-with-function like William Morris and John Ruskin would be heartened by this uncompromising approach, which over the years resulted in even basic items like hinges, braces and fastenings for doors and shutters being not merely functional and durable but also executed with an instinctive elegance.

Take shutters, for example. Traditionally they’ve been secured by familiar full length bars with top and bottom claw-and-pin fastenings, and known as espagnolettes (from the Provençal ‘espagnouleto’). The central lever arm which controls things presents the perfect opportunity for the ferronnier’s creative input, and many examples are things of great beauty.

Generally less ornate are the espagnolette’s younger relative the serrure à crémone (from the Italian ‘cremona’), which locks things by means of two sliding rods activated by concealed toothed gear meshing with those at the inner ends of the bars. Securing open shutters against closure in gusty weather are arrêts des volets, older examples of which are often styled with elegance or occasionally – in the case of the still popular tête de bergère types - humour.

Let’s not forget the hinges mounted on elements which need to open or close, and traditionally referred to as les battants – a window being a battant de fenêtre and a door, obviously, a battant de porte. Throughout history hinges have been seen by designers and craftsmen as opportunities for creative expression, and the big, heavy examples used in traditional French architecture are no exception. Frequently they also perform a secondary but important structural role, being produced with extravagant dimensions to reinforce windows or shutters like the louvred persiennes, not to mention the more common solid styles made from multiple planks or lames. We’ll look in detail at shutters, windows and doors later in this series.

Ironwork-Angoulême-France

Talking of doors brings us to the once humble door knocker, which originally consisted of a small mallet suspended on a rope – announcing your arrival meant simply hitting a stud or large nail mounted on the door. Things moved on, of course, and in France the heurtoir was soon elevated to the kind of design statement which was capable of sending out a powerful subliminal message. To see what I mean, keep an attentive eye out for interesting heurtoirs. Pretty soon it will become obvious that (a) there are more than you ever imagined, with seemingly limitless variations and (b) they’re often to be found adorning the most unlikely looking doors. Clearly size isn’t everything, but big houses with lots of rooms obviously required big, heavy (loud) heurtoirs, and cast-iron-door-knocker-Referroniers responded with impressively ornate hardware, incorporating intricately worked escutcheon plates. The prestige which this implied did not go unnoticed by upwardly motivated owners of much less palatial properties, so it’s not unusual to find their front doors also sporting extravagantly-styled heurtoirs.

Whatever their social pretensions, most people saw items like these simply as some of life’s basic practical necessities. Not surprisingly, demand began to outstrip the traditional suppliers, at which point foundries came on the scene with a range of designs, using not wrought iron but castings allied to stamped-out plates approximating to more classic designs. Not surprisingly, the originals are now highly sought after and command high prices from antique and brocante dealers. You’ll also occasionally come across brass heurtoirs, although these seem to have been less widely adopted than was the case in the UK.

So far we’ve focused on modestly sized items. To see just how complex things can be at the other end of the scale look no further than the swirling intricacy of the wrought ironwork adorning balconies of elegant townhouse facades in places like Rochefort, La Rochelle and particularly Bordeaux. Further afield, in Aix-en-Provence you’ll find examples of what architectural stylist Bruno Lafourcade (whose unrivalled knowledge of French traditional architecture and sensitive restorations in and around Saint-Rémy has made him world famous) regards as the finest wrought ironwork in all France. Unless you’re very fortunate, of course, there’s no way of knowing what wonders might lie behind the facades, but it’s a safe bet that showpieces of this quality will contain appropriately grandiose stone staircases, many of which feature elegant wrought ironwork balustrading. Dazzling works of art in their own right, numerous examples are today listed (and hence protected by the State) as Monuments Historiques.

tusson-shutters-charente-france

Among the other related items commonly added to exteriors are things like wall-plates to stabilise wayward masonry, decorative security grilles and assorted barres d'appui de fenêtre – handrails to prevent you falling from windows. In addition to added security, they also make a significant visual contribution to many an elegant facade. Of course, they only exist where windows open inwards, one of the defining features of French architecture, and something we’ll explore later in the series.