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Inflexible friends

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Having worked on a dozen or more properties from the 1930s, John Winter believes that conservation officers are often too dogmatic in their demands on owners and architects

When John Winter drove down to Dartington in Devon one day in 1992, he had no idea that a whole new chapter in his professional life was about to begin.

On the recommendation of the then caseworker at the Twentieth Century Society, he had been invited to discuss the restoration of William Lescaze's High Cross House - among the UK's earliest Modern buildings, completed for Dartington School's headmaster in 1932.

Winter, a longtime admirer of such architecture, was duly commissioned for the project, making the main areas of the property into period show rooms, adapting the first floor for archive facilities and a cafe, and turning the garage into a gallery. Blue paint on the former servant's block and bright yellow up the stairwell gave the house an added impact (AJ 9.2.95).

Since then, by word of mouth as much as anything, this Dartington job has brought Winter into contact with a dozen or so other buildings from the 1930s - if not always so notable (in UK terms) as High Cross House, or with the comprehensive remit that he had there.He must now be one of the most experienced UK practitioners in this field yet, in his approach, one of the least dogmatic.

Something that Winter has especially enjoyed about this new specialization is precisely the lack of dogma regarding restoration procedures. 'It's not like dealing with a Georgian property where every move you make is prescribed, ' he explains. 'With these Modern Movement buildings there isn't yet an orthodoxy about how they should be handled. We are still experimenting and still finding out.'

The downside, however, has been encountering orthodoxy of another sort - that of conservation officers when discussing listed buildings. 'With one or two notable exceptions, they can be very inflexible, ' says Winter.

'They fail to recognize, for instance, that people may have sunk almost all their money into buying the house, and so have little scope for carrying out the officer's requests, however sympathetic they may be to them.

'Moreover, it's perfectly reasonable these days that owners want their properties to be energy efficient - that means double glazing.

For that matter, they don't want their children to fall off a balcony - that may require change to the original as well. But conservation officers are often loath to compromise.'

Such inflexibility can be counter-productive, at least as far as the architecture is concerned. Winter cites the case of Noah's Boathouse at Marlow in Buckinghamshire, an early essay in reinforced concrete by Colin Lucas (1931). The house to which it belongs had been irreparably altered (even thatched! ), but Winter thought the boathouse - 'a super little building' - could be repaired and, as its owner wished, made to incorporate a swimming pool.

With its Grade II* spot-listing midway through the design process, however, the owner - not a 1930s enthusiast - became reluctant to pay for work that he felt was not altogether in his control. He has since submitted a grant application to restore the building as a boathouse, but if there is no grant, nothing will happen. 'This is called conservation but in fact it's destruction, ' says Winter.

In a similar vein, he is worried about the future of Maxwell Fry's Miramonte (1937, Grade II*) in the London suburb of Kingston-upon-Thames, which has been standing empty for two years or more.

Prospective purchasers, enthusiastic about the house, appeared a while ago and consulted Winter about restoring it, but retreated in face of the conservation officer's demands.

While Winter stresses his open-mindedness in approaching these 1930s buildings - 'If I got another one tomorrow, I'd look at it as a fresh world' - he finds that certain questions constantly recur, to do with structural soundness, weatherproofing, energy efficiency, decoration (the use of colour in particular), and the question of 'style' when a new addition is demanded.

All these figured in the case of Torilla, a Grade II* 1935 house at Hatfield by FRS Yorke and Marcel Breuer, which in the early 1990s had been badly vandalized and threatened with demolition. Its new owner, an artist, had once held an exhibition at Mies van der Rohe's Haus Esters in Krefeld (which now functions principally as a gallery), and during preparations for this show he lived upstairs there - an experience that fired him to find a Modern property of his own. Unlike the reluctant owner of the Lucas boathouse, here was a devotee.

These early Modern Movement buildings were, of course, often experimental in construction, so it is no surprise that, more than a half-century later, structural problems occur.With reinforced concrete houses such as Torilla, carbonation of the concrete is the usual issue - its causes and remedies were discussed in some detail by John Allan of Avanti Architects, another UK authority on Modern Movement conservation, when he restored Amyas Connell's Grade II* White House near Haslemere (AJ 16.2.94). There and at Torilla, comprehensive treatment was called for, as carbonation had made large areas of the alkaline-rich concrete acid over time, fracturing and eroding it and rusting the steel reinforcement.

By contrast, at another house Winter has worked on, built in the same year as Torilla - Val Harding and Tecton's Grade II* Six Pillars at Sydenham - carbonation problems were much more localized and minor: one of Winter's pre-restoration photographs shows just blisters in the concrete as the harmful acids get to work. Here, anti-carbonation treatment was only 'elementary'.

A prime source of these early houses' aesthetic appeal was their purity of form, the geometric clarity of their profiles - an effect that partly depended on the elimination of mouldings which, in a British climate, quickly proved unwise. This is one issue which continues to trouble Winter: 'If you don't have drips, the building isn't weatherproof. But when you attach them, they can look terrible. They certainly compromise the original intent.'

At Torilla, as at High Cross House and other properties such as Kit Nicholson's 1934 studio for Augustus John at Fordingbridge (now a Grade II house), Winter has gritted his teeth and added fibreglass drips, trying to keep them 'thin and flimsy' to minimise the visual disturbance.

