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London architecture

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London architecture

London’s old buildings

London’s rich architectural heritage is cared for by several organisations. Many properties are open to the public.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for conserving and enhancing England’s historic built environment. It designates Ancient Monuments and decides which buildings should be given listed status. The DCMS is also directly responsible for maintaining Apsley House, Somerset House and the former Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The department has links with the National Trust, English Heritage and HHistoric Royal Palaces.

The National Trust’s London properties include

o remains of a Roman Bath in the Strand

o Carlyle’s House in Chelsea

o Ernv Goldfinger’s 1930s modernist home in Hampstead

English Heritage oversees several sites of interest in the capital, including Kenwood House, London Wall, Eltham Palace and the Wellington Arch.

Historic Royal Palaces is contracted by the DCMS to manage the care and conservation of treasures such as the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House, WWhitehall.

Using proceeds from the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund has spent more than three-quarters of a billion pounds on renovating and preserving historic buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. London buildings benefiting from funding include:

o Somerset House

o the Royal AAlbert Hall

o the Coliseum theatre (home to the English National Opera)

o buildings at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

London is home to several .world heritage sites. Six of the capital’s most important cultural landmarks received this international recognition:

o Kew Gardens

o the Tower of London

o the Palace of Westminster

o Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church

o Maritime Greenwich

Ashby de la Zouch Castle

Ashby Castle forms the backdrop to the famous jousting scenes in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel of 1819, Ivanhoe. Now a ruin, the castle began as a manor house in the 12th century and only achieved castle status in the 15th century, by which time the hall and buttery had been enlarged, with a solar to the east and a large, integral kitchen added to tthe west. In 1474, Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain to Edward IV, constructed the chapel and the keep, Hastings Tower – a castle within a castle.Ashby has hosted royal visitors – notably Mary, Queen of Scots, twice imprisoned here, and James I, who attended masques and lavish entertainments. Ashby suffered a dramatic Civil War siege in the 1640s, after which the tower was blown in two. Now, visitors can climb the 24-metre (78 ft) tower, which offers superb views of tthe town and surrounding countryside. An underground passageway, which was created during the war, links the kitchen to the tower and can still be explored today.

The Old Royal Naval College

The old Royal Naval College is the great baroque masterpiece of English architecture, set in landscaped grounds on the River Thames in the centre of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. The UNESCO designation recognises the site as being of „outstanding universal value“, as Greenwich comprises the finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles.

Greenwich Hospital was established in 1694 by Royal Charter for the relief and support of seamen and their dependants and for the improvement of navigation. Sir Christopher Wren planned the site, described as „one of the most sublime sights English architecture affords“, and during the first half of the eighteenth century various illustrious architects, such as Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, completed Wren’s grand design. The elaborate ceiling and wall paintings in the Great Hall (known as the „Painted Hall“) were executed by Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. The Chapel was restored by James „Athenian“ Stuart after a fire in 1779.

In 1869 the Hospital was closed, and in 1873 the ccomplex of buildings became the Royal Naval College, where officers from all over the world came to train in the naval sciences. The Navy moved out in 1998 to merge with the RAF and Army at a new Joint Services Staff College in Shrivenham.

The Greenwich Foundation was established in 1997 as a registered charity to look after these magnificent buildings and their grounds for the benefit of the nation. A 150 year lease for the buildings was signed in July 1998. In the Autumn of 1999 the University of Greenwich began teaching here and, in October 2001, it was joined in by Trinity College of Music.

History of the Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster was the principal residence of the kings of England from the middle of the 11th century until 1512. In medieval times kings summoned their courts wherever they happened to be. But by the end of the 14th century the court in all its aspects – administrative, judicial and parliamentary – had its headquarters at Westminster.

Although the Lords were accommodated in the Palace, the Commons originally had no permanent meeting place of their own, meeting either in the chapter house or the refectory oof Westminster Abbey. After the Chantries Act 1547 abolished all private chapels, the Royal Chapel of St Stephen within the Palace of Westminster was handed over to the Commons.

The Commons assembled in St Stephen’s until 1834 when the Palace was burned down. This fire destroyed almost all of the Palace except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel, the adjacent cloisters and the Jewel Tower.

The present Houses of Parliament were built over the next 30 years. They were the work of the architect Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) and his assistant Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52). The design incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen’s Chapel.

The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed in a German air attack in 1941. It was rebuilt after the Second World War, taking care to preserve the essential features of Barry’s building – the architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The new Chamber was completed in 1950.

