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'I want to be known as an architect,' says Julian Harrap, 'not typecast as a historic buildings specialist.' A traditionalist in the best sense, who urges anybody dealing with old buildings to 'get to know your materials, how they're made, and how they work', Harrap also works harmoniously with modern architects like Eva Jiricna, Norman Foster and - now a regular collaborator - David Chipperfield. His practice, based in the East End, looks after such famous monuments as the Soane Museum, the Brighton Pavilion and Hawksmoor's St Anne's, Limehouse, and maintains and repairs buildings ranging in date from the Middle Ages to the 1930s.

Julian Harrap trained at the former Regent Street Polytechnic, where he met James Stirling and James Gowan, for whom he subsequently worked. Stints with Eldred Evans and Colin St John Wilson followed before Harrap set up his own office in the early 1970s. 'I wanted to work on good buildings, not necessarily 'old' buildings - that's just the way it worked out.' The 1970s saw an oil crisis, a recession and a new emphasis on conservation, and Harrap was actively involved, for example, with the regeneration of Spitalfields. He remains a fervent conservationist, but finds some of the attitudes which prevail, for instance, in English Heritage circles, disturbing. 'Architecture isn't archaeology,' he argues. 'A building is more than a collection of parts and certainly more than a record of social history. Repairing old buildings requires design skills. Preserving every addition to a building, even ugly and badly built work, is nonsensical - I disagree with rigid spab-type attitudes on that issue. The architect must evaluate the past. This demands a lot more than technical knowledge. On occasions, you need to be bold.' Harrap is critical of the 'don't touch' approach which, he says, is leading to under-repair - as in the case of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire, where the National Trust, he argues, has elevated nostalgia over common sense, storing up problems for the future.

Harrap's feeling for old buildings is closely linked to his feelings about materials and craftsmanship - he is an accomplished woodworker. He stresses the need for regular maintenance and proper repair. He has no objection to reinstating lost work (as he did at the Royal Academy, as part of Foster's Sackler Galleries scheme), where it is properly documented. But he is depressed by the 'abdication of responsibility' in such famous restoration schemes as Uppark and Windsor Castle, where totally destroyed interiors, even the banal St George's Hall, were slavishly replicated and the opportunity to introduce some element of present-day design lost. He welcomed Eva Jiricna's intervention at the Soane - 'furnishing rather than conversion, with the advantage of being portable' - but professes himself 'increasingly bored by the simple contrast of old and new - it's been done too often'.

'David sees me as a sort of policeman,' says Harrap of his collaboration with Chipperfield. 'We debate the case for keeping things and for balancing old and new.' The two architects met when both were part of a team working on the masterplan for King's Cross goods yard, back in the 1980s. 'We talked about architecture and found we had things in common.' One obvious issue on which they doubtless find common cause is their love of fine materials. Harrap advised on Chipperfield's unsuccessful scheme for the new Tate in Bankside power station - bolder in its approach than the winning competition entry by Herzog & de Meuron - and has a similar role at the Neues Museum in Berlin, which is being reconstructed as a complex blend of straight restoration and new design. 'David's concept is very strong. My role is to evaluate and make the case for the historic fabric, to learn from it. Oddly, it's the best-preserved historic museum in Berlin, because so little has been done to it since 1945.' Some additions will be stripped away. There will also be literal reconstruction, where it makes sense - 'it doesn't make practical sense to mix 'soft' historic construction with 'hard' new work, concrete and steel', Harrap insists. At the Soane, he has removed steel reinforcing beams put in under Sir John Summerson's curatorship.

Being involved for over ten years with the Soane has given Harrap the chance to practise the approach he likes best - getting to know a building, researching the archives, and carrying out an evolving, gradual process of repair and reinstatement. 'It's a luxury most architects never enjoy,' he says. 'They have to finish a job and move on to the next one.' Harrap believes that this approach is as applicable to, say, 1960s buildings as those of Georgian date. Techniques of repair are evolving fast - the more quickly the work is done, the less opportunity there is for the fruits of new research to be incorporated. 'The emphasis is on money and management,' says Harrap. 'An organic adaptation scheme is more friendly to buildings and their users than a grand-slam cosmetic operation.'

Harrap is an unusual phenomenon: an architect working extensively on old buildings who is not just a repairer, but cares about design and dares to practise it. The spirit of the age seems to be against him: conservation officers and English Heritage staff who have learned about old buildings from books, rather than direct involvement with them, can dictate an inflexibly archaeological approach in which architectural and aesthetic values count for little. One of Harrap's favourite books is Edwin Gunn's treatise on sound building - Little Things that Matter. Caring about the little things, Harrap believes, does not mean ignoring the wider issues.

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