‘It’s curtain walling, but not as we know it.’
I’m referring to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built some 400 years ago under the guidance and guile of Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527 – 1608) and stonemason and the first described ‘architect’ in Britain, Robert Smythson (1535 -1614).
This most extraordinary building first captured my imagination in 2010, triumphantly silhouetted on the hilltop, high above the M1. One can only try imagining the approach in Bess’ day.
Hardwick is, like many stately homes, all about power, status and trappings of wealth. It is symmetrical on first look and unconventionally tall for an Elizabethan hall.
Unusually for houses of this time Bess liked the high ceilinged state rooms to be on the second floor. This, along with the further corner turrets, provided the dramatic silhouette on the skyline.
On inspection of its plan and section it is however anything but symmetrical. The facade and plan are mismatched and windows hide chimneys in a deliberate conceit.
There are a number of unusual planning moves at Hardwick. These all announce power and wealth. After your long approach up the hill to the hall you will cross the threshold into the axial Great Hall, a space used by visitors and servants alike. If invited, you begin a most evocative journey to the state rooms. Visitors experience, through wide double height stairwells, then compressions between and around lower rooms, a ceremonial route that turns and disarms you, positioning you on the ceremonial journey to power.
Your upward journey terminates outside the High Great Chamber. This is an enormous space which could comfortably swallow a modern day family home. This room is however only a prelude to the Long Gallery.
Measuring 51m long, 8m high and varying from 6.7 to 12 metres in width it is the largest surviving Elizabethan long gallery and the only one to retain its original tapestries. The architectural idea of the long gallery is to allow internal exercise on inclement days and the user transverses the entire western side of the house. It is also an opportunity to display to the visitor a family’s wealth and allegiance to The Crown. This room is flooded in natural light from the magnificent curtain walling and you make the connection to the beginning of the journey you started at the bottom of the hill.
We should note that each piece of diamond shaped glass was the largest piece of glass possible to manufacture at the time. There are thousands of them. I am not sure what a modern diagrid equivalent would be, but the OMA Seattle Central Library comes to mind. This is remarkable wealth and engineering on display.
They seem to defy gravity and are lightly held in place by a hatching of lead work. The stone truly seems to be less than the glass.
But how is it all standing up? This is clearly a load bearing stone house but there is too much glass, where are the buttresses? How can it have survived for 400+ years with such minimal masonry?
This reveals a further secret and clever conceit of the stonemason’s hand. Smythsons scheme was a headache to build and solved by build a series of vaulted arches inward, and throughout the house, disguised into the plan form.
This plan is not an enfilade of connected rooms where your orientation and expectation can somewhat be pre imagined but a richer, disjointed configuration, only fully experienced if invited by the owner.
Hardwick will always delight, its initial silhouette, the shimmer of thousands of pieces of glass, the journey upward to the state rooms their tapestries and the overwhelming scale of the curtain walling from inside the building.
It displays conceit but also honesty in finish and junction. Its adventure and promise has created one of our great houses, achieved through patronage and architect pushing each other to their limits. It is still relevant and rewarding to us all today. I recommend you to visit.back to insights