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C20 Society seeks to halt Walters & Cohen's Canterbury plans

Mitchinsons house canterbury crop
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The Twentieth Century Society has launched a bid to list a demolition-threatened 1982 building by Maguire and Murray at the King’s School next to Canterbury Cathedral

Under the yet-to-be determined plans by Walters & Cohen, the ‘accomplished’ and ‘well-executed’ two-storey Mitchinson’s Day House next to Mint Yard would be flattened to make way for a three-storey science building.

The proposed flint-clad block is part of the wider Precincts projects, being overseen by Walters & Cohen, to enhance and rationalise teaching spaces across the historic campus.

But the Twentieth Century Society is now seeking a Grade II listing for the block by Maguire and Murray, a practice better known for its post-war church work.

According to the society, the Mitchinson’s Day School building with its ‘smooth render and steep red tiled roof’ is a ’fine example of the [firm’s] educational output’ and a highly ‘contextual addition to the King’s School’.

In its listing submission to Historic England (see below), the society said: ‘Mitchinson’s is deferential to its context, and that is absolutely fundamental to its interest – but it creates a sense of the traditional without pastiche; a rare and interesting quality, which was to become increasingly ubiquitous in buildings of this period that made overt historic reference.

‘Overall, [we] consider that this is an accomplished building by a practice who looked both forward and backward simultaneously; an underlying preoccupation which guided both their ecclesiastical reordering work and their new designs.’

A spokesperson for the society added: ’We recognise the difficulty of developing such a historic site, but our listing application seeks to ensure that the quality of the building is recognised in the formulation of proposals.’

Historic England is believed to be urgently considering the application. But the society likely to face an uphill battle convincing the heritage watchdog, which has already supported Walters & Cohen’s plans.  

In its response to the application the body said: ‘We acknowledge that the loss of Mitchinson’s Day House and its replacement with a new building would cause some low to moderate harm to the significance the site derives from the illustrative and historical values of surviving archaeological deposits and the values of the current building on the site.

‘Nevertheless, we are persuaded that the harm has been minimised through a sensitive design process and we are now content the remaining harm is clearly and convincingly justified in line with national planning policies.’

It added: ‘While not without architectural merit, Mitchinson’s Day House is in many ways unremarkable, its design notably deferential to its exceptional surroundings.’

Walters & Cohen declined to comment at this stage.

Walters and cohen canterbury mitchinson house image by archetype studio

Walters and cohen canterbury mitchinson house image by archetype studio

Twentieth Century Society’s listing application letter in full

We regard the Mitchinson’s Day School building to be a well-executed and contextual addition to the King’s School in Canterbury, a fine example of the educational output of the small but renowned firm Maguire and Murray. The firm has been monographed by the society in a recent publication published in partnership with Historic England and the RIBA, and its work is coming into increasing prominence.

Maguire and Murray was an unusual practice, formed by an architect and a silversmith, both from deeply religious backgrounds, who contributed to a small but extremely significant strand of post-war architecture that sought to produce contextual buildings that folded history back into modern architectural design. They sought to reintroduce a robust and creative formal rigour and to refocus design on the human condition and the end-users of buildings.

It is one of three buildings designed by Maguire and Murray for the school. Mitchinson’s Day House was designed as a facility for day boarders. It is a two-storey building with an attic gallery for a games room and a basement level. It encloses and variegates the Mint Yard complex with its smooth render and steep red tiled roof punctured by triangular roof lights to the courtyard elevation. This courtyard elevation is particularly accomplished, with an additional gable terminating a run of windows under the eaves, designed later in the scheme in order to bear a large clock face. Gillian Darley, writing in the Architectural Review in 1983 describes the clock so: ‘with this, the building has a rather touching, elementary look – resembling those German wooden models of houses, barns and town halls and village schools that have turned up, little altered, decade upon decade as favourite children’s toys.’

In terms of material, the architects decided to forgo the prevailing palette of the immediate surroundings and instead chose a sand-coloured render to make a warm and quiet contrast to the flinty, Gothic grain of the surrounding Victorian buildings. An arched brick undercroft adds a different geometry to the modest and vertical emphasis of the rest of the façade. Much of the southern elevation is cloaked by a deep catslide pulled over the entrance and exterior passage into the building. A flint garden wall conceals the house-masters cottage which is located in the western part of the building. This dual aspect façade is a response not only the two different functions it expresses, but is also to provide a contrast through the low roof to ‘correct the scale of the Romanesque archway next door, which for too long had been dwarfed by the Victorian buildings next to it.’ 

Mitchinsons house canterbury by maguire and murray from aj

Mitchinsons house canterbury by maguire and murray from aj

Maguire and Murray is best known for its ecclesiastical architecture but its output was in fact varied, though with a particular expertise in educational buildings and housing. A public ethos permeates all its work, as do the values of the Arts and Crafts movement – no doubt emerging in part from their despair in the modern movement’s demise into what they considered to be an empty, stylistic gesture. Darley notes that the building consciously alludes to ‘quite a precise genre of British building – in particular the founding fathers of Arts and Crafts architecture, Philip Webb and Norman Shaw. But the parallels are more to do with a common starting point that with a common finishing post. More than a century later, Maguire and Murray shares with them the admiration for traditional building skills, handling of materials and mass, that guided earlier generations … the end result is fresh.’

The relationship of the building to its context is central to the buildings particular interest and quality. This characteristic is well described in an article published in Bauminster, where the creative and sensitive way the building responds to the surroundings are singled out as being central to its success:

‘The student dorms utilise traditional architectural elements in a contemporary form: classic materials and details are newly interpreted, without loss of reverence for the old. The design embraces and continues traditional forms without seeming blatantly traditionalistic. The building’s interiors are simple, sparing but sympathetically robust: they convey a sense of comfort and security.’

Mitchinson’s is deferential to its context, and that is absolutely fundamental to its interest – but it creates a sense of the traditional without pastiche; a rare and interesting quality, which was to become increasingly ubiquitous in buildings of this period that made overt historic reference.

Overall, the society considers that this is an accomplished building by a practice who looked both forward and backward simultaneously; an underlying preoccupation which guided both its ecclesiastical reordering work and its new designs.

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