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Issues in Altering Historical Buildings

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Published: Wed, 02 May 2018

Interventions, the contemporary versus the historic, timeless or trend, sympathetic or callous?

An investigation into the relationship between historic architecture and contemporary interventions, An insight into ‘Britishness’ and the controversy of altering historical buildings.

There are currently a lot of high profile builds which involve an old building gaining a new addition, an example being the plans for the Tate Modern art gallery extension, (FIG)which has been very controversial and created a split in opinions, but why? Is it due to the proposed structure being such a contrast to the existing ex-industrial palette of brick and masonry or is it due to people not liking the aesthetic of the new design, or is it something different all together. Why are these type of projects so controversial? What is it about the deliberate contrast of styles that separates traditionalists from modernist thinkers so strongly? Are these old buildings being utilised better with their new additions or is it simply a fad, which like Modernism will mean the buildings may be seen as useless or ineffective structures that will be demolished and replaced in a matter of decades.

Understanding this theory better involves looking at why these buildings have had Contemporary additions added to the existing structure, whether they have been re purposed, saved from demolition, been given a new lease of life, or have simply been enlarged. Looking at specific examples will determine whether or not the additions have been successful or unsuccessful and whether the modification has truly been in the buildings best interests or is simply part of a trend which is just an architectural ‘gimmick’, which may or may not stand the test of time.

The junction between historic and Contemporary materials is also an important factor of this merging of styles, for example the architect behind the Public Library in Landau, Germany, Lamott Architekten commented that “the point of which the former outer wall has been perforated are rendered as wounds.”, Does the delicacy of the conjunction between materials effect negative outcry in relation to the historic building, does the new design have respect for the existing structure, whether or not there is any major displacement of any historic stone work, or any original features which are covered up or overshadowed by the new development. Are these additions part of the constant extension of buildings that has occurred for hundreds of years, or is there something about contemporary architecture that makes it different to styles of the past. Is it what some people see as the building organically changing and growing, or is this movement a reaction to the recent environmental stance to architectural design, and simply a way to reuse old building rather than demolishing them, and altering them to be more energy efficient.

Is there need for a more restrictive or a more accepting approach to planning for these kind of projects, or do the restrictions mean that only the best designs are put forward, and if regulations were not in place would many historic buildings would be ruined by badly designed or poorly planned interventions or is there simply too much bureaucracy and petty regulations keeping progress to the bare minimum and standing in the way of landmark projects. Would it be better for a building to be transformed into a contemporary usable building, when the alternative is for it be left to degrade and to be forgotten.

In concern with Britain in particular is the collective reservedness holding contemporary architecture and progress in the designed environment back? Will this phenomena ruin our historical buildings stock and confuse our country’s heritage, or is there a more positive impact on society that can be sought from well designed contemporary architecture.

The use of the word ‘statement’ plays a big part of this debate, is this movement solely about creating a statement piece of contemporary design just to make an impact, or will it prove to have more depth, and become something more permanent in the architectural world. Is the fact that projects such as the Reichtag and the Ontario museum even exist suggest that despite the controversy that there is an overall gradually changing opinion as to how historic buildings are modified. The contrast between a landmark and an iconic building, is great, can they ever be combined to create something timeless.

Chapter 1: How did the idea of preservation in architecture come into being. How has the movement of adding to existing evolved over time.

In the debate of which method is better conversion restoration or extension. The more ‘sensible’ option of restoration, (to use historically accurate building methods and materials to create a mimic of the existing), can be seen as more sympathetic to the building. In a conversion of a medieval public library in Spain (FiG) it was commented that “Through simple repair measures, carefully fitted to match the building, and only a few new additions, the atmosphere and splendour of the original building substance pervades” (Cramer and Breitling 2007, p.33)

To understand the idealism behind the preservation of old buildings, in particular in the United Kingdom, It must first be understood how and why the idea of buildings being protected came to pass. Phil Venning from the Society for the protection of ancient buildings explained that the beginning of historical building preservation ” …stems from what the Victorians were doing Between 1840 to 1870 there was a huge process of restoring churches and cathedrals. Half or all medieval churches were restored and the problem was the nature of that restoration. Take St Alburns’ church, not one single stone from the original building was reused. It was a complete Victorian makeover, a complete invention that bore no relation to anything historical that existed before, so hundreds of years of genuine history were wiped away for the sake of something fantastical and completely unnecessary.”(Venning 09) Historical buildings often have a long and complicated past, many things that happened within the building are unknown, this mystery and wonder create a sort of affection for the historic, architectural or otherwise. There is a contradiction in feeling about historic things, “Most peoples opinion of old artefacts is contradictory. For many the old often represents stagnation and decay. On the other hand, the old is also treated with a certain respect, recognising the fact that the ageing process involves survival in the face of difficulties. The very fact that something has been conserved can stimulate wonder and reflection. Perhaps it is the familiarity of old things that one values, and the experiences which have contributed to their survival over time. The traces of ageing can be perceived as a form of cultural identity.”(Cramer, Breiltlig, 2007)