Layout of the Palace of Westminster

After coming through the public entrance – St Stephen’s Entrance – the approach to the Central Lobby of the Palace is through St Stephen’s Hall from St Stephen’s Porch at the southern end of Westminster Hall. Central Lobby,

a large octagonal hall, is the centrepiece of the Palace. When waiting to see their MP, members of the public wait here. The Central Lobby is a great masterpiece of Victorian art.

From the Central Lobby, corridors lead northward to the House of Commons Lobby and Chamber and southward to the House of Lords. Beyond the House of Lords are the ceremonial rooms used at the State Opening of Parliament – the Queen’s Robing Room and the Royal Gallery – rreached by a separate entrance under the Victoria Tower. The Royal Gallery is 33 m long, 13 m high and 13 m wide (110 ft x 44 ft x 44 ft). The Queen processes through it on her way to the Chamber of the House of Lords on the occasion of the State Opening of Parliament. It is also often used when members of the two Houses meet together to hear addresses by visiting heads of State or Government.

To the nnorth of the House of Commons are the residences of the Speaker and the Serjeant-at-Arms, and various offices for ministers and officials. Beyond them is one of the most famous features of the Palace – the huge bell Big Ben hhoused in the Clock Tower. Big Ben came into operation in 1859 and weighs 13.7 tonnes.

The Site and its Royal Associations

The site of the Houses of Parliament was known in early mediaeval times as Thorney, the island

of briars. It was a low, marshy area; the River Thames being much wider and shallower than at

present. Two tributary rivers entered it from the north bank: a little further upstream was the

Horse ferry which was a shallow ford at low tide.

There were positive considerations for choosing this fen as a site for a Royal Palace. It was

sufficiently far from London (with whose citizens Kings sometimes found themselves in

disagreement), adjacent to the river for ease of transport of people and goods and nnext to the

great church refounded by Edward the Confessor (c1065). Indeed, it is said that Thorney had

been a royal residence and a religious site in the reign of King Canute (1016-1035). During the

construction of the first Abbey building, Edward also set up residence in Thorney, to an area

generally to the east of the Church. Although nothing remains of this Saxon palace, it was

Edward’s residence here that directly gave rise to the present location of Parliament and also to

the division of tthe capital into the trade and business centre, the City, and the administrative

area, based upon Thorney, which became known as Westminster, the church in the West.

Edward was succeeded by William the Conqueror (1066-1087) who, having established his first

stronghold at the Tower, later moved to the Westminster Palace. Although William probably

made changes to the site, it is from the reign of his son, William Rufus (1087-1100), which the

first surviving buildings on the site date, including Westminster Hall, the Great Hall, built at the

northern end of the Palace and still standing today after 900 years of continuous use. The

existence of this Hall, which at that time was the largest in Europe, helped to make Westminster

the ceremonial centre of the kingdom.

The Palace was one of the monarch’s principal homes throughout the later Middle Ages and for

this reason the institutions of Government came to be clustered in the Westminster area. Royal

Councils were sometimes held in Westminster Hall but Parliament never met there on a regular

basis. To the east and south of the Hall lay the domestic apartments of the mediaeval Palace.

The Kings worshipped in St. Stephen’s Chapel and their courtiers in the crypt chapel below.

When in residence at Westminster, the King was attended by hhis court. The Royal Council of

bishops, nobles and ministers also assembled here. The special, later form of this Council,

which came to be known as Parliament, was the forerunner of the present House of Lords.

From the mid-13th century it became increasingly usual to summon knights from the shires and

burgesses from the towns. In the 14th century they began to meet together, apart from the

Lords, and from this assembly evolved the modern House of Commons. The future architectural

development of the Palace was therefore inextricably bound up with its role as the meeting place

both of Parliament and of the Courts of Law.

During the Middle Ages, it was often not possible to accommodate the whole of Parliament

within the Palace. The State Opening Ceremony would be held in the King’s private apartment,

the Painted Chamber. The Lords would then retire to the White Chamber for their discussions,

but the Commons at this time did not have a recognised home of their own. On occasions, they

remained in the Painted Chamber but at other times they held their debates in the Chapter

House or the Refectory of Westminster Abbey.

