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Georgian Group pokes holes in Somerset House canopies

The full revitalisation of Grade I listed Somerset House in the Strand moved a step closer last week after Westminster City Council granted conditional permission and conditional listed-building consent to a scheme to build canopies on the building's river terrace and a pedestrian bridge link from the terrace to Waterloo Bridge. But the Georgian Group has strongly attacked the plans, by the partnership Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones, branding them 'seriously flawed' and liable to detract from the 'splendour' of Sir William Chambers' original vision.

The scheme, part of a larger ongoing Heritage Lottery Fund-backed project aimed at opening up the famous building to the public and installing the Gilbert Collection of silverware, includes the regeneration of the Great Court, South Wing and River Terrace. It includes six raised platforms and canopies for dining on the River Terrace during the summer, repaving, and a new underground services building in the main court. Despite the Georgian Group's 'very strong misgivings', the Westminster permission allows the 3.8m-high canopies as temporary structures for five years only as part of a restaurant plan. It also rules that 'tented structures' for other events in the Great Court should be similarly little-used.

The Georgian Group also attacked the idea of a bridge link, saying it would detract from the 'simple geometry of the terrace' and deprive visitors the 'drama' of entering the complex via the narrow Strand entrance, central to Sir William Chambers' 1796 design. It has similar criticisms of the 'propriety' of moving the War Memorial from the centre of the court to the terrace and removal of original fabric. The council responded that the losses were 'regrettable' but that the new bridge's public-access benefits outweighed disadvantages and the old entrance would remain. The link is aimed at improving connections between Covent Garden and the South Bank by creating a way through Somerset House and onto Waterloo Bridge. Westminster branded it 'elegant and appropriate' and unlikely to compromise the special interest of the Grade II* Waterloo Bridge.

Somerset House's new life began in 1991 when Michael Heseltine, then environment secretary, announced the government's intention to bring the building into public use. This was followed in 1996 when by government signing an agreement with the Gilbert Collection to create new galleries and become tenant of the Somerset House Trust. Formerly it had been home to the Inland Revenue and the Lord Chancellor's department.

Donald Insall Associates is working on the restoration of the Great Court and new visitor facilities in the South Building, and is looking at staging large scale open-air events in 'the finest open-air living room in London'. Feilden & Mawson is the building's fabric surveyor and Inskip & Jenkins is working on the new Gilbert Collection museum.

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