Looking back on particular examples of buildings that were added to or restored in the past clearly shows why certain protection was needed to preserve historic buildings. Longleat house in Wiltshire is a very extreme example of how Victorian style additions could be unsympathetic to the original structure. Within Longleat’s interior are numerous hidden voids, where new additions and interior layout changes are fitted within the existing structure often leaving huge voids which can only be accessed through tiny service doors and are totally blocked off. One of the biggest voids in the building contains a beautiful clock face. It is still maintained, and is in perfect working order, but very few people ever see it, as in order to view the clock face an angled mirror and a torch are needed. This type of loss of history lead to the creation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

One of the main concerns of those opposed to this movement is the preservation of historical culture, not being a priority and how through these ultra modern additions it is being lost in order to create more of an universal style, with less emphasis on a specific culture as, due to technology and its effect on communication it is more international rather than national. Architects can now work with buildings thousands of miles away, and may have never personally visited the site in question, this fact alone, along with many other factors, including globalisation means that it is inevitable that some form of universal style is to develop. However, on the contrary to this it is seen that each building is developed based on its site, its context, including its past and historical value and its use, meaning that no two buildings could ever be developed in the exact same way.(quote) This means that utilising a universal style can never be a generic scenario as it was during the Modernist period.

Historically new styles were developed through travel and exploration. The grand tour for example that took place during the 19th century involved English noblemen and architects exploring Europe, in order to be inspired by existing architecture and bring them back to Britain, hence the birth of the Renaissance style. The grand tourists were very destructive in their exploration, many chipping of details from the buildings to keep as mementos and carving their names in the walls of ancient temples. Renaissance architecture was formed through the misunderstandings and reinterpretations of Greek and Roman architecture. An example of this being that many grand homes in Britain were inspired by Greek and Roman temples. Temples were built for certain gods to seek shelter, so the interior was never meant to be seen by the average townspeople. Creating homes based on the design changes the concept behind the original form altogether. This is one of many examples of how the British reinterpreted another cultures style of architecture to create a new style that is seen as quintessentially British.

The idea of adding to existing in a current style has been occurring for centuries. Many precious buildings have been added to in different periods, for example Chillham Castle in Canterbury in which “Major alterations were made in the late 18th century by Thomas Heron and his Wildman successors, in the 1860s by Charles Hardy and finally in the 1920s by Sir Edmund Davis.”(Peters 08). This was before William Morris introduced laws to protect old buildings, and there was obviously not the same feeling of preciousness that is felt with concern of old buildings as there is today. Chillham castle is an excellent example of how the whole building was changed depending on the style that was in fashion, “In 1775-76, Heron refitted the Jacobean house almost throughout in Georgian style.”(Peters 08) This was not necessarily always the best for the building, however, “In what has been termed “an evil afterthought” Brandon put a replacement oriel window over the front door, roughly resembling the original but using his own “heavy” design.” (Peters 08). In the 1920’s Chillham castle was restored to its previous Jacobean state as much as possible, which while maybe benefiting the building in its layout and overall coherence, had erased hundreds of years of history. “Thus the fenestration changes of the 18th and 19th centuries have been largely swept away, and the external elevations must look today substantially as they were originally in 1616” (Peters 08) This is a different approach to current renovation methods, in that in contemporary additions seek to enhance the historic, rather than replace the historic in order to achieve the illusion of a historic building.

During the 60s the movement of altering the historic, became more familiar to what contemporary additions try to do today. Architects such as by Carlo Scarpa, Pierre Chareau and Ignazio Gardella, bridged the gap with innovative solution to reuse of old buildings, which is looked at further in Chapter 4.

(need to bridge gap between these paragraphs)

These ideas could be used with contemporary interventions where by instead of feeling frightened or intimidated by change of precious historic building stock the British should embrace this new trend, because if we do not then we will not develop a contemporary British style, and that is what frightens us most.

Chapter 2: How does the collective British psyche affect projects trying to contrast old and new? Does the planning system have to change to keep the UK at the forefront of current design?

