The sound of history
King Charles Court at Greenwich, now refurbished by John McAslan + Partners as a new home for Trinity College of Music, is part of the Baroque set piece that was until recently the Royal Naval College. Aligned along the principal axis from Inigo Jones' Queen's House to the Thames, the whole is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a World Heritage Site and is listed Grade I. Architects must tread with care. Architecturally, the exteriors speak for themselves, as do the interior highlights - the chapel and the Painted Hall. But for most of the remaining interiors, it is the layers of history rather than notable architecture that distinguishes them. The interiors are largely utilitarian.
To cut a long history short, the Civil War and the Commonwealth that followed saw great damage done to royal properties. The restoration of the monarchy, in the person of Charles II, was the pivotal point for Greenwich. The Queen's House, designed and intermittently built between 1616 and 1635, was now refurbished and extended by Jones' son-in-law John Webb, about 1662.
On the Greenwich site also stood the remains of the Tudor royal palace of Placentia, birthplace of Henry VIII. Charles, in part inspired by that other edge-of-town grand gesture of Versailles, had the ambitions, if not the funds, to demolish Placentia and build a grand palace. Indeed, a gap between ambition and funds was to characterise the stop-go construction at Greenwich during the next 100 years.
Charles' designer was also Webb, who proposed an open courtyard of three blocks facing the river. Only the eastern wing of what is now King Charles Court was built (1662-69). The royal fit-out of the shell did not follow. But this wing has some of the larger-scale volumes of a palace, starting with a vestibule and connecting several major spaces, that McAslan needed.
James II, Charles' brother, first had the idea to create a home for disabled seamen and pensioners, a major issue at the time. It was his daughter, Queen Mary, who in the early 1690s became committed to carrying the project forward. Models for it included Chelsea Hospital, completed in 1692 and the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.
The Surveyor General, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to create a naval hospital, assisted by his clerk of works Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren initially came up with the idea for a courtyard arrangement similar to Webb's. Pevsner 1suggests that Wren later proposed something similar to today's layout in 1699. However, Clive Aslet's account 2suggests Mary, who died of smallpox in 1694, was instrumental in the change, insisting on the importance of the Queen's House and maintaining the view from it, refusing the demolition of the existing Webb wing and seeking a matching building on the other side of the axis. As Hawksmoor recorded: 'Her Majesty received the Proposal for pulling down the Wing with as much Indignation as her Excellent good Temper would suffer her, order'd it should remain, and the other Side of the Royal Court made answerable to it.'
Intermittently funded construction continued until substantial completion of the scheme, some 55 years after the start on site in 1696. As to King Charles Court, in particular, Wren put in a modest west wing in 1696-98 with the first 42 pensioners moving in in 1705. The end pavilions of the west wing were built, following Webb's approach, to the river in 1712 and to the south in 1769 (by James Stuart). Wren's west wing was replaced by Yenn in 1811-14 after a fire.
More recently, the hospital closed in 1869.
The Royal Naval College took over in 1873, leaving in 1998. The Queen Anne, Queen Mary and King William Courts are now taken by the University of Greenwich.
Trinity College of Music has moved from three buildings in central London to occupy King Charles Court.
A distinguished music school, Trinity is involved in performance and composition of classical, early and electro-acoustic music, jazz and music-theatre collaborations. It has a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra and a big band. There is an industry-standard recording studio that not only records small ensembles and teaches recording, but is cabled to more than 80 teaching, rehearsal and practice rooms McAslan has created, providing educational feedback.
To be under one roof is a great step for the college, but the building is not ideal, reflecting its former uses. In the east wing and end pavilions, there is a set of served and servant spaces with complex circulation. The west wing is much simpler, with a central corridor. The original seamen's quarters were largely individual 'cabins' (bedsits) and small dormitories, but traces of this history were largely wiped away by the Navy with their office-use partitioning, unconstrained by heritage controls.
McAslan's approach has been to strip back much of this later partitioning and other accretions, reinstating the original structure. That structure is typically very functional, with suspended or solid floors, plain white-plastered walls and simple stone stairs - an appropriately tough, student-tolerant feel. There has been much timber repair, though painted timber panelling has been left to move, with cracks unfilled. Where new work has been inserted, it is respectful and reversible. Notably, the separation and newness of the practice rooms, which are heavily soundproofed boxes set back from the existing structure, are emphasised by the use of bright red.
Other colour highlights are blue, used at new major services areas, and yellow, in admin areas.
Data and power cabling are generally surface-mounted - for reversibility and separation from the existing structure, and from the college's point of view, for ease of maintenance. McAslan has sometimes used presence detectors to avoid light switches and their trunking. There are a few dropceilings and exposed ceiling cable racks - more exposed than hoped for, due to budget constraints. There is no air conditioning, so windows tend to be thrown open in warm weather, with attendant sound leakage from room to room. This will also be an issue in the proposed roofing of the courtyard for other uses (see page 3).
The project was funded by government, the Lottery and private donors, notably the Jerwood Foundation's funding of the Jerwood Library for the Performing Arts, set among the timber roof trusses. Trinity seems an appropriate, in a sense, timeless occupier. But how will this building now survive - it is tough, but how tough?
Government funding pushes for educational uses and the Lottery for public access - you too can walk through the building, east to west. With 600 students during the week and 200 at weekends, will the more vulnerable original items such as doors and iron balustrades, already sometimes repaired, be able to stand the pace?
1Pevsner, Nicholas and Cherry, Bridget, The Buildings of England: London 2: South.
Penguin Books. 1983 2Aslet, Clive, The Story of Greenwich. Fourth Estate. 1999
FINAL ACCOUNT COSTS ITEM £ Strip out and demolitions 325,000 Asbestos removal 225,000 Floor board removal/replacement 155,000 Structural strengthening and repairs 460,000 Existing fabric repairs 685,000 New partitions and wall linings 600,000 New and existing doors 370,000 New finishes 980,000 Services installations 2,060,000 Lifts and building work 265,000 Other services building work 270,000 Fixtures and fittings 260,000 External works 80,000 Landlord's works 225,000 Main contractor's preliminaries 790,000
AREA 7,500m 2
TOTAL COST £7,750,000
CLIENT Trinity College of Music
ARCHITECT John McAslan + Partners
MULTIDISCIPLINARY ENGINEER Arup
ACOUSTICS Arup Acoustics
COST CONSULTANT Davis Langdon & Everest
DEVELOPMENT ADVISOR Healey and Baker
HISTORIC BUILDING ADVISOR Purcell Miller Tritton
GENERAL CONTRACTOR Wates
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS M&E RTT Engineering Services; structural steelworkMIW Steelwork and Fabrications; structural timber repairs Vogue Developments; groundworks Britin Construction; metal conservation DGT Steelwork and Cladding; masonry repairs PAY E Stonework and Restoration; plaster repairs AG Joy and Sons; acoustic partitions James Rose Projects; carpentry and joinery Tudourville Interiors; library furniture Demco Interiors; painting and decorating Cousins Painting and Decorating; floor finishes F Sanson Contracts; data cabling Central Data Installations; lifts Express Evans