There have been numerous fires on the site. It was after such a fire in 1512 that Henry VIII

decided to abandon the PPalace as a residence and move to Whitehall Palace. The Canons of St

Stephen’s, the religious order which had held the services for the royal family, were dismissed in

1547 and by 1550 St Stephen’s Chapel had become the first permanent home of the House of


The other rooms vacated by the royal family were occupied by Members and Officers of both

Houses. The site thus came to develop as a Parliamentary building, rather than a royal

residence. However, it and its successor remained a Royal Palace, with the official title the

Palace of Westminster.

Westminster Hall and the other Medieval Survivals

Westminster Hall, of which the walls were built in 1097, is the oldest surviving building on the

site. Its floor area is about 1,547 sq m (1,850 sq yds) and it is one of the largest mediaeval

halls in Europe with an unsupported roof. The roof was originally supported by two rows of

pillars, but the present magnificent hammerbeam roof was designed in the reign of Richard II

(1377-1399). The mason/architect of the 14th century rebuilding was Henry Yevele and the

carpenter/designer of the roof was Hugh Herland.

During this period the Hall, with its many shops and stalls, selling wigs, pens, books and other

legal paraphernalia, became one of the chief

centres of London life. It housed the courts of law

and was the place of many notable state trials: William Wallace (1305), Thomas More (1535),

the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (1606), Charles I (1649), and Warren Hastings (1788-95).

Westminster Hall was also the traditional venue for Coronation banquets. The Hall is now used

for major public ceremonies.

Among events there have been the presentation of Addresses to the Queen on the Silver Jubilee

in 1977, the Golden Jubilee in 2002, to mark 50 years since the end oof World War II in 1995,

and the opening of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in 1986. A similar event took

place in 1988, to mark the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution, and in 1989 the Inter-

Parliamentary Union’s Centenary Conference was held there. In 1995, the Government

organised a ceremony to mark 50 years of the United Nations. On these occasions, the Hall is

brightly lit and decked with flowers and coloured hangings, and presents an altogether different

public face from its normal, rather sombre, appearance.

It iis also the place where lyings in state, of monarchs, consorts, and, rarely, very distinguished

statesmen, traditionally takes place, the most recent having been those of King George VI in

1952, Queen Mary in 1953, Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and Queen EElizabeth, the Queen

Mother in 2002.

An exhibition to commemorate Westminster Hall’s 900th anniversary was held in the summer of

1999, the ‘Voters of the Future’ exhibition was held there between April and September 2000

and an exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot in 2005. A

refreshment facility for the public, the Jubilee Café, opened in May 2002. The café is situated

near the North Door of Westminster Hall and opens out on to New Palace Yard.

The other mediaeval buildings on the site are not accessible to the public. These are the Chapel

of St Mary Undercroft, which is the lower part, at ground level (not subterranean) of the former

Chapel of St Stephen, which was built between 1292 and 1297 as a magnificent showpiece

based oon the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The upper part of St Stephen’s, destroyed in 1834, had

been the Commons Chamber from 1547. The Cloisters were built between 1526 and 1529.

Much restored, they are used as offices and writing rooms and include an oratory, the lower part

of which is the private office of the Serjeant at Arms.

The Jewel Tower, now on the other side of Abingdon Street, was formerly the muniment room

(storage of land/title deeds) of the Palace, and is now administered bby English Heritage. Since

1992, the tower has been the setting for a permanent exhibition on the history and work of

Parliament, called Parliament Past and Present. The tower and exhibition are open to the

public. [There is an admission charge].

The Fire of 1834 and Rebuilding

On 16 October 1834, the mediaeval palace with its later additions was virtually entirely

destroyed by a fire, which started by the overheating of a stove. It was decided to redevelop the

site comprehensively; not keeping to the original layout of buildings. A public competition was

won by Charles Barry and provided for the retention of Westminster Hall, the Crypt and Cloisters.

In the execution of the design and building, Barry was assisted by Augustus Welby Pugin,

particularly in the matter of detail, fittings and furniture. The site was extended into the river by

reclaiming land, and now covers about 8 acres.

The new Palace was begun in 1840 and substantially completed by 1860, but only in 1870

actually finished. It is in the Gothic style and its adoption for the parliamentary buildings was an

influence on the design of public buildings such as town halls, law courts, and schools

throughout the country. The effect on the imaginations of the public and 19th century architects

of the huge nnew building towering over the three-storey yellow brick terraces and ramshackle

half-timbered houses of mid-Victorian Westminster was enormous.

The Bombing of 1941

On 10 May 1941, the Commons Chamber was destroyed by bombs and a subsequent fire. To

replace the devastated Chamber, a new block was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. A steelframed

building, it effectively incorporates five floors, two of which are taken by up the Chamber.

