Through a loving restoration of Mackintosh's last-built project, at Derngate in Northampton, John McAslan + Partners has recreated a truly stunning interior John McAslan has been an enthusiast for the work of fellow-Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh since he was a schoolboy. In the 1970s, while a student in Edinburgh, he was a founder member of the Mackintosh Society. Consequently, the commission to restore Mackintosh's last-built work, and his only building outside Scotland, was one that McAslan was personally anxious to secure and one into which, despite its modest budget (£1.5 million to date), John McAslan + Partners has poured all the energy and commitment which are among the practice's greatest strengths.
Number 78 Derngate, Northampton, was a product of Mackintosh's 'Chelsea years', a period full of hope which ended in disillusionment and tragedy. The architect and his designer wife had left Glasgow in 1914 and moved (via Suffolk) to London. It was wartime and jobs were hard to come by. So the commission to remodel No 78, from Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, who had recently married, was accepted with alacrity.
(Bassett-Lowke ran a successful model engineering business in Northampton. ) Working with a local but Glasgow-trained architect, A E Anderson (who had already added a bay window on the street front in 1916), Mackintosh transformed the tall, narrow, early 19th-century terraced house close to the town centre into something extraordinary. The interior was radically recast, with the staircase boldly turned at right angles and inserted at the centre of the house, framed by a timber grid. Instead of the narrow hall and front parlour, a new open hall was created, opening directly from Derngate. The street frontage remained virtually unaltered, except for a highly distinctive front door, an echo of Mackintosh's earlier work.
To the rear, however, Mackintosh extended the house into the garden, providing open balconies at two upper levels; at this time No 78 enjoyed fine views over the open country of the Nene Valley, since submerged in suburbia. The garden elevation of the house is the nearest he got to the austere, decoration-free Modernism of the 1930s.
Indeed, there has been speculation that it reflected Bassett-Lowke's personal taste - he much admired contemporary German and Viennese architecture and design - and that he had a hand in the design. When BassettLowke came to commission a new house in the mid-1920s (Mackintosh had retired to France to paint), he turned to the German master Peter Behrens, Mies' mentor.
Behrens' 'New Ways' is often reckoned to be Britain's first truly Modern house.
The future of No 78 became an issue when, in the early 1990s, it was vacated by the school that had occupied it for some years. Lobbying by local enthusiasts, backed by the Mackintosh Society - with founderchairman Patricia Douglas passionately supportive - led to its acquisition by the local council in 1997. It was subsequently vested in the 78 Derngate Trust, formed to restore the house and open it to the public.
Chaired by local businessman Keith Barwell, the trust approached the Heritage Lottery for funding. McAslan's own advocacy of the project was apparently instrumental in securing lottery backing and McAslan director Adam Brown, who oversaw the project throughout, helped the trust develop detailed proposals.
Vacated by the Bassett-Lowkes 70 years previously, No 78 had lost its Mackintoshdesigned furniture (various items ended up in Glasgow's Hunterian Museum, the V&A and in Northampton's own museum) and interior decor, almost Art Deco in character and strikingly colourful, though somewhat toned down in a revised scheme by Mackintosh in 1919. What remained was the architecture, reflecting a critical period in the career of a legendary figure of world renown, and the basic fit-out. But even if the interiors were restored, the problem remained as to how the house, with its confined spaces and very limited access, could be opened to visitors. The 78 Derngate Trust's acquisition of the adjacent houses at 80 and 82 Derngate provided the solution.
McAslan's initial proposal was for the development of No 82 as the point of entry to the site, with an elegant glazed entrance pavilion constructed at the rear of the house.
Number 80, radically rebuilt behind its facades, would then become a museum to both Bassett-Lowke, a major local figure, and Mackintosh. And, more important, it would provide access at all levels to No 78.
In the event, the Heritage Lottery declined to fund work on 82 Derngate, so the project completed last year embraces only Nos 78-80.
For No 78, the task has been one of repair and restoration. The condition of the building was far worse than anyone had anticipated.
Much of the brickwork had to be rebuilt, most of the window frames were rotten and the roof was in poor condition, requiring a comprehensive overhaul. Sarah Jackson, formerly with McAslan, who worked on the internal restoration scheme, says the aim was to make the house 'understandable and enjoyable - without it, No 78 would have been attractive only to specialists'.
John McAslan + Partners, though not a specialist conservation practice, is known for the research it carries out into restoration projects (including the Bexhill Pavilion and London's Roundhouse). A team of specialist consultants was assembled, including leading textile historian Mary Schoeser. Both the hall and the guest bedroom, some of the furnishings of which are in the Hunterian Museum, have been recreated as complete Mackintosh interiors.
Jackson argues that the restoration project led to new discoveries about the lost interiors. 'The guest bedroom, for example, which everyone assumed to be painted, was actually lined with fabric, which we reproduced, ' she points out. Replica furniture was made (with exquisite skill) by Jake Kaner of Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, while replica carpets, rugs and light fittings were specially commissioned. The results have an impressive air of authenticity: nothing of Mockintosh here. Purists, echoing Ruskin, may scorn the idea of restoring what has been lost, but here, for once, it has been done with conviction, and it works. There are plans to refurnish some of the other rooms, such as the kitchen, but no aspiration to turn the whole house into a recreation of the past.WJ Bassett-Lowke, who was a political activist (he served as a Labour councillor for some years) with a strong interest in architecture and civic improvement, would surely have approved.
A large selection of Bassett-Lowke's models of railway engines and ships, many made for shipyards on Clydeside, can now be seen in No 80 Derngate, housed in a glazed enclosure that extends the full height of the house.
Pending future work, only the ground floor of No 82 is in use, temporarily adapted as a visitor entrance. Visitors then enter No 80 at garden level and are led into No 78. Having toured the latter they re-emerge into No 80 at top-floor level and can study the exhibits on three floors on their way down. (Lift access is provided for the disabled and infirm. ) As Richard Ellis, McAslan's project architect, readily concedes, No 80 is really an entirely new building. The condition of the existing (Grade II-listed) fabric was such that English Heritage sanctioned reconstruction, with the proviso that the street facade was rebuilt in exact replica. The rear elevation of the house was reconfigured in line with the new internal layout, constructed on a new steel frame tied to the neighbouring party walls.
The aim in No 80, says Ellis, was to create 'calm, cool spaces internally as a backcloth to exhibits'. The palette of materials was deliberately limited to timber, stainless steel and glass, a complete contrast to the richness of the reconstructed Mackintosh interiors (though the full-height glass display case echoes Mackintosh's stair enclosure next door).
The simplicity of the new building is studied, and incorporates some sophisticated devices: the glazed strips at the floor edges, for instance, that allow daylight to filter through the interior. Servicing requirements were quite modest. As No 78 is not a museum full of precious objects, sealed, air-conditioned spaces were not required, and such ventilation as is provided is powered by plant neatly housed in No 80.
The Derngate project is far from complete. The 78 Derngate Trust plans a reinstatement of the external landscape, while the restoration of No 82 is a high priority. It will contain a shop and cafe, again not Mockintosh in style, and offices for the trust. McAslan is working on revised plans and funding is being raised locally.
On one level, this is a striking marriage of new architecture and painstaking conservation. Derngate is most remarkable, perhaps, for the boldness with which the design team, backed by a determined client body and drawing on reserves of specialist advice, backed its hunch and set out to restore the lost splendours of a unique decorative ensemble. Mackintosh was in his early 50s when he gave up architecture forever. Derngate suggests the promise of great things to come but, in the event, never to be realised.