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Art house

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building study

Stanton Williams'reputation for combining old and new grows with this elegant conversion of the neglected Compton Verney house in Warwickshire and substantial modern additions 'On my way back to London, I motored up the drive of Compton Verney, ' James Lees-Milne recorded in his diary for 21 June 1945. 'The beautiful park is a mature specimen of Capability Brown's work. Alas, all the balustrading of the lovely Robert Adam bridge has been knocked down by the soldiers?' It was a fleeting acquaintance with one of the many historic country houses for which the Second World War seemed to be the final blow, after decades in which the culture they represented began to wither in the face of inexorable social and economic change.

The National Trust, Lees-Milne's employer, had acquired its first country house, Blickling, in 1940 and many more were soon to pass into its ownership. But Compton Verney, devoid of contents and long since sold off by the family that built it, was never likely to be one of them. For the next half century its future remained distinctly uncertain. Only in 1993, when house and grounds were acquired by the wealthy collector Peter Moores, was Compton Verney finally taken off the 'at risk' list. The completion of the phased conversion and extension project, which Stanton Williams won in competition in 1994, was marked by a formal opening this March.

Even before the outbreak of war, when it was requisitioned by the government (becoming a weapons research establishment), Compton Verney had been through a traumatic period of change. The Verney family had a house on the site from at least the 1430s. Radically remodelled in 1711-28 by an unknown architect - the work formerly ascribed to Vanbrugh, though with no evidence - the house was further recast in the 1760s to plans by Adam, who created the colonnaded east front and the imposing hall that it prefaces. To complete the updating of the property, the 14th Lord Willoughby de Broke brought in Capability Brown, who cleared away the formal gardens in favour of a new park and even demolished the medieval church (that of the former village that the Verneys had razed), replacing it with a new family chapel by Brown close to the house.

After 600 years, the Verneys sold Compton Verney to a parvenu arms manufacturer, in 1921. Ten years later, with the 5,000-acre estate broken up, it was sold again, this time to a Lancashire cotton magnate, Samuel Lamb, one of whose favoured house guests in the '30s was Ribbentrop. Post-war, in 1948, the house and park were handed back by government to the Lambs, but by then in a dire state and they never lived there again.

(The bridge was repaired after Lees-Milne complained to the government. ) Furniture and fittings were subsequently removed - many of the interiors bore the mark of rather crude Victorian remodellings - and the house was allowed to slide into neardereliction. After 1958 it was in the ownership of an eccentric Wolverhampton manufacturer, who kept a caravan in the grounds.

In 1984, house and grounds had been acquired by Christopher Buxton of Period & Country Houses, who sold off land for housing development, converting the James Gibbs stables into flats (which remain in that use today) and proposing the conversion of the mansion itself, which had remained empty and decaying, as a hotel - a proposal firmly rejected by local planners. (There was some cynicism in these circumstances about the subsequent [1992] competition, won by Henning Larsen, for an opera house to be built in the park - 'The Glyndebourne of the Midlands'. Indeed, the project quickly proved totally impractical. ) Critics of Peter Moores' current project - 'Compton Verney: £65 million down the drain, ' was one of the more extreme comments - seem indifferent to the fate of house and park. Moores' aim in buying Compton Verney was to restore the house not as a monument but to allow the public to see his extensive and highly varied collection, much of which was then in store. However, as Paul Williams of Stanton Williams recalls: 'It was soon apparent that the house simply did not have sufficient wall space to hang the pictures, let alone to provide for temporary exhibitions.' In addition, space was needed for the usual cafe, shop, cloakrooms and staff offices, while education facilities were also a high priority for the trust that Moores had established to progress the project. The stables block was no longer available for conversion, though some minor service buildings survived, in poor condition, to the north of the house. Stanton Williams' researches (and surviving visual evidence) revealed that a more extensive service wing had once existed on this site.

Stanton Williams' collaborator throughout the project has been the distinguished conservation practice of Rodney Melville & Partners, responsible for the repair and (where necessary) reinstatement of the historic fabric. The house is listed Grade I and close consultation with Stratford-uponAvon Council and English Heritage was inevitable. However, as Williams remarks, both were 'wonderful'; both David Nash of Stratford council and EH's John Yates were 'highly supportive', he says. There was an acceptance that a new building was needed and that significant interventions within the existing listed house would be necessary to adapt it to its new function. A fundamental requirement, given that the trust intended to mount loan exhibitions, was the installation of up-to-date security and environmental systems, while disabled access would be required to all parts of the building. The understanding was that the project was about reuse: country house into world-class art gallery. Formal planning consent was given in 1995.

