Floor plans reveal many of a building’s secrets while maintaining the mystique to arouse your imagination, says Will Wiles
Castles are very good. Hotels often are as well, more so than you’d expect. Theatres are terrific. Very large functional buildings like hospitals and industrial plants can be engrossing, but too arcane to really enjoy. Churches can be good but abbeys are better. Modern apartment buildings aren’t as good as they should be, apart from the very best and the very worst. Pre-war apartment buildings are a lot better. Stately homes can be a little dull, unless they’ve built up over time. Gothic always beats neoclassical. Which brings us back to castles.
We’re talking floor plans, of course, and how absorbing they can be even if one knows nothing else about a building. There are floor plans that have the ability to surprise or disturb, for instance that of Howells department store in Cardiff, which was built up around a historic Baptist chapel – invisible from the street, a ghostly off-angle aberration in the plan of the building.
Howells is something of a special case. Some typologies seem to naturally generate intriguing plans. A couple of years I discovered an Instagram account by the name of @mistercicerone, which mostly posts the floor plans of high-end pre-War Manhattan apartment buildings. These plans have a peculiar ability to beguile, and are stacked with peculiarities.
Servants’ quarters are a lot more common here than you might expect, and sometimes have their own shadow networks of circulation. Grand staircases are de rigueur in the duplexes – why even have a duplex if your staircase isn’t grand? Another recurring status symbol is a round or oval room, generally a foyer, which creates all sorts of interesting little triangular linen closets and so on as it is reconciled with the orthogonality of the rest. And many of these high-rise buildings have fireplaces, creating voids for chimney courses on upper floors.
Every one of those buildings, it seems, had a quirk of layout – possibly deliberately as an effort to insert character into what could otherwise be a very homogenous type. The Ansonia residential hotel on the Upper West Side has a profusion of round and rounded rooms, giving it a strange echo of a refinery or the ‘Tree of Life’ of the Kabbala. 1107 Fifth Avenue goes for curved corridors instead. The library room of some apartments at Rosario Candela’s 720 Park Avenue have concealed doorways leading to a small lavatory, for those more private reading sessions.
A few months ago in this column I wrote about the attraction of cutaways, which provide a glimpse of a hidden world. Plans, while naturally telling us a great deal, are less voyeuristic: they appeal more to the imagination than curiosity, even without any other information. (Seeing pictures of the interiors can in fact be strangely deflating). A turreted library in the corner of a building is naturally enchanting, but a small maid’s room with a tiny corner window into a lightwell also spurs speculation. Voids, hidden passages and unusually spacious closets create uncanny possibilities, a reminder that the devilish events in the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby are set in motion by an abnormality in the layout of a Manhattan apartment building.
Plans, like maps, are inherently narrative: to be drawn into them is to tell oneself a story. One of the great strengths of the Journal is its inclusion of plans, revealing such delights as the cellular irregularity of Sergison Bates’ retirement apartments on Fitzjohn’s Avenue in Hampstead (RIBAJ April 2022). Thank heavens some modern buildings have the capacity for startling plans.
Will Wiles is an author
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From the sublime to the ridiculous: an inverted form of the pleasure I describe here can be found in looking at some of the plans of permitted development conversions of deep-plan office blocks, with their myriads of railcar-wide studios, windowless bedrooms and nightmare corridors. Rosemary’s Baby has nothing on those real-life horrors, but they have a grisly fascination on the page.