Why modern banqueting houses deserve a renaissance
Winter beckons. So, start planning your banqueting house. If that seems elaborate and unnecessary, well, so are macarons and Christmas trees, and the world seems a little better for those, too.
Eating in the garden might not be an obvious priority, admittedly. But this is the time of year when the sun is low, casting a deep gold against cobalt skies. The fallow landscape can be wonderful, if you’re insulated. And while you could always settle for a hot dog in the greenhouse, my suggestion is to go the whole hog and build a banqueting house. It is one of the most civilised architectural concepts ever, and deserves a renaissance.
Deep inside them, there lies a wonderfully primordial quality. A roof for shelter, a fire to cook food, a vessel from which to recapture a glimpse of Eden. It shares its DNA with the primitive hut – a canopy of stacked trunks and branches that the Roman author Vitruvius explained as the root of all architecture.
Given the Mediterranean weather, many Romans didn’t even bother with a canopy for outdoor dining. After 399BC (according to Livy), came the “lectisternium” banquet, the concept of a draped couch set in the street with a table of food, consumed in the company of wax models of assorted gods. A less stylish version of street banquet still happens for royal jubilees in certain northerly reaches of the former Roman Empire. Unless it rains. And therein lies the rub.
Rain is the driving force behind the banqueting houses of northern Europe. With the right cultivation and the threat of a gale, the architecture grew from simple origins into a tradition of pavilions of utter fabulousness. Food was a principal means of imposing medieval munificence, and 500 years ago hosts took leave of their halls and great chambers and began to offer sweetmeats in glazed and painted garden buildings. Some were temporary ceremonial structures of great cost and complexity.
In 1527, Henry VIII built a banqueting house at Greenwich to receive the French ambassadors for the treaties of Amiens and Westminster. They watched jousting inside the brick building while tucking into more than 100 dishes on gold and silver plates.
In China the Manchu-Han banquet, recorded from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was an imperial feast lasting for three days. During the great banquet of 1720 held for the emperor Kangxi a total of 320 dishes were served, including bear paw with sturgeon, leopard foetus and monkey brains, thought to be a cure for a certain male dysfunction. But that might be overkill for the gentle pursuit I have in mind.
In England, the views were always as important as the victuals, so the latter half of the 16th century saw the elevation of domical banqueting houses on rooftops laid flat with lead sheets, at great houses like Longleat and Burghley. The benefits of the long climb were that business of all kinds could be conducted in secrecy, for which the mask of a howling wind might even be welcomed, while impressionable guests could nibble over a view of knot gardens, tree-lined avenues and forests by the mile.
The greatest age of banqueting houses in England was the first half of the 17th century when the loveliest of all was built – the East Banqueting House at Campden House in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. (The Jacobean building can today be rented for four-night breaks from the Landmark Trust and sleeps up to six people.) In such a room, troubled only by a decision between Sauternes or Tokaj, it would be a task to remind yourself it was created at a time of witch-hunts and the horror of civil war.
It seems a bizarre context for the grandest of the genre, the double-cube Banqueting House in Whitehall built for James I by Inigo Jones from 1619. But by the time Rubens’ canvas paintings of James I were raised into position on the ceiling in 1636, many found royal privilege hard to swallow. Charles I lost his head on a scaffold outside the same building in 1649.
So let us attempt some design parameters for the modern banqueting house. I’d say the essentials must be a roof, daylight, a fire or oven to cook (maybe like the basement of William III’s sweetmeat retreat at Hampton Court) and a sink to clean, plus knockout lighting to celebrate the early dusk. The rest is optional.
I tracked down a modern dining pavilion with all those essentials to the outskirts of Moscow. Its young architect is Shamsudin Kerimov of the firm KPA. He had been drafted in by the makers of a Russian television reality show called Dachni Otvet, which Kerimov helpfully translates for me as “Cottage Answer”.
Cue the Turinovi family of Pokrovskoe, custodians of a dull garden. Just add Kerimov’s design talent, several tons of concrete and timber, and . . . boom! Blindfolds removed, the family blink in stupefaction at a giant banqueting house, much more interesting than the house it dwarfs.
“The client wanted a veranda,” says Kerimov. “But since Russia has very conservative views on architecture, we decided to make something that is diametrically opposed from the reality that surrounds us here. And so, while it would seem normal to build a gazebo, we did this.”
The concept is a timber cage as an “arbour”, casting stripes of light and shadow on to a poured concrete back wall. That wall incorporates an oven, a niche for a samovar, a sink and a buffet. A 4.5-metre cantilevered table, unencumbered by legs, commands the centre of the room, with plenty of space for the 16-strong Turinovi family. Outside, via folding doors, is a timber stage. If dining is a performance, let the play start outside. Or, more realistically, if the children start to perform, just let them play outside.
The choice of materials was important. “Wood and concrete are ‘clean’ materials, with a natural texture,” says Kerimov. Which sounds reasonable. But what did the family think of their surprise? “On camera the family said they liked it very much. But later they revealed they were outraged because of the concrete.”
Well, you cannot please everyone. And, admittedly, Moscow’s winters may not be wholly forgiving to cage-like dining pavilions. But after the Arbour, Kerimov is now building a banqueting room as an extension to another house. And he remains adamant that dining pavilions are the future. He is pretty sanguine about the fact that the people of Russia couldn’t care less.
The evolution of the modern banqueting house will be worth watching. The best designs may approach a match for the exquisite and recently built Nevis Pool and Garden Pavilion near Washington, DC, by Robert Gurney Architect. This is a mahogany and limestone shelter (or temple to winter Sunday lunches) where gardens meet the dark woods, with heated floors and a fire by the water creating a place for reflection.
I’m convinced that many will come to discover that a dining pavilion is far from unnecessary, but a brilliantly simple and totally life-enhancing project. And some will wonder why they didn’t think of it before.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain