in the Historic Environment
Corinthian Villa by Erith & Terry: a new house in an historic
style which works because of its accuracy, attention to detail and
On this small island
that is Britain it seems more difficult to build than ever. There are
huge demands on our towns, cities and countryside. A growing population
and a seemingly endless army of experts ready to shoot down any hint of
development, protected by mountains of preservationist policy which seem
to stifle the very idea of imaginative design. So it is not surprising
that when development is proposed in an historic environment these difficulties
are magnified many times.
It is right that we
should be concerned for our historic buildings. Lessons have been learned
from the 1960s and '70s where a Brave New World threatened to remove
all traces of our past. Since then the planning control system has been
developed to try to ensure that the many historic buildings and areas
which have survived throughout the country are conserved, not lost or
damaged, and that any new development in these areas is sensitive to its
historic environment. Unfortunately, the word 'sensitive' is a very subjective
term coined by conservationists; nevertheless it is an excellent watchword,
serving to raise awareness of the issues at stake. But have we overreacted
to the mistakes of the '60s and '70s? Have we become too conservative,
losing the confidence to build well in an historic context? For some people,
one of the most appealing aspects of an historic building is seeing the
various phases of development, not least because they help to show how
the building has evolved over time, each adding to the building in its
own style. So, if we were to add to the past by building an extension,
or by making minor alterations to the inside or outside of an historic
building, or simply by creating a new building next door, how should we
leave our mark, and how will our buildings be judged by future generations?
SCALE AND PROPORTION
The criteria of 'style,
scale and proportion' generally represents the basis upon which design
in the historic environment is judged. Most design guidance will tell
you that the scale and proportion of the new building should be subservient
to the old. There should be respect for the historic status of the existing,
and designers should adopt a sense of awareness to the historic circumstance
of their surroundings. This is a sound basis upon which to design. The
scale and proportion of new buildings can have a varied affect upon the
neighbouring buildings. If the new building dominates the existing, the
historic character might also be diminished, while a relatively indifferent
design might heighten the historic qualities of the existing building.
However, these prescriptions for 'good' design are no substitute for the
skill of the designer. Even the most subservient design can ruin the appearance
of a beautiful old building or street. If only all buildings could reflect
the hand of skilful design.
In recent years much
has been written about the quality of architecture. Prince Charles popularised
the debate in 1988 with his Vision of Britain - a passionate cry
from the heart with which the British public could identify, if not the
professional fraternity. Here the Prince searched for the answer to why
all the buildings he liked were old and none of them modern. The Vision
of Britain did go on to identify some good modern examples, but the
clear message was one of tradition and the past. This led to the Prince
of Wales building a new village in Dorset as an exemplar of his gospel.
Walking into Poundbury is like walking into the past. However, if you
compare this with another new town - Milton Keynes (planned upon a modern
grid), the appeal of Poundbury becomes clearer. So it is not surprising
that we hark back to the comfort of what we know and love - it is safe
and enduring; it satisfies our needs. But is this the answer? After all,
most villages and towns were built up over many years and evolved their
own peculiar character.
We often struggle
to find an identity in a style as if this is the panacea for good design,
and yet some of the most outrageous designs have succeeded in the most
sensitive context. The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's inspired cathedral
in Barcelona, is outrageously original and a triumph of modern design:
the quality of its design speaks volumes and it dominates its setting.
Will the same be said of Daniel Libeskind's extremely bold extension to
the Victoria & Albert Museum? The success of quality is often the test
of time. What we might see as a success today might not be seen in the
same light in the future.
John Ruskin had the
foresight to realise the endurance of good quality by proclaiming 'When
we build let us think we build forever' (the Lamp of Memory).
Edward Cullinan believes
it is a lack of aesthetic sensibility by planning committees, government
agencies, and pressure groups which have accepted that new buildings should
reflect the old buildings surrounding them, resulting in a mild mannered
architecture composed of simplified or watered down components, lifted
from the past. He believes that this insults both the past and the present
and enhances neither.
There is therefore
more than one way to design in the historic environment, and much will
depend upon other influences, such as the aspirations of the building
owner, cost, the aesthetic sensibilities of the planners, the skill of
the designer, and so on.
by Erith & Terry
A very skilful approach that requires an academic understanding of
the period. Every detail and choice of material is an essay in the
historic language of architecture. This building could easily be mistaken
for the 'real thing', but if the detail and materials are watered
down it will result in a poor imitation.
by Powys County Council architects
A safe option that is often encouraged by the planning authorities,
as it tends to follow the local vernacular. Much of its form, detailing
and materials are borrowed from the past but have evolved into a watered
down version. It takes little imagination and skill to produce a solution
that 'fits in'. If handled sensitively it can produce some pleasing
Library extension, Hereford,
by Whitfield Partners
Probably the most universally accepted approach to design in the historic
environment. It is a conservationist's approach, where a light touch
is required. Note the use of historic references and traditional materials,
yet it is still subtly modern. It combines a respect for its surroundings
with subtle detailing that confirms its place in the present.
Centre, Caerphilly Castle,
by Davies Sutton Architecture Ltd
This approach displays a modern design that is clearly of its time,
but still respects its historic environment. It will have a strong
and clear philosophy which draws its inspiration from the past. It
might assemble local traditional materials in a modern way or, use
modern materials in historical forms. This requires a
skilful hand and a good understanding of its historical surroundings.
to the V & A, London,
by Daniel Libeskind
The tension created between old and new can be quite breathtaking,
but requires great skill and vision to pull it off. A bold approach
that needs an enormous leap of faith by all those involved, from client
to planning authorities. This may be considered a 'building of the
future' and will inevitably receive mixed reviews.
