Bennetts Associates: Five Insights

As the second book about the practice, Bennetts Associates: Five Insights aimed to explore the roots, inspirations and influences of an architectural practice which celebrates it’s 30th anniversary in 2017.  The book contain essays by eighteen different members of staff from across the practice, set out in five chapters which explore the key facets of today’s architectural profession.

Conservation Theory and Practice

Conservation Theory and Practice

As an architects whose passion lies in putting life back into our derelict built heritage I chose to write about the ways in which conservation theory is implemented in practice.  The illustrated essay can be read below, but if you are interested in reading more from the book, or even acquiring your own copy?  Bennetts Associates: Five Insights is available from the RIBA bookshop.

Conservation Theory & Practice

Conservation is a concept which has a multitude of meanings.  A close association with the protection, preservation, and indeed restoration, of our cultural heritage can often trigger impassioned debate as to the best method for safeguarding our artistic, archaeological and heritage assets.  The same passions can often be stoked by the treatment of our built environment.

In the year 2015 nearly four hundred thousand heritage assets can be found on the pages of the National Heritage List England database.  This register brings together listed properties, scheduled monuments, maritime wrecks, parks & gardens, and even the odd battlefield into a database of designated heritage assets which hopes to secure, preserve and enhance the man-made heritage of England for the benefit of future generations.

While impressively broad in its content closer examination of the heritage list shows a worrying and increasing trend.   Almost five percent of these priceless and often unique places are also featured on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, a compelling list of those sites most at risk and in need of safeguarding.   Annual reviews prove that the while this list is reducing in size, the complexity and financial outlay required to secure the remaining assets is rising, with an ever increasing gap between the cost of the repair and the eventual end value.

With such dualistic challenges facing many of the owners and guardians of our historic built environments, the case for finding viable and economic futures for these assets takes centre stage.  However, whilst the challenges appear clear-cut, the methods employed to secure these assets seem less so following two centuries of disagreement over a theoretic doctrine.

Formal theoretical consensus of the overarching principles by which the conservation of our built environment should be governed have been derived over the past two centuries from two opposing doctrines; Restoration and Anti-restoration.

In the “Lamp of Memory” Victorian social thinker John Ruskin wrote, “Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

Heavily influenced by such sentiment leading Arts & Craft visionary William Morris helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877 under a philosophical manifesto of “anti-restoration”.  Ensconced within the manifesto were the principles of protection and expressed repair which vehemently opposed ideas of alteration and addition which it claimed destroyed a buildings history by removing its antiquity, stating that “…of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.[1]

However, the SPAB manifesto was written as a counterpoint to the perceived works of destruction undertaken in the 19th Century by Gothic Revival restoration architects such as Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Viollet-le-duc’s restorative, fairytale architecture often combined historic fabric with creative modifications to give threatened or derelict buildings a new function.  Indeed a case in point can be seen through his controversial work on the gallic towns of Mont Saint-Michel and Cité de Carcassonne where he promoted proto-modernist[2] ideas that structure and function were architectures sole determinants rather than aesthetics, thereby advocating that “to restore an edifice is not to maintain it, repair or rebuilt it, but to re-establish it.”[3]

While the predilection and importance of Morris’s and Ruskin’s ideas should be admired, reality deems their concepts to be largely incompatible with modern day sensibilities which focus on preservation and re-use of buildings in an economic manner to reduce carbon expenditure – an idea which would not appear incomparable with the reasoning – if not the methods – of architects such as Viollet-Le-Duc or Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Ultimately both philosophical arguments have become synonymous with Conservation doctrine through the charters of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), whose work focuses on the conservation and protection of global cultural heritage.  From their inception following the Second Congress of Architects and Specialists of Historic Buildings in Venice 1964, ICOMOS charters have redefined conservation dogma by placing the intangible cultural significance of a building on an equal footing with material, historic and cultural heritage, social benefits and sustainability.