As discussed in chapter 1, the introduction of restrictions in altering old buildings has changed the way in which they are preserved, and how architectural fashion affects the previous history. Planning laws can be restrictive in the renovation process. Many historical buildings are listed which mean that certain criteria concerning structural changes and material use have to be obeyed. It is difficult to determine whether or not these restrictions are not changing enough to keep up with current demands of modern living such as open plan spaces and environmental efficiency. It is interesting how the opinion about implementation of contemporary additions between planning authorities differ. In Alain De Botton’s book “The architecture of happiness” and his accompanying television programme “The perfect home” not only does he give examples of projects that strived to create a addition, and fought a battle with planning laws over the idea of contemporary being more appropriate that mock or pastiche, but he also looks into why pastiche may be the preferred choice, not just by the planners but of Britain’s general public. Public opinion plays a big part in a buildings success. Does the public’s opinion truly reflects the merits of the building and the design, or is the public view still tainted with a lack of distrust of Contemporary style design after the failings of the Modernist movement. Is it still the safe but pastiche option that the general public favours? Is the idea of fitting in still deep set into the minds of people as being the more acceptable and therefore the best option? In order to understand this ideal we must look to the modern housing stock. Pastiche has been able to run riot with the UK’s housing. Mock Tudor and Elizabethan houses are everywhere, many are built by developers without even a consultation with an architect. These buildings are familiar, they are safe, they are seen to involve less risk. In this country in particular the conservative mindset appears to be holding back the contemporary in architecture but not in technology or communication or amenities, what does this say about how we feel about the spaces we occupy.

Alain De Botton refers to Vilhelm Worringer a 20th Century philosopher that argued that people fell in love with specific types or styles of architecture because it contained or symbolised something that that person, or that persons society was lacking, hence Alain De Botton links this to the theory that pastiche fake Tudor and Georgian new build homes are favoured as a parallel to the ugly landscapes of factories and industrial units that a technologically advanced society produces. This could be seen as an underlying reason for the infusion of Historical and Contemporary architecture being so controversial, it evokes confusion with feeling of wanting to retreat to the past away from technology and advancement. The idea of the modern bringing the Historical into the new millennium may frighten people into a dislike for these projects. One paticular example Alain De Botton pick out is one that challenges this theory and suggests that individuals are now starting to realise the positive aspects of Contemporary architecture and how it can be more sympathetic to the genuine historic than ‘make believe pastiche’. Wakelins is a Tudor mansion that was refurbished and extended by James Gorst architects as a private home for James Gorst himself. The striking contemporary extension can be seen to have more in common to the original structure as it is also timber framed, where as a pastiche mock Tudor extension would be a masonry structure. James Gorst commented that styles can co-exist without conflict and that you can be “respectful of the past but in your own era” (Gorst 08) Another example Botton uses is a small subtle contemporary extension to a Georgian terraced house in East London (FIG). This extension was specifically designed by Henning Stummel architects to house toilet facilities on each floor of the house. The reasoning for this is to create a more accurate Edwardian layout. As the Edwardians did not have bathrooms one was created at a later date on the top floor causing disruption to the flow of the house. The new extension allowed the flow of the house to be restored to the original. These two example defends the theory that “A true homage rarely looks like one” (Botton 08) that something can be historically sensitive with out aesthetically matching anything from the past. This extension could be seen as beneficial to the house by some, and beautiful with its timber panelling and block like windows, but it involved a long and arduous battle with the local planning committee, which in its entirety took two years, as the council favoured a mock Edwardian extension. This is contrasting evidence to opinions of the likes of Peter Vennning from the society for the protection of ancient buildings who ” …would always rather something that is innovative and well designed that simply copying what was there already” (Venning 09) This constant struggle with opinions of the council and planning with individuals creates a barrier between the success and the compromise of contemporary additions to Historic buildings. This could suggest that there is a problem in this country about accepting contemporary architecture, however there is the issue that it is only in the residential sector that this is apparent. In the United Kingdom there are some award winning contemporary buildings, and they are common place for projects such as theatres, libraries and universities. People obviously appreciate their public and commercial buildings to be contemporary, and in custom built projects the building layout to best reflect its purpose.