The model at the bottom
of the page attempts to set out five different approaches to design and
gives examples of real buildings which might arguably fall into each category.
The model can be used as an initial discussion tool to visualise and debate
the various approaches and decide which one is suitable.
As in age and politics,
design for the historic environment is polarised by two extremes: the
very historic and the very modern. Then everything else fits somewhere
in between on a sliding scale, and it is possible to place any building
on the scale to determine its stylistic relationship with its surroundings.
The 'Pastiche' approach
(1) is where a building or extension is created as an historic essay based
upon academic learning. Invariably this is very difficult to pull off,
and there are nearly always some concessions to modernity. In the case
of our example at Richmond, modern open plan offices sit behind a very
fine replica façade; its downside is that large expanses of suspended
ceiling are easily visible when standing outside the building.
approach (2) is probably the most common and is arguably that which has
'watered down components lifted from the past'. It could also represent
the modern vernacular of speculative house building.
From the other end
of the spectrum, the 'Arrogant' approach (5) is immensely confident and
pays little regard to its historic context. For this to succeed requires
the most skilful designer, and many people would always find this unacceptable.
The 'Modern' approach (4) provides an unambiguous building clearly of
its time drawing its inspiration from the past and respectful of its historic
context. When skilfully handled this is arguably the ideal approach.
'Subtle' approach (3) requires a light hand and a deft touch. This approach
probably pays the most respect to its historic context and is often adopted
where a quiet, gentle approach is appropriate, one which allows the historic
environment to speak loudest.
There is no doubt
that design, like art, is subjective, and trying to understand the meaning
and the process of design is difficult, let alone attempting to prescribe
what is good design, and what is acceptable. Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1638),
translating from the writings of the first century Roman architect Vitruvius,
passed down an enduring interpretation of what represents good design:
'In Architecture, as in all other operative arts, the end must direct
the operation. The end is to build well. Well building hath three conditions
- commodity, firmness and delight'.
It is therefore left
to the individual to decide how to approach design in the historic environment.
But beware the opinions of others. Like many other things in life, it
is the diversity of opinion and personalities that enrich our lives, and
so it is with architecture. The historic environment is capable of absorbing
the many personalities of our new and old buildings, and there is room
for all the many different approaches to design in the appropriate place.
However, the one thing that must prevail is quality - quality of design
and quality of materials. We should not just see it as 'building'; we
are creating 'architecture'. Ironically, it was the most famous modernist
of all who captured the meaning of design and beauty in architecture when
he said: 'You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials
you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work.
But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say:
"This is beautiful". That is architecture. Art enters in' (Le Corbusier,
VISITOR CENTRE, CAERPHILLY CASTLE
At Caerphilly Castle,
the new visitor centre has provided a solution to placing a new building
in the grounds of a scheduled ancient monument. The building is unashamedly
modern and of its time, and yet it is sensitive to its surroundings by
looking to its past for inspiration. While the castle is constructed of
massive stone walls, it once also contained other structures of timber
frame construction, such as small buildings, fighting platforms and lean-to roofs or pentices. Being of timber, these structures have long since
rotted away, although Cadw has rebuilt for interpretive purposes several
siege engines and a hourd, a timber structure which protected people on
the castle walls from arrows. The dominating oak framed structure of the
new building fits well within this theme, and nestles against a protective
stone wall near the entrance to the castle. As the new building was never
part of the original castle, it is alien, an invader, and as such its
roof can be seen rising up to attack the inner gatehouse, reintroducing
drama to a once dramatic environment in more dangerous times.
The extensive use
of timber also satisfies another 'conservation' issue - one of sustainability
and the environment. Timber from a locally managed resource has a very
low embodied energy factor and can ultimately be recycled when the building
has expired. By placing the building against the north wall and facing
directly south it is protected from the cold northerly winds, and the
large area of glass generates large amounts of free heat from the sun.
The dark natural slate floor absorbs the sun's heat and radiates back
into the building when the temperature drops. The underfloor heating is
operated from a heat pump, which is connected to the vast moat surrounding
the castle, extracting more clean, free energy from the environment.
- John Warren,
John Worthington and Sue Taylor (eds), Context: New Buildings
in Historic Settings, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 1998
in Town and Country, Department of the Environment discussion
document, July 1994
of Place: The Future of the Historic Environment, The Historic
Environment Steering Group, English Heritage, 1994
The Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain, Doubleday, London,
Planning Policy Guidance
General Policy and Principles, February 1997
- PPG07 Countryside: Environmental Quality and Economic and Social
Development, February 1997
- PPG15 Planning and the Historic Environment, September 1994
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2003
UPDATE: PPG15 and PPG16 cancelled
Since this article was published Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Conservation of the Historic Environment (PPG15, 1994) and Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG16, 1990) have been cancelled by the Government following the release of Planning Policy Statement 5. Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS5, 2010), in March 2010.
This new document details policy not guidance, but the accompanying document, PPS5 Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide fills many of the gaps.
Both documents can be downloaded free of charge from the DCLG website. A short overview appears on BuildingConservation.com HERE
DAVIES BSc(Hons) BArch DipCons(AA)
IHBC AABC RIBA is a chartered architect and partner in Davies Sutton
Architects. He has 15 years experience in conservation and is
a member and caseworker for the SPAB. His practice specialises in conservation,
rescuing buildings from ruin, and designing modern new buildings for
the historic environment.
Landscape and townscape
Legislation and guidance
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