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looking after the past

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Mike Brooke and David Millar's BMP has carved out a niche in conservation with many grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here the pair tell the AJ how their small practice 'packs a punch well above its weight' by julian holder. photograph by charles glo

The Brooke Millar Partnership is one of Scotland's rising stars. Architect for the recent restoration of Gillespie Kidd & Coia's St Patrick's Church, Kilsyth (see pages 2835), BMP can point to an impressive list of 12 major schemes backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund - among them, £4.93 million for the Welsh National Mining Museum and £3.30 million for the Anderton boat lift in Cheshire.

With this record, co-director David Millar must be justified in saying: 'As a small, traditional practice we punch well above our weight in terms of successful projects.' BMP was founded back in 1989. 'I didn't want to manage the enforced contraction, even shut-down, of architectural services, ' says Mike Brooke of his decision to leave local authority practice and set up on his own. He and Millar had met earlier in the 1980s when they were both working in Kilmarnock.

From its beginning, BMP has dealt especially with museums, listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments. It all started with work for the Big Pit Mining Museum Trust in Blaenafon, Wales, in 1989, when the so-called heritage industry was still young. 'It was always an area of activity which interested us, ' says Brooke.

At Blaenafon, a lot of above-ground stabilisation was involved, with some 10 buildings needing refurbishment, but the challenge was maintaining the authenticity of the overall site.

In some instances, BMP opted for a complete rebuild on the basis of a full photogrammetric survey. While you can distinguish new from old, 'we would do it very differently today', says Millar.

In a busy practice the opportunity to look back on projects comes rarely: 'We don't have a worked-out philosophy as such, ' he adds. 'That's too grand a prospect for us.' But while BMP now has a proven track-record in the conservation and recycling of buildings, for both architects conservation is bound up with wider issues of sustainability. 'We feel our time has come.'

'Our success, 'Millar argues, 'is a result of having gone through that long gestation period that you need, not just to establish yourself commercially but also to find your true strengths. If that includes having to be honest with clients hoping for Lottery success when their scheme doesn't merit it, then that's what we have to do.' Clearly, Brooke and Millar also know how to talk to museum curators. 'They are something of an abused profession, ' says Brooke, 'and we can help as we speak the same language onsite and understand their problems.'

Much of BMP's work - projects such as the Royal Signals Museum, Dorset, the Low Parks Museum, Hamilton, and the new museum at Chatelherault, Scotland - has been done in association with Leicesterbased interpretative designer Haley Sharpe;

while the practice's recent Rhondda Heritage Park in Wales was with The Visual Connection in London. The brief there was to make a convincing visitor attraction: an underground mining experience in the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery near Pontypridd. Other current work includes conservation and adaptation of the Robert Adam-designed Trades Hall of Glasgow, for which BMP, which is acting as project manager and Lottery advisor to the client, has already secured £632,000 With its national client base, BMP is able to detect the subtle differences of approach between bodies such as CADW, Historic Scotland and English Heritage. This comes in handy as it works up proposals for the restoration of the north wing of Linlithgow Palace in Scotland, destroyed by fire in 1746, where one possibility is for a Spanish parador-like hotel.

More than a decade after it was first involved at Blaenafon, BMP has been invited back - this time to carry out repairs and conservation on the original pithead structures and the important 1930s pithead baths (which BMP fought hard to retain in 1989). The whole complex is to become the Welsh National Mining Museum, and the £4.93 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund was partly thanks to BMP's plan.

Such plans are clearly at the heart of BMP's approach to working on buildings - listed or otherwise - and the directors now advise the Heritage Lottery Fund, monitoring and assessing applications. It is a recognition of the increasingly competitive and specialist nature of conservation work that architects have to understand the cultural significance of a building before any proposals are made.

'Sometimes our plans reveal a building to be of greater cultural significance than was first appreciated by the client, ' says Millar.

'That can only be a good thing. So many architects are unsure about this business of cultural significance. To us it is a straightforward process.'

Going back to Big Pit, and thinking about the consolidation work they undertook there, made the partners realize how far their approach had changed in the intervening years. The writings of the influential Australian conservationist James Semple Kerr have also increased their appreciation of the irreversibility of some earlier work.

Referring to the flimsy corrugated iron structures at Blaenafon, Millar says: 'Our attitude now is we just do not replace a panel unless it is actually going to fall on somebody's head. So it is no longer the feel of authenticity that matters - though that can be created if necessary for a visitor centre like Rhondda - it is the authenticity of the original fabric that counts.'

As for St Patrick's Church, Kilsyth, he says: 'That was a real challenge. The client was worried about the leaking roof and maintenance costs. Demolition was a possibility.

'Over time, however, we convinced them that the church was just too valuable not to conserve. The problem we then overcame was to incorporate all the technological innovations and design improvements in such a way that the building looks and reads as it did originally.

'To me, that is good conservation: a building makeover that you don't know has happened - significance still intact.'

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