From the earliest stages of the design process, these principles can be seen to underline Bennetts Associates’ approach to the re-use of existing buildings by rejecting the school of thought which would see us preserve these structures in aspic, or worse, replicate their architectural epoch in some form of pastiche.  Rather our approach is focused on an analysis and judgement of years of accumulated context to capture the essence of the building, what we hope is both the buildings contextual and emotional heart.

Only once this essence has been captured, a Sense of Place clearly defined, can the true value and potential of the building be determined.  The challenge is not simply a matter of identifying the good and replacing the not-so-good, but rather to take the less successful elements, re-imagine and redefine them, leaving traces of the strata’s of the building’s history which will enable and indeed foster the end users understanding of the buildings cultural significance.  Only by doing this can the true potential of the building be determined.


Rawstorne Place & 326

Probably the best example of this process can be seen at Bennetts Associates London studio which, over a ten year period, have been transformed from a discordant group of three properties into a cohesive, modern, and  award-winning office space.

Created during two phases of redevelopment, Rawstorne Place studios are nestle amongst the Victorian residential terraces of Clerkenwell’s back streets and brings together three distinct buildings with interlaced modern interventions to create a distinctive cluster of creative space focused around a central cobbled courtyard.  The existing buildings combines a former printworks – which was once used as a foundry for cast metal lettering – with a unique but unlisted 18th-Century barn, once the final watering point for livestock being transported to Smithfield Market, and the basement floor of no. 326 St Johns Street, a late era Victorian terraced dwelling.

Although the barn was in a state of near collapse, it was restored in the first phase of construction to form the meeting “hub” of Bennetts Associates’ offices, with its rugged brickwork and jauntily angled timbers exposed to view at every opportunity.  Refreshment points in the circulation route through the barn, and the pivotal location of the stairs, encourage interaction between the workspaces on either side and with the new studio which has affectionately become known simply as 326.

As the latest addition to the office 326 was completed during a second phase of development which saw a former lower ground  level restaurant converted into a much needed model making workshop, crit space and flexible working area, poles away from its residential and culinary past.   Again exposed beams and brickwork are tantalisingly juxtaposed with modern insertions which join the spaces together.

Assessing a building’s historic and cultural significance at the same time as maximising the environmental benefits by exploiting the embodied carbon and thermal mass in the existing fabric has been a critical part of our work bringing redundant buildings back into re-use.  Key economic principles have to be carefully balanced against the environmental reduction in carbon emissions and the preservation, – and where possible embellishment – of the significant aspects of the building through which its cultural and historic heritage can be perceived.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

For Bennetts Associates the romance of old buildings lies not just in their intrinsic beauty but in the memories encased in their physical fabric making the preservation of outdated, derelict and often condemned buildings as important as the conservation and embellishment of their cultural significance for the benefit of future generations.  A case in point would be the works at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where a walk into the triple height foyer is dramatically framed by the delicate balance between the ghosts in the walls of the retained Elisabeth Scott auditorium in juxtaposition with the distinct, newly inserted drum wall which encloses the new playhouse.  However, an additional strata is at play when which allows this  visceral experience to be experienced from a viewing point which places your feet on the original boards of the stage from which Laurence Olivier once delivered one of his lauded Macbeth soliloquies in 1955.  This duality of made and found spaces, materiality and perceptible heritage are all vital to the users experience and understanding of the building both now a throughout its past.

Creating such dynamic architecture at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre only became possible when in 2004 Bennetts Associates won a prestigious competition to transform the Stratford-upon-Avon home of the world leading theatre ensemble the Royal Shakespeare Company.  In the years leading up to the competition plans had been developed by Artistic Director Adrian Nobel and Dutch architectural firm Erick van Egeraat to create a brand new, highly flexible theatre village, which would form the basis for a far-reaching restructuring of an ailing theatre company.  However, these bold visions were encumbered by the ramshackle Grade II Listed theatre complex dominated by the recently redeveloped Dodgshun & Unsworth Memorial Theatre c.1879 – by then known as the Swan – and its larger brutalist brother the 1932 Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.  While never explicitly articulated, the plans presumed to tear down the existing labyrinthine facilities in a tabula rasa approach to the site which would have resulted in the wholesale destruction of the first public building in England to be designed by a female architect.  This proposals sent shockwaves through the incensed local community, national press and statutory bodies such as The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage alike.

