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Architect's account

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BUILDING STUDY

Baillie Scott's original vision of domestic life at Blackwell was all-pervasive and lies behind both the spatial organisation and detail resonant with symbols for the Holt family. The occupancy of the building in real life never lived up to the intensity of his vision.

The Holts' intentions in 1900 to make Blackwell a family seat were shattered by the death of their eldest son in the First World War. It then declined as a house until its use during the Second World War as a boarding school, which lasted until 1972. This involved changes to the building such as external fire escapes, prefabricated classrooms, central heating and covering up of original detail.

Following the school's closure, the building fell into less sympathetic hands and it became offices, with the loss of original elements such as fireplaces and other alterations. The need for fundamental repair work was ignored. This was the 'sleeping beauty' state of Blackwell in 1996 when its use as a gallery was first suggested by the Lakeland Arts Trust.

Clearly the key significance of the building lies in its realisation of Baillie Scott's ideas for the artistic house. The retention of what Baillie Scott describes as its 'atmosphere of deep-seated calm'was as important as revealing the wealth of Arts and Crafts detail in the rich interior spaces.

The three major ground floor rooms connected by the main entrance corridor form an extraordinary spatial sequence. There is also the key contrast between the dark timber-lined baronial space of the doubleheight hall and the sparkling white femininity of the drawing room. These significant ground floor spaces had primarily to be pieced together again, the fabric restored and their interconnecting volumes revealed.

The bedrooms also form a sequence of fascinating spaces that, as paint analysis revealed, were originally painted in strong colours. This revelation brought alive the colourful interiors depicted in Baillie Scott's watercolours and suggested the possibility of reinstating these rich colours as a background to temporary exhibition galleries.

The service rooms of the original house were already substantially altered and these became the zones that could be altered for the provision of spaces required by the new gallery use - the tea room slotted into the kitchens and so on. These insertions draw on the existing forms and materials, complementing and contrasting with the original fabric.

The implications of public use in terms of a fire strategy, disabled access and provision of toilet facilities, as well as the brief for gallery requirements in terms of security, environmental control, display and storage facilities, called for considerable intervention to the fabric.

A new internal stair has been placed in a shaft quarried out of a former bathroom stack and detailed in uncompromisingly modern ways. The new reception and tea room areas, although not fully realised as designed, place new furniture elements in reformed spaces.

Following the recent period of neglect, some fundamental repairs were required. The lead on the roof needed complete renewal and the still-pristine slate roof was suffering from nail sickness. The re-roofing also allowed for work to re-open and repair leaking chimneys and for piecing-in replacements to rotten roof timbers and dormer windows.

Existing services needed to be completely replaced as well as substantial new installations to meet gallery requirements. With strict strategies for routing of new services through the original fabric, great efforts were made to minimise the visible effects of work that formed some 40 per cent in value of the total building contract.

Blackwell's gardens were built up from a rocky hillside by a series of concentric terraces. The new scheme adds to these layers with new stone walls to define a long ramp to the lower lawn and a new entrance courtyard. Clearly the gardens were never planted to Mawson's designs.

With landscape architect Kim Wilkie we have taken the opportunity to establish the intended borders and generally ground the house in its landscape setting.

Blackwell has been restored for new life as a gallery of the applied arts, designed to explore the ongoing possibilities of the art of making. The original house remains a triumphant celebration of what Baillie Scott termed the 'art of building'.

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