Thursday, 31 January 2008

In the round

Most rooms have the shape of a shoebox: four walls and a simple rectangular floorplan. These are simple to build, with lots of flat surfaces and right angles. However, very occasionally, architects use a little bit of . . . circular thinking.

By far the most famous example of a round room is shown above. The Oval Office is a grand space, over 35 feet long, with three large windows behind the President's desk and a fireplace at the other end of the room. The room is neoclassical in style, in the standard Georgian/Federal mode. However, the room is not original to the White House; it was built in 1909 in the newly constructed West Wing.

Circular rooms tend to be grand, even ostentatious, spaces. And there are few interiors more grand than the entrance hall of Eltham Palace. Part of the finest art deco residential interior in Britain, the elaborate wood paneling and marquetry and the light-filled dome make this room a favourite of Hollywood location scouts. This room requently appears in film, standing in for nightclubs, ballrooms and even the first class lounge of an ocean liner.

The art deco style seems to work particularly well for circular rooms. Here's an example from Location Works, a UK agency for film and photography locations.

And another modernist room, designed by Burnham Hoyt in 1938 (from the Conde Nast store).

Whatever the style, the decision to build a round room is always a little unusual and extravagant. In 1929, Harvey Ladew, heir to a manufacturing fortune, bought a farmhouse in the hunt country of Maryland, just north of Baltimore. As he set about renovating his new home, he was trying to decide where to put an oval Chippendale partners desk. A friend suggested that he build a room around the desk, and Ladew did just that, creating a stunning oval library. Alas, I have been unable to find a picture of the library, but it's possible to visit Ladew's house, along with its elaborate topiary garden -- more details can be found at

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Oyster Bar

Deep under Grand Central Station lies one of the best lunch spots in New York. Hang up your coat, sit down at the counter and order a half dozen Bluepoints and a glass of Sancerre.

The restaurant opened in 1913 and has been open ever since, serving generations of train passengers, Midtown office workers and tourists. It is also well-known for its splendid vaulted ceiling, designed by Rafael Guastavino, with its distinctive herringbone tile pattern.

The menu is enormous, but it's best to stick to the basics. The oyster pan roast (also available with shrimp or other fish) is a classic, with oysters cooked in cream and melted butter. There's a huge selection of freshly-shucked oysters: local Bluepoints from Long Island, Wellfleets from up the coast off Massachusetts, Kumamotos from the West Coast and imported Belons. There's also plenty of other grilled and fried fish (and a couple of token meat offerings) if you don't fancy the shellfish.

Or you can have what I normally get for lunch - a steaming hot bowl of New England clam chowder (with extra oyster crackers) and a glass of India Pale Ale.