Tim Magee on Preserving European Style

And why preserving a CITY’S CHARACTER is so important …

I recently witnessed the supposed renovation of a classic Irish hotel bar. The countertop polished by generations of angled pint-drinking elbows was dumped. The venerable foxed mirror backdrop was skipped, and the whole replaced with a structure that looked like a bunch of flat-pack veneer wardrobes lit by a teenage disco DJ.

We are not great at this. I love Ireland and we can in theory build beautiful but it’s not really our thing. We don’t tend to naturally build or renovate in a way that’s easy on the eye. We can write important and world-changing words, paint beautifully, dance and act better than most, but add some mortar and bricks to an idea and the sense of aesthetic goes out the double-glazed PVC dormer window.

It’s a phrase that can send chills down my spine,“We are going to build.” Build what? There seems to be some hardwired genetic mutant gene that means we build ugly, and mostly to copy something up the road that we like.

Due to our complex relationship with construction I believe we should only be allowed about half a dozen templates for the next few generations. The last generation left this one a nation of bungalows and annexes that put the pig into higgeldy-piggeldy. Since then we’ve crept up from bungalows to one-off McMansions, built in gravestone cladding with mean windows, destined to be the chintz of the future.

The Lutetia, Paris.

It’s not just houses. Our towns need their eyes tested too. Shouty plastic signage has become the Japanese knotweed of Irish towns and villages, triggered by the deep recession cash is gold aesthetic, and setting all the wrong tone for a sense of pride in your surroundings.

This happens elsewhere, but usually once you get past the array of laminated menus on European tourist strips your odds are better than not that you’ll find some original preserved character tucked away behind them. Make for a market in most towns on the continent like the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid or Budapest’s Nagycsarnok and you’ll find lanes and streets of specialist food shops, cafés and bars that are true to their purpose and have long ago grown into their looks.

The Lutetia in Paris, originally built to house shoppers from the nearby Le Bon Marché department store and ending up the hotel of choice of Picasso, Joyce and Josephine Baker, is first in class when it comes to renovations at present, marrying exquisite taste with seemingly endless reservoirs of cash means this grande dame has come back to gracious life after four years of work.

Centrál Kávéház, Budapest.

The Centrál Kávéház in Budapest, or the coffee houses of Vienna, have been central to the cultural and political life in their respective cities – just like our classic, cosy, unmessed-with bars. Those Belle Époque beauties of Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Budapest or Vienna give any city bone structure to die for, and how to make the most of those good genes.

My home-from-home in London is Batty Langley’s, a restored series of Dickensian townhouses with the handsomest of bones near Spitalfields Market, where the loudest thing about them is the distant traffic you can’t hear through their cunningly restored Georgian sash windows. Batty Langley was an architect and designer who published handbooks designed to help inexperienced clients plan their Georgian houses and gardens “in the most Grand Taste”. Back at home, the two-storey lodge at Castletown House (gorgeously renovated by the Irish Landmark Trust and the OPW) was a design for a “Gothick Temple” taken from one of his books.

He’d be a handy fella to have around these days.


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