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When mend-and-make-do leads to great architecture

Refurbishment projects can fire the imagination, says Ruth Slavid

The most remarkable aspect of Buschow Henley’s Junction Arts and Civic Centre in Goole (AJ 04.02.10) is that the practice deliberately chose to preserve and adapt a building of little architectural merit, even though there was no pressure to do so, and even some resistance to the idea.

For practice principal Simon Henley, this is part of the desire to create ‘monuments’ out of buildings simply because they have been there for some time, and have gained resonance as a result. This approach has run through the practice’s work since its early residential project at Shepherdess Walk in London (2000).

I have been talking to several architects recently about work on existing buildings, and it is encouraging to see the intelligence and diversity of approach that goes into their projects. Haworth Tompkins, in its arts buildings, is eager to identify and retain elements of history and of roughness that can free up the imaginations of their designers. The practice’s Steve Tompkins said how pleased he was that the firm’s work on the Royal Court (2000) looks so much better and more lived-in 10 years on than when it was completed. How many architects can say that of their work?

This is vastly encouraging at a time when environmental and financial pressures are driving us to retain ever more and more buildings. Bennetts Associates’ re-imagining of the offices of Hampshire County Council (2009) showed how much embodied energy could be saved simply by hanging on to the frame.

With public-sector budgets about to become ever tighter, there is going to be a growing pressure to conserve and reuse wherever possible. What some of this imaginative work shows is that this is not the straitjacket many had feared. Conservation and retention have sometimes been regarded as the conservative option; a symptom of the British phobia of the radical and new. But much of the work taking place shows that retention of at least part of a building may be exactly the constraint against which architects need to work to develop their very best ideas.

Ruth Slavid worked on the AJ between 1993 and 2008, including spells as deputy editor and editor of AJ Specification

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