Development north of the house was facilitated by the natural rise of the site, so that Stanton Williams' new wing could be dug into the landscape and connected to the existing brewhouse and butler's cottage. Old and new buildings, the new including the extensive learning centre with offices above, set behind a retained Victorian coach house facade, form a 'village' around a central courtyard. The principal services installation is attached to this complex, well away from the house.

The £17 million building project (less than a third of Moores' reported total investment in Compton Verney) was undertaken in two phases. In the first of these, completed in 1998 for a limited public launch, the external fabric of the house was comprehensively repaired, the ground-floor rooms reinstated and redecorated (floors had to be strengthened to take heavy sculpture), while the upper floors remained mostly closed off.

Stanton Williams' new building - with shop, cloakrooms and cafe at ground level and a new gallery and sculpture terrace above - was part of this phase of work, along with the new stair and lift core at the north-west corner of the mansion, itself an uncompromisingly contemporary intervention. The new building, the architect stresses, 'is born out of the original geometry and proportions of the mansion, maintaining its overall integrity and character'. Framed by the Baroque pavilions of the house, its overall height and proportions are defined by those ofthe 18th-century facades and the use of natural stone connects it visually to its venerable neighbour.

In the second phase of works, now complete, the remainder of the new additions and the associated conversion works were completed and the upper floors of the house converted as galleries. The rooms at first-floor level, formerly bedrooms, contained relatively few notable features while the attic levels, long ago used as servants' accommodation, were simply large vacant spaces. In the ground-floor rooms, the predominant image is that of the country house. Upstairs, you are in a modern art gallery, though there are enough original elements to remind you that you are also in a Georgian house and the (new) timber floors have the ring of traditional craftsmanship The first-floor galleries are conceived as 'rooms within rooms', with sliding wall panels that allow the hanging spaces to be reconfigured as needed and daylight to be reduced or excluded if necessary (though the views out to the park are a further, welcome reminder of the context). This device equally facilitated the integration of new services at this level - the services strategy for the building, on which the architect worked with FaberMaunsell, is a triumph of integration.

For this second phase of works, Stanton Williams worked on the design of the exhibition installations with the Metaphor practice, led by Stephen Greenberg. Since Paul Williams is himself an acclaimed exhibition designer, this could have led to disagreements, but was, both Williams and Greenberg report, a harmonious collaboration. Metaphor's aim was not to create a 'black box' but to 'make the country house a stage for art'. The heterogeneous nature of the collections - from ancient Chinese bronzes to rustic folk art via Naples, Germany and the English portrait - necessitated a flexible display strategy. The fact that it is not easily apparent where the work of the two practices involved overlaps is a tribute to their joint achievement: the Chinese gallery, with its elegant timber-mounted display plinths, is a particular triumph. The use of vivid Naples yellow in one of the ground-floor galleries was Greenberg's idea - initially, this room had been all-white. It is probably not greatly to Stanton Williams' taste but its use - in the first room the visitor enters from the reception area - is a dramatic move.

Stanton Williams (celebrating its 20th birthday next year) has an awesome reputation for attention to detail, the masterly use of materials and a virtuoso approach to the use of natural light, talents that it is now employing on substantial commercial and education schemes. The roots of the firm lie, however, in exhibition design and museums projects, inspired initially - and they remain inspirations - by the work of Scarpa and Albini. Its work in this vein helped create a code of practice (now virtually an orthodoxy) for 'new/old' projects in Britain, which has dispatched the idea of 'keeping in keeping' to oblivion. On occasions - the remodelling of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, for instance - its approach has been too radical for the conservation lobby.At Compton Verney, however, the practice's approach seems so inevitable that you wonder how anyone else could seriously have been considered for the commission.

The ideas in the scheme have been realised in construction and craftsmanship that is generally of outstanding quality: hats off to all involved. Yes, Moores could have spent his £65 million on acquiring pictures for the nation, commissioning new music or sponsoring young artists - all worthy causes.

But at Compton Verney his patronage has added a new dimension to the dialogue between conservation and new design, and given vigorous new life to a building that was too good to lose.

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