Both above and below it are offices. The new air-conditioned Chamber was used for the first

time on 26 October 1950. In Parliament 1939-50 (produced by the House of Commons Library

and available for purchase from The Stationery Office)1 explains and illustrates the bombing and


Brief Description of the Palace

The building is on four main levels. The ground floor river front houses offices, private dining

rooms, bars and meeting rooms; the first or principal floor the Chambers, Libraries, and dining

rooms. The second or Committee floor is given over on the river front to Committee rooms, as is

the third or Upper Committee floor. At either end are houses for the Speaker and Lord

Chancellor (the remnant of a number of private apartments once provided) and there are two

great towers, the Clock Tower (often called Big Ben) and the Victoria Tower. The very ddistinctive

Central Tower is built over the Central Lobby.

Along the whole length of the building, at ground level parallel to the river, is a roadway leading

into several courtyards, with a further line of courts on the west side. The arches over the

roadway are made to the dimensions of horse-drawn carts, and are difficult to traverse with

modern delivery lorries.

From St Stephen’s Porch and Hall, the main entrance, a member of the public enters the Central

Lobby, or Octagon Hall, which is the centrepiece of the building. To the north the Members’

Lobby and House of Commons; to the south, and thus in a straight line, the Peers’ Lobby, House

of Lords and Royal Gallery and Robing Room. In general, the Lords end of the building is more

ornate than the Commons, with red furnishings, and much gilt and brasswork. By contrast, the

Commons’ accommodation is definitely austere, as befitted its period of construction, the late

1940s. The colours used in the two Chambers are discussed in Factsheet G10.

A good deal of internal restoration has taken place over the last thirty or so years, including the

reinstatement of Barry and Pugin’s original designs and details wherever possible. Carpets and

wallpaper have had to be made especially for the purpose. A complete

rebuilding of the House

of Lords Chamber ceiling was necessary in the early 1980s.

Among the parts of the Palace inaccessible to the public are the two Houses’ Libraries (ten

rooms on the principal floor), Ministers’ rooms (under the Chamber and to the west of Speaker’s

Court), dining rooms, departmental offices, etc. There are four acres of green, laid to lawns. The

Terrace of the Palace, which was raised by some 4ft in 1970-71, extends along the whole river

front. Two prefabricated pavilions are erected here iin the summer months.

Old Palace Yard, by St Stephen’s Entrance, and the cobbled New Palace Yard, under which is

the House of Commons car park, opening from the corner of Bridge Street and St Margaret’s

Street, are reminders, in their names, of the earliest times. New Palace Yard was laid out as a

garden, with a fountain that commemorates the Silver Jubilee of 1977. In October 2002 an

analemmatic sundial, the Parliamentary Golden Jubilee gift to The Queen, was installed in Old

Palace Yard. (Analemmatic ssundials use the shape of a person to cast the necessary shadow)

Statues and Works of Art

Many works of art are displayed in the Palace. Notable among the statues are the modern

bronzes of Churchill, Lloyd George and Attlee, in the Members’ LLobby; and a marble statue of

Gladstone in the Central Lobby. Barry, the architect of the Palace, is commemorated by a large

marble statue at the foot of the main staircase leading to the Committee floor. There are

numerous frescoes and mural paintings as well as a most extensive collection of free-hanging

pictures of subjects connected with British, particularly Parliamentary, history. A series of

reconstructions of the paintings which were found in the old St Stephen’s Chapel in the early

19th century are on the Terrace Stairs. Many of the items of furniture and fittings of the Palace,

in which the design and influence of Augustus Welby Pugin is clearly seen, can be classed as

works of art in their own right. The fine mediaeval statues of kings aat the south end of

Westminster Hall were conserved in 1992/93.

Stone Restoration and Conservation

The Palace was faced with Anston stone, a magnesian limestone. However the alkaline stone

suffered badly because of the atmospheric pollution of London, especially in the 19th and early

20th centuries, with its reliance on the burning of coal, and consequent acidification of the rain.

The decision was therefore taken in 1928 to replace the worst decay, and a general programme

of masonry replacement on the perimeter was finished in 1960.

Many of tthe statues placed round the outside of the building had decayed badly and, from 1962,

many have been replaced. A new programme of stone-cleaning and restoration was started in

1981: the north, west, and south fronts, the river front and Clock Tower being finished by

1986. The Victoria Tower, whose cleaning was completed in 1993, was the last part of the

exterior to be dealt with. Of the inner courts the Speaker’s Court was the first to be tackled;

work started in January 1994. An exhibition on the Restoration Programme was mounted in

Westminster Hall from January – April 1994.


