October 5, 2012 7:24 pm

A coop de théâtre

A new imitation of classical splendour will bring together scholars to understand the ascent of chicken husbandry
An engraving of Queen Victoria's Poultry House at Home Park, Windsor (1854)©Old Paper Studios/Alamy

An engraving of Queen Victoria's Poultry House at Home Park, Windsor (1854)

On many a Sunday, a crisp and odorous roast chicken serves four. But Crispin Odey says a chicken deserves more. His chickens shall live in a Coop de Théâtre to ornament an elevated tier of his country garden at Eastbach Court at English Bicknor, near Ross-on-Wye.

The Forest of Dean planning department has granted permission for a temple-fronted work of classical symmetry designed by Christopher Smallwood Architects in the Ionic style.

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It has a grand history to draw on. Following the discovery of chicken bones in an Iron Age pot at West Deeping in Lincolnshire, a research collaboration between Bournemouth and Nottingham Universities was launched in May this year. “The Chicken Coop” will bring together anthropologists, archaeologists and even theologists to understand the ascent of chicken husbandry. Even now, the competition for supremacy among fowl houses is fierce. If you’ve found yourself 12 metres to the west of Vauxhall Farmhouse at Tong, Shropshire, you can’t have missed the uncomfortable fact you’re standing on top of a Grade II-listed neo-Egyptian pyramid of grey and gault bricks and sandstone, built as a fowl house in 1842 by the second George Durant of Tong Castle Park.

In 1843, Queen Victoria had a cottagey affair built in Home Park, Windsor with a louvre to vent the fowls’ stench. The irony of a weathercock on the top must have amused Victoria’s brood no end.

Photo of a chicken

On the continent, grand aviaries abound. Versailles’ Royal Menagerie of 1664 is lost to us now, but it was centered on an octagonal pavilion with a slate dome: in one of its radial sections was the aviary, a long building that influenced many others, arranged upon a central space and pavilion ends, clad with latticed timber. In 1798 a classical version in stone was built at Gatchina in Russia for Tsar Paul I by Andreyan Zakharov, and filled with geese, peacocks and farm birds. It was burnt in 1983 and lies ruined in the misty Kolpanka valley, its shell the haunt of phantom bantams.

So, we’ve established the precedent for grandiose chicken houses. It’s not new, and it is kind of grown-up ... but is this one clever? What do we see when we look closely at the drawing? Most obviously, that the client is wealthy – nobody builds a stone chicken house for a joke because expensively crafted ashlar is the choicest material for public buildings and great houses. And the classical tradition is the architecture of authority. So it’s serious stuff and demands a critique.

In this age of superficial cladding, a masonry building is a rare thing – and a fine exercise in any style is a potential legacy. The sculptural depth of classical architecture is properly explored – its recessions, projections and mouldings will play light against shadow. Proportion is another main characteristic of classical design. Here the parts are held in balance, except for a long unsupported stretch of entablature (moulded beam) on the north side, which oversails the façade awkwardly. The structural rhythm should always be expressed.

The formal arrangement is a temple-fronted villa, a development of the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio, whose Four Books of Architecture of 1570 became a bible to Georgian builders in Britain. This chicken house bears the hallmarks of 18th-century Palladian form, harmonising with human houses of around 1740.

Plans for Crispin Odey's chicken house©Forest of Dean District Council

Plans for Crispin Odey's chicken house

So far, pretty good. But the problems start in the details. The classical language offers endless dramatic and comic possibilities, but the cultural references they rely on depend on understanding its syntax.

Typically, the classical orders start from the squat, masculine Doric at ground level, up to the scholarly scrolls of Ionic, usually at first floor, which in turn support the slimmer Corinthian order. These orders can be used independently, but that Corinthian slenderness has a particular quality: femininity.

The Roman architect Vitruvius (c30BC) explained that the capital of a Corinthian column was abstracted from a basket left upon the grave of a girl, whose contents were engulfed by acanthus leaves. The first known use of the order is c450-420BC at Bassae, in the temple of Apollo Epicurius – the healing sun-god who nourished those with plague back to health, much as chicken soup has forever nourished the sick, acknowledged in the motto Bibete Me (“drink me”) over the north door.

Of course most of the animals Odey is accommodating are female, and they fill baskets with eggs. So they are beasts of the Corinthian order, with acanthus leaves ripe for mutation into feathers. And, as this is an Italianate design and the Italian for chicken is pollo, this should surely be a temple to “a pollo” – an epicurean one at that.

What chickens are not is scholarly. They are patently stupid creatures, genetically disposed to flap and cluck with reactive panic. So if a hen house is to be in the Ionic style – the order of choice for libraries and museums – Ionic must be ironic. But the order’s single playful relevance – its accompanying egg-and-dart moulding – is missing in this design. Instead, the anthemia (Grecian honeysuckle-palms along the roofline) are parodied into a fat egg and fantail – jokey in a postmodern way.

A Corinthian capital©Alamy

A Corinthian capital

So why didn’t Odey opt for the Corinthian order, given that it seems far more suited? My guess is because the capitals are ridiculously expensive to sculpt. But it’s not out of the question for a hedge funder, one whose columns are to be hand-carved from Forest of Dean stone: such patronage could transcend these cynical days when cost overrides value, and effect is preferred to detail.

The figure of Odey is shown on the drawings leaning casually against the coop in a double-breasted suit (what did you expect for a city financier down on the smallholding?). He lends character and scale to the drawing, amply demonstrating that the doors are tiny, far too small for a man yet too big for a chicken. The only reasonable assumption is that it’s a temple to a Chicken God – alert the “Chicken Coop” theologist.

To summarise: good idea, nice shape; but it’s too worthy, and unwitting. It could be more playful, and richer. Even so, it deserves the planning permission for trouncing the bleak utilitarianism of most farm buildings.

Anyhow, in the end, why should anyone listen to me? Personally I wouldn’t choose the classical style at all. I’d just build a Meso-American pyramid with a sacrificial slab for Sunday mornings, called Chicken Itza. But then I’m a simple creature.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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