At Torilla the drip is some 50mm below the top of the wall, fixed beneath a precast concrete coping added to the house in the 1950s, which Winter has moved back and made flush with the wall. At Fordingbridge, where it is fixed beneath a deeper, original coping stone, the drip is some 200mm below the top and, as Winter puts it, 'the rectangle can float through'. He wouldn't claim, however, that these solutions are ideal.

Turning to energy efficiency, Winter says:

'Conservation of the environment is as important as conservation of a building. If a historic building is occupied, it ought to be upgraded in energy terms.'

Unlike his experience with the drips, though, he has found that such upgrading need not be damaging aesthetically. At Torilla, the ungalvanized steel windows, rusting badly, were mostly replaced using a slightly heavier section to permit double glazing, while insulation was brought up to par by lining the insides of all the walls and the underside of the roof with 50mm polystyrene.

But, Winter adds: 'You don't find many conservation officers who are interested in energy'; and listed building consent for double-glazed replacement windows is by no means guaranteed, as he discovered when dealing with a property which, architecturally, is certainly inferior to Torilla - Messrs Joseph and Owen Williams' New Farm (1932, Grade II) near Great Easton in Essex. Permission there was refused and, as Winter puts it, 'under present legislation the environment loses'.

In the matter of decoration, Winter has not felt unduly curbed by conservationist demands or the search for 'authenticity', and - keen to counter the myth fostered by black-and-white photographs that early Modernism was a 'white architecture' - has clearly enjoyed his freedom in this respect.

At High Cross House, for instance, having exposed the original blue of the servants' block, he decided it was 'particularly horrid' and chose a 'jollier' substitute. The internal scheme there was almost entirely of Winter and his client's devising: 'Paint only lasts five years, after all.'

Somewhat ironically, the artist owner of Torilla (originally pink outside) wanted to exclude colour, so the concrete is now painted white, and inside all is white, black or grey - but for a green Vitrolite bathroom, restored by finding a Czech equivalent to Pilkington's glamorous coloured glass.

On the other hand, Winter has felt constrained when the question of adding to these early Modern buildings has arisen. 'If someone designed an extension to a Georgian house in a neo-Georgian manner, I would call it cowardice, but if I design a neoTecton extension is it any better?' he asks, but he has nonetheless been cautious.

His additions so far - at Six Pillars, for instance, and Torilla (a stand-alone artist's studio) - are quite deferential. Winter acknowledges that the source for his new gateway at Torilla was Maxwell Fry's for the Sun House in Hampstead, while his garden terraces at Val Harding's Egypt End (1935, unlisted) at Farnham Common were 'a bit cribbed' from Mendelsohn & Chermayeff 's Shrub's Wood at Chalfont St Peter. 'It is unbelievably difficult to be a consistent architect, ' he sighs.

In what they have revealed about construction at a time of changing technology, these dozen properties have given Winter several surprises. One day he was examining a 'Sunspan' house in Long Ditton, Surrey, built from designs by Wells Coates for the 1934 Ideal Home Exhibition. Wanting to inspect its light steel frame he made a hole in the wall and found - only brickwork. 'The builder must have changed the construction to something he was familiar with, but otherwise kept the design intact.'

At Egypt End, Winter had to build a first-floor extension onto the original 100mm concrete walls. 'The only sensible solution was to continue the concrete construction, ' he says, 'but I was amazed at how much work it took to build a small concrete wall. The amount of timber it needed! No wonder in situ concrete soon went out of fashion.'

Winter believes that by about 1938 there was 'a general dissatisfaction with white cubes. They had weathered appallingly and leaked from day one.' By then also an enriched Modernism - more organic and allusive in its forms, materials and motifs - had already been realized by, for instance, Le Corbusier in his Petite Maison de Weekend at La Celle-St-Cloud (1935), and would soon find expression here in Berthold Lubetkin's Highpoint II penthouse (derivative but potent).

Among Winter's current projects are a new extension to Amyas Connell's High & Over at Amersham (1929-31, Grade II*) and a bit-by-bit restoration of George Checkley's Thurso House in Cambridge (1932, Grade II). He clearly still has more to say on early Modern conservation. But it is a subject where, with conferences here and abroad (last year's 'Preserving the Recent Past' conference in Philadelphia, for instance), expertise is growing rapidly. 'One day someone will write the definitive paper on how to treat these houses, and its statements will become mandatory, ' says Winter. 'Then I shall have to find a new area of interest.'

In the meantime, Winter's pragmatic approach, attempting to reconcile his admiration for the architecture and concern for the environment with the comfort of his clients, draws praise. Catherine Croft, vicechair of the Twentieth Century Society, says:

'He has made people realize that these buildings are liveable with. Sometimes the main thing that he has done is help the owners understand exactly what they've got. He's put a lot of time into improving their DIY.'

Catherine Cooke, chair of a recently revitalized Docomomo UK, places Winter's work in its legislative context. 'How pernicious and unintelligent is the listing of second-rate buildings! By all means preserve the great masterpieces - with state aid - but lesser buildings should be much more flexibly reworked, as Winter is trying to do.'

If during this last decade Winter's challenge to conservationist strictures has centred on the 1930s, his criticisms are not confined to a period.What he laments is our institutionalized timidity in handling historic properties. Reviewing Kenneth Powe l l 's Architecture Reborn, with its adventurous examples from abroad, Winter wrote: 'The Picasso Museum in Paris, with its concrete ramps flying through moulded stone openings, would have been impossible here. . . If this book can help to open the minds of our conservationist masters, it will have rendered a great service.' (AJ 26.8.99) Perhaps Winter's own continuing practice and cogent arguments will open those minds too.

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