In such an impassioned and volatile atmosphere Bennetts Associates’ collaborative and flexible approach proved that the perceived constraints and limitations of the existing building could be viewed as a series of exciting challenges through which the design could be enriched rather than a straightjacket by which it would be constrained.  A process of analysis was undertaken in consultation with English Heritage and the Theatres Trust which identified the varied development history and allowed years of accumulated layers of development – some good, others less so – to be peeled away to create new spaces within which a world leading modern theatre could of carved.   In this way the new and old of the design came together to form a building which is richer, more innovative, idiosyncratic, and arguably a more visceral end user experience than a building conceived on a blank canvas could ever have been.

By approaching the redesign of theatrical spaces through the limitations enforced by their historic fabric, new insertions can allow the buildings to be appreciated not just for their creative and artistic merit but also their historic and aesthetic duality[4].  In 2003 the Theatres Trust publish a report which estimated that the forty commercial theatres in London’s West End – all of which date from pre-1937 – required an investment of £250million to stave off a perceived “air of mild decay” which was the result of years focused on artistic production rather than the theatres themselves.

Unable to qualify for public funding without meeting stringent criteria or being able to demonstrate public accountability, these privately owned commercial theatres instigated what became known as the theatre restoration levy which added a small charge onto all tickets sold from the theatres.  These additional charges were to fund the upkeep and restoration of the aging, and largely unloved, theatrical building stock which to remain economically viable required bigger, more elaborate, shows to tempt ailing audiences back to theatreland.

Shaftesbury Theatre

The Shaftesbury Theatre was one such theatre which, despite numerous periods of redevelopment had suffered from a chronic shortfall in its technical flying capacity resulting in limitations being placed on the artistic vision of the a theatre which was faced with little to no space for expansion either internally or externally.

Designed by architect Bertie Crewe in 1911 as a repertory playhouse for melodrama, the theatre was listed as Grade II in 1974.  Realised in an elaborate Renaissance styling exemplified by it’s rusticated lower floors, high level Diocletian windows and a prominent grand cupola, the building is a flamboyant mixture of terracotta with stone finery and brickwork.

Due to its restricted island site between High Holborn and Bloomsbury Street the theatre is widely overlooked by amongst others Renzo Piano’s polychromatic Central St. Giles.  As with the RST, attempting to bringing the theatre up to modern technical standards demanded a dramatic design solution which took into account the buildings prominent positioning and listed status.  Therefore our design solution aimed to minimise the impact on the listed structure by creating four independent steel columns from sub stage to above the original flytower roof from which a new technical grid and much needed office accommodation could be theatrically suspended above the existing playhouse.

Wrapped in weathering steel panels, the substantial mass of the new extension has been broken down by extruding a triangular saw tooth pattern across the facade in replication of the proportions and scale of the bay windows of its Victorian neighbours.  This distinct material choice was made to compliment Crewe’s existing terracotta details creating the appearance of a deferential, floating box which constantly changes tone throughout its lifetime from an initial bright orange to a darker burnt umber tone.

These three buildings barely scratch the surface of our conservation projects with additional examples at Carlton House Terrace, Grosvenor Gardens, The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, Chester Cultural Centre and the Old Vic Theatre to name just a few.  Despite the scope of our previous work the fact still remains that to secure as much of our collective cultural inheritance as possible still requires a commitment to the innovative re-use of heritage buildings, the design of which carefully balances economic viability, against their intrinsic nature and tangible cultural importance creating a mantra by which we can create more interesting and challenging spaces.


[1] Morris, W. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) Manifesto, 1877, http://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/the-manifesto/ Accessed 1st November 2015

[2] Forerunning to Louis Sullivan’s Form Follows Function

[3] Viollet-le-Duc, E. Entretiens sur l’architecture (Discourses on Architecture), 1859

[4] Brandi, C. ‘Theory of Restoration, I’, Historic and Philosophical Issues in Conservation of Cultural Heritage (The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996)

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