This theory is then reversed when we look at the modern British home, which only seeks to replicate the old. There is a British trait to be very proud of our homes, but it is questionable why this has manifested itself in such a way in this country and differently in most other countries. It is a view that British people take pride in their home, in particular with aspects such as DIY or do it yourself being seen as quintessentially British “DIY is something of a national pastime on Bank Holidays in the UK” (unknown, 09) This however is an aspect in itself that leads the public to believe that homes are a personal thing. This, in the past has lead to disagreements between architects and home owners, one example being Le Corbusier and the villa Savoye, and the client being told not to put curtains up as it would spoil the inside outside effect created by the curtain glass. This posed the problem of creating a compromise between good design and an aesthetically pleasing building, and taking into consideration client needs and the practical every day functioning of the building. All this evidence suggests that the gap between the public opinion and the architects opinion needs to be bridged. The planning department can be seen as the people to bridge the gap, however they seen to subconsciously be reinforcing the distrust the public have with contemporary design with the favour of pastiche and mock, rather than championing the projects that if built could start to change the public’s perception of contemporary architecture. This outlines the main issue that if well designed contemporary projects are not built they will still be seen as the abnormal. It is already outlined that the British public find a sense of security in older style buildings as they are well known, vast in number and familiar. Therefore it seems that it is impossible to bridge this gap without upsetting the British public at some stage. The planning committee have the power to change the public’s perception however they are part of the British public in themselves and their preferences for mock can be seen as a reserved or scared move on their behalf. Architects have an understanding of how contemporary architecture works, and how it can be beneficial in a modern society. This could be seen to suggest that there must be a form of making the public aware of contemporary architecture and how it works, for this fear is based on a lack of understanding, or simply refusing to understand.

The current debate on this issue is fore fronted by Prince Charles. In a very British manner he is opposing many architects work in defence of preservation of historical buildings in the UK. Prince Charles, Royal, although with no official authority for building regulations, has become the spokesperson for this debate. However his very traditional views have been controversial even to those who support the cause.

Philosophically the prince’s claim to be the protector of tradition does not bear scrutiny. He recently resigned as patron of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) because he does not understand or subscribe to its manifesto, as set down by its founder, William Morris.

The key SPAB principle is that no adaptation or extension to an historic building should seek to imitate the original, but be distinct and of its own time. To quote: “a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour”. That one of the prince’s advisers also designs for Disneyland is symptomatic of a preference for a sanitised version of the past, stripped of the authentic vitality Morris sought to defend. (Macintosh 09)

This difference in opinion reflects the much wider debate of whether to adapt buildings in a contemporary way or as traditionally as possible. Prince Charles can be seen as a typically British example. Part of the Monarchy but with effectively with no authority in matters including architecture, he feels his opinion more valid than that of William Morris and the entire staff at the Society for the protection of Ancient Buildings

But the prince is understood to have particularly objected to the suggestion that restoring old houses in their original style often results in a ‘pastiche’ – an unflattering hotchpotch of materials and forms taken from different sources -and took pains to say as much.”(English 09)

With figure heads such as these portraying their opinion of the correct practice, as archaic mimicking, is it no wonder that the British public, that which is still in admiration of its monarchy, something which is very uniquely British, can the lesser known faces of this debate, such as the SPAB be considered within public consideration.

However there are points raised by prince Charles that defend the idea that there is a difference in opinion or a gap of understanding between architects and the general public that must be addressed

“A “gulf” is continuing to divide architects from the rest of society because of their obsession with forms” (Hurst 09). However even Prince Charles admitted that the planning system needed reform, which means that there is proof that the planning system does not even benefit those traditionalist ideas concerning architecture.

There is recent contraversay about Prince Charle’s position within this architectural debate. The recent withdrawl of foreign funding for a high end contemporary development in London due to the Princes interfearence has angered many. It could be seen that Charles should be trying to urge foreign developers to invest in housing, to benefit the country as a whole, especially in a time of economic crisis. Many others challenged the design of the building, mainly those of a certain authority and age range “Palace officials are likely to argue that the prince was only one voice against the Candys’ plans for Chelsea Barracks. Lord Stockton, grandson of Harold MacMillan, the former prime minister…” (Chittenden,09) The Prince also stated his views on his prefered alternative ” He proposed a classical alternative that mirrored the 17th-century Royal Hospital, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, across the street.” (Chittenden,09) This comment is an example of how people are afraid of something new, and prefere the security of something that already exists, the pastiche. If the Prince becomes king in the future then the debate will become increasingly intense, which poses the possibility that more and more pastiche will find its was to the buildings sites, rather than something more exciting and innovative. The idea of recreating a like the Royal hospital, means that the newer building will only ever be a lesser building than the original, due to the fact that mimicking something with contemporary techniques will ultimatly compromise the overall integrity of the building, particularly when the original is as close as Prince Charles proposed. In esscence pastiche architecture is putting style out of context, in respect of time. Is it then not that different from structures in theme parks and museums? This can be epitimised by the fact that as discussed prevoisuly one of prince Charle’s advisors also designs for Disneyland. This could be seen as Prince Charles prioritising style over substance, whcih is surely not how successful buildings are designed. The idea of replicating an old building is never doing the original building justice, as it will always be compromised by contemporary requirements as well as contemporary building codes and planning regulations.. This could, in extreme circumstances in the future, lead to old buildings being demolished in favour of pastiche, as mock buildings are created in the relevant period and are therefore more suitable for current use.It could be said that to truly appreciate old buildings they muse have a contrast, in order to keep the rarety and preciousness of its design. Another aspect of architecture that Prince Charles has been talking about is sustainability. In a recent talk he was considered to come across as “…an intellectual Luddite, whose only solution is to retreat into a Hobbit-like world of organic earthy buildings and no cars.” (Baillieu, 09) This is linked in Prince Charle’s speech with the idea that he is wary or afraid of experimentation within the architectural genre.

