Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects’ restoration of Strawberry Hill is as affectionate as it is remarkable, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Ben Blossom
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Exactly when I fell out of love with historical architecture, I’m not sure. But I do know why. I had become exasperated by the conservation lobby’s stranglehold on architectural creativity in Britain and I had also grown weary of the idea that you can be a modernist and also be attuned with history, which was starting to sound rather corny and sometimes dishonest.
But last month, as I approached the pinnacles and crenellated parapets of Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, following its extensive restoration by conservation specialist Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects, I was acutely aware that I was about to witness what many would regard as a revelation.
I had read plenty of references to this 18th century mock-gothic castle that held it up as a talisman in the history of the picturesque, the gothic revival, medievalism and even modernism. But, along with the rest of the public, I had never had the opportunity to cross its threshold. In my mind, it had acquired a mythical aura, even though I had never been impressed by photos of the exterior of the house and had come to regard it as an influential monstrosity – it hadn’t even been designed by an architect.
But in the 18th century, long before the profession was formalised and its title protected, anyone could fancy himself as an architect, including the historian, writer and collector Horace Walpole. The son of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, he was, unlike the nineteenth century gothic revival architect Pugin, an enthusiastic but intellectually detached connoisseur, rather than an obsessive campaigner for gothic. Though not blessed with Pugin’s skill as a draughtsman, Walpole was more the experimental artist, working with his ‘Committee on Taste’ as he incrementally extended the 17th century ‘little plaything house’ that he acquired in 1747.
Like Pugin, Walpole was accomplished in the art of publicity, but he was driven by curiosity and the desire to fabricate an ancestral home, rather than a belief in gothic as the one true style and the only possible idiom for Christian architecture. Strawberry Hill is a historical watershed for two reasons. First, because it applied the principles of picturesque landscape composition to architecture, for example in its asymmetry and its accretive massing and second because, in parts, it has a pitch of verisimilitude that cannot be seen in any previous gothic revival building. In this archaeological approach to gothic, it was two generations ahead of its time.
In the two-year restoration project, the key decision was, within reason, to reinstate the house that stood on the site when Walpole died in 1797, stripping away much of the work that was added later. The alternatives would have been to restore Strawberry Hill to its previous condition at an earlier date, which wouldn’t have made sense as the house of 1797 was the culmination of years of work, or to retain some or all of the alterations which were completed after Walpole’s death. In another project, there might have been a convincing argument that, architecturally and historically, it would be a richer place if some or all of these additions were retained. But Strawberry Hill was a special case.
Even if one were to challenge this reverence for Walpole’s intentions, there can be no doubting the practicality and integrity of Inskip and Jenkins’ approach. Project architect Stephen Gee says that, along with the reinstatement of the house, a further objective was to safeguard its fabric by providing fire protection, insulation, underfloor heating and waterproofing. This involved, where possible, reinstating the original detailed construction, including parts of the building that are concealed, as a historical record. Where feasible, and where this does not conflict with the careful conservation strategy, specification has been guided by green principles, for example by using sheep’s-wool insulation.
The professionalism and integrity of the project team is remarkable, with forensic investigative work, fabric analysis, scalpel work and examination of the extensive range of pigments under the microscope by paint analysis. This helped the project team to compile a detailed inventory, piecing together the historic layers of the house in order to decide what to retain.This work was guided by an understanding of Walpole’s aims, for example what Gee calls his ‘choreography of daylight’ and offsetting rooms with subdued decoration against those with more vivid palettes, such as the gallery. Much of this work, such as the reinstatement of the trompe l’œil decoration of the main staircase, which was inspired by a medieval hall, involves intensive research and will only be completed when Strawberry Hill closes again in December for phase two of the restoration works.
My most vivid memory of Strawberry Hill, as specialists hurried to finish the project before the house opened, was the range of smells, which emphasised the richness and the elaborate nature of the craftsmanship. With every step, there was a new experience. I could only guess at some of the smells: resin, distemper, limewash, papier-mâché, oiled damask, and possibly linseed oil.
Some Victorian work has been kept, and there have been some modern additions. The great cloister, originally open to the garden, now has frameless glazing in its arches and will be used as a tea room; it tries too hard to say, ‘the new and the old, cheek by jowl’. Perhaps Inkip and Jenkins should have set out to document a process rather than a moment in time. But then, it’s all history to me anyway.
Start on site: January 2009
Contract duration: 22 months
Net floor area: 1,300m2
Form of contract: JCT standard building contract with quantities 2005
Cost per m2: £4,500/m2
Total cost: £9 million
Client: The Strawberry Hill Trust
Conservation architects: Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects
Structural engineer: Mann Williams
M&E consultant: Martin Thomas Associates
Garden historian: Mark Laird
CDM co-ordinator: PFB
Building inspector: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames