IHBC’s ‘IMHO’ signpost: Ageing gracefully – restorations which retain historical decay

websiteInstead of making a neglected building look brand-new, why not refurbish it to preserve and showcase the damage worked by fires, damp, squatters and the passage of time says Ike Ijeh, for Building Review, while exploring the advantages of growing old gracefully.

Building Review writes:

Decay is rarely a condition sought when restoring old buildings. The very idea of preserving decay as part of a renewal process seems to verge on the absurd, as since the conservation movement began in earnest around 50 years now its entire purpose has been to eradicate decay rather than keep it….

While undeniably trendy, this kind of generic ‘shabby chic’ approach remains both cosmetic and carefully contrived. But in recent years a new and more authentic generation of refurbishment projects has arrived, which encompass a much broader cross-section of building types and ambitiously experiment with the principle of incorporating decay into both the fabric and the character of restored historic buildings.

In so doing, these projects explore a fascinating array of technological challenges and solutions that tread a fine line between meeting modern safety, fire and structural standards and achieving historic authenticity in its most literal form – warts and all.

Alexandra Palace Theatre, London, 2018; Architect: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios; Contractor: Wilmott Dixon
… The result is essentially a gloriously atmospheric evocation of a working Victorian ruin in a section of the building that has remained disused and unoccupied for an astonishing 80 years…

…And on the riotously ornate auditorium ceiling, bowed and pockmarked after years of water erosion and disrepair, rigidity is achieved by the clever application of a steelwork grille on its upper surface that is fused together with the ceiling below by a lime mortar mix. Other challenges included the insertion of a new auditorium floor and the reinforcement of timber roof joints dampened by rainwater…

Middleport Pottery; Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 2014; Architect: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios; Contractor: William Anelay
Middleport Pottery has huge historic significance as it is one of the last working Victorian potteries in the UK. The grade II*-listed building was built in 1888 but while it has enjoyed continuous usage since that time, many of its key historic and industrial features have been demolished, including six of its extraordinary oast house-like bottle ovens. These tapering brick kilns are central to the heritage of the surrounding Staffordshire industrial landscape…

… ‘For us it was actually cheaper to preserve elements of decay where we could: if you start painting, where do you stop? Also this approach helped establish a more realistic maintenance plan where refurbishment is an ongoing process and you’re not limited by a comprehensive ‘renew and restore’ overhaul cycle every 10 years. Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for maintaining beautiful scruffiness and doing as little as you can.’

The Department Store; Brixton, London, 2017; Architect: Squire and Partners; Contractor: Stoneforce
While Brixton’s recent gentrification has ushered in a wave of rising prosperity and improvement for the south London neighbourhood, it is still difficult to imagine the bourgeois respectability it enjoyed in the late 19th century as one of the capital’s plusher suburbs. So much so that one of London’s first purpose-built department stores opened here, in 1876, in this instance named and modelled after the Parisian Bon Marché original. However, such elevated origins were not enough to withstand Brixton’s cycle of post-war decline and the emporium closed in 1975.

… ‘it would have been much easier and cheaper to do a complete ‘white wall’ refurbishment with no need for our sampling process. But that wouldn’t have delivered the ‘decayed decadence’ I think we’ve achieved. And I think people like seeing great buildings that aren’t perfect, we like ‘warts and all’.

Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 2015, Architect; Tim Ronalds Architects; Contractor: Fullers Builders / William Anelay:

.. The current version of the hall was completed in 1859 but after a typically diverse East End back catalogue of fires, storage and religious uses, it was earmarked for demolition in the 1960s before being saved and elevated to grade II*-listed status in 1971. An uncertain period of sustained dereliction ensued, before the concert hall reopened in 1997 and saw its painstaking restoration completed 18 years later.

… Wilton’s Music Hall appears to have been left in a battered and worn condition, where bannisters and doors are left unsanded and unpainted and brickwork and plasterwork have visibly chipped away. …

By adopting new fireproofing and alarm systems we were also able to avoid having to partition spaces with fire doors, which would have challenged historic authenticity. It may look as if not much has been done but the opposite is the case.’’

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