…it’s his belief that the challenge of climate change can be solved without experimentation. This is where the speech unravelled for in making out “experimentation” to be a terrifying leap in the dark rather than something good based on hypotheses and a body of knowledge (Baillieu, 09).

It is easy to see how these two aspects come together to form this overall opinion. This is again relating back to the idea of being afraid of the unknown and the security of the familiar which is known to have existed and survived for a period of time. However it is clear that without experimentation it will be impossible to combat the climate changing effects of our current architectural stock without stepping into the unknown and experimenting to create new technology and contemporary design. This supports the idea of moving on from historical design and designing in a more intellegent way in order to combat this problem, and start developing ideas for architecture that the future requires. This point in argued by those who support the science and technology of this debate “

In his famous “two cultures” lecture, the novelist and scientist CP Snow warned that if people wanted to turn their backs on science and the benefits of industrialisation they were free to make that choice. “I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion,” he said. “But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.”(Baillieu, 09).

This also supports the idea that some part of the population are not nessessarily lead by their own choice but rather the choice of figureheads in their society. This directly relates to Prince Charles and the negative impact he could have on the populations views concerning architecture.

It is easy to see how people become patriotic about this countries old buildings, but surely opposing anything contemporary in architecture at all is hindering the progress of the country as a whole.

The destruction of old buildings during the first and second world wars helped to create the feeling of preciousness for the old buildings that survived. Modernism that took advantage of the loss of historical buildings to create something new, which even involved demolishing old buildings that survived the air raids. This was admired by young architectural minds but disliked by older more traditionalist architects as well as the public. This Modern style of building was very much a duplicating style with certain design rules that had to be followed by every building, which lead them to have a very generic quality. This strict code of aesthetic design lead to many of the buildings being demolished as little as ten to thirty years later, due to the fact that the buildings were deemed to have no soul and were considered ugly and harsh aesthetically. The destructive qualities of Modernism and the architects ideas of town planning, showed not only the public but also the architectural world how important it was to create structures that were not only functional but iconic, and to create something the public could enjoy, not just the architectural elite. Modernism as a movement angered many people who were dedicated to preserving history, and ever since then they have been fiercely protective of old buildings and the work that is done with them. Many people however who have acquired old buildings with the intent on restoring them, have to wait months and deal with infuriating, bureaucracy before they can start work,. In a lot of cases until the necessary permissions are granted the owners are powerless and must watch as the building they own deteriorates further putting the building itself at risk. An example of this is the work carried out on a folly in Monmouth(FIG)(Gillilan 09) to restore the original building which is from the 16th century but was rebuilt after being struck by lightening in the late 1890s. They also wanted to include a modern extension and to tear down the 20th century additions that were not appropriate for the building, trying to mimic the original with rendered concrete that were causing damage to the existing structure. This project included an equal amount of restoration and extension, designed by architects with thoughtful and delicate conjunction between modern and historic materials shows how with better technology and more sympathetic building materials our views to restoring old buildings is slowly changing.

The planning committee of a local council however is not the only opposition an individual with Contemporary taste must face. Public approval is vital for a successful planning application, and neighbours opposition can stop a project even beginning. In Ling, a small historical village in Norfolk a resident wished to build a contemporary house on the site of his old pottery shed. He has been trying to get permission for his dwelling for years, and his biggest obstacle is the villagers themselves, who think the building is ‘ugly’ and ‘doesn’t fit in’ The question is why did this matter so much, and why exactly did the new building not fit in? The building is proposed to be made from traditional methods with local materials so it is the contemporary style of the building the villagers find so offensive. The resident in question commented that there is “something peculiarly British about this putting the past on a pedestal and that everything old is sacrosanct and you touch it at your peril.” But is it just the British who feel this way, or is it something that is part of any country with a long history and a wealth of historical buildings. A contrast to this would be to look at a country where this is not the case. Dubai is mostly desert, but due to


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