The House of Commons has taken over other nearby buildings as its functions and staff have

increased. These include the two Norman Shaw Buildings, 3 Dean’s Yard

(now vacated) and 7 Millbank. It expanded further, into numbers 35-47 Parliament Street,

renamed the Parliament Street Building, in 1991. A new Parliamentary

building, designed by Michael Hopkins and called Portcullis House, was completed in Autumn

2000 on the site of numbers 1 and 2 Bridge Street, St Stephen’s House, St Stephen’s Club and

Palace Chambers. The new building has provided additional committee rooms, refreshment

facilities and Members now all have their own offices for the first time.


Control of the Houses of Parliament, as a Royal Palace, wwas vested in the Lord Great

Chamberlain as the Queen’s representative. In 1965, however, control passed to the Speaker,

for the House of Commons part of the building, and to the Lord Chancellor, for the Lords’ part.

The Lord Great Chamberlain retains joint responsibility with the Speaker and Lord Chancellor for

the Crypt Chapel and Westminster Hall. The Parliamentary Estate is cared for and maintained

(since 1992) by the Parliamentary Works Directorate of the Serjeant at Arms Department. The

title to the outbuildings was transferred from the Department of the Environment following

passage of the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992.

The Palace is very much a living community, whose citizens are not only Members, but their

personal staffs, maintenance and cleaning personnel, and permanent House staff, who work in

many different offices and departments. The Palace is not, however, simply a place for work.

There are a number of social clubs and groups, places for recreation, sitting and talking,

sleeping, eating and drinking. It is not, therefore, simply a huge office block peopled from 9 to 5

and at other times absolutely deserted – indeed, it has a resident population, for there are still

some apartments for officers and staff of the Houses. It was designed as, and remains,

something of a village.

Some statistics relating tto the Palace


Length of River Front 265.8m* 872ft

Height of roofline 21.3m 70 ft

Dimensions of Terrace 206.7m x 10m 678 ft x 33 ft

Area of masonry (superficial) 83,610 sq m 900,000 sq ft

Length of North Front 70.7m 232 ft

Length of South Front 98.2m 322 ft

Area of site: 3.24 hectares approx 8 acres

Staircases: 100

Length of passageways: about 3 miles 4.8km

Rooms: 1,100


Clock Tower Height 96.3m 316 ft 12.2m square 40 ft square

Central Tower Height 91.4m 300 ft 22.9m across 75 ft across

Victoria Tower Height 98.5m 323 ft 22.9m across 75 ft square

Flagstaff on Victoria Tower Height 22.3m 73 ft

Principal rooms

St Stephen’s Hall 29m x 9.1m 95 ft x 30 ft

Royal Gallery 33.5m x 13.7m 110 ft x 45 ft Height 13.7m 45 ft

Lords Chamber 24.4m x 13.7m 80 ft x 45 ft Height 13.7m 45 ft

Peers’ Lobby 11.9m x 11.9m 38 ft x 38 ft Height 10m 33 ft

Central Lobby 18.3m 60 ft across octagon Height 22.9m 75 ft

Members’ Lobby 13.7m x 13.7m 45 ft x 45 ft

Commons Chamber

Floor of Chamber 20.7m x 14m 68 ft x 46 ft

Across Galleries 31.4m x 14.5m 103 ft x 48 ft

Height 14m 46 ft

Distance between red lines on carpet 8 ft 2½ ins 2.5m

Commons Library (6

rooms) 79.3m x 9.1m 260 ft x 30 ft

(main rooms each – 16.8m x 9.1m (55 ft x 30 ft))

Lords Library (4 rooms) 51.8m x 9.1m 170 ft x 30 ft

Crypt Chapel of 27.4m x 8.5m 90 ft x 28 ft Height 6.1m 20 ft

St Mary Undercroft

*(Metric figures are rounded to one decimal place)

Westminster Hall

Length 73.2m 240 ft

Width 20.7m 68 ft

Height 28.0m 92 ft

The Great Clock

Hands: Minute (copper) Length 4.3m (14 ft) Weight 101.6kg (2 cwt)

Hour (gunmetal) Length 2.7m (9 fft) Weight 304.8kg (6 cwt)

Pendulum: Total Length 4.4m (14 ft 5 in)

Length of Roman numerals: 61cm (2 ft)


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