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New Dartington Hall director names architects selected to ‘bring estate back to life’

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Martyn Evans has revealed some of the architects he will be working with in his new role as the development director at the Dartington Hall Estate in Devon

The former Cathedral and U+I director, who officially takes up his job at Dartington this week, has enlisted Mae Architects, AOC, Henley Halebrown, We Like Today, Invisible Studio and Ash Sakula on a range of schemes.

The practices have been asked to produce feasibility studies for sites across the 1,200-acre estate, which houses more than 140 small businesses and boasts 42 listed buildings, including the much-admired Modernist High Cross House, by William Lescaze (1932). The house, which was run by the National Trust until 2014, was recently put on the C20 Society’s Top 10 buildings at risk list.

Ash Sakula is currently drawing up plans for a residential scheme at the estate.

Evans told the AJ: ‘Dartington is owned by a charitable trust and so, while the development work we’ll do to bring the estate back to life has to be financially sustainable, it is also, at its heart, values-driven.

‘We’re going to build homes – the most sustainable, community-focused possible, create businesses, drive a new cultural agenda, build a new world-class education programme, support the 140 businesses currently located on the estate and develop its agroforestry and farming business, all with a social justice agenda that sits right at the heart of everything we do.’

Evans began working at Dartington Hall in January two days a week, helping the team with a development strategy. He begins his full-time role today (8 May).

Dartington Hall Estate

This place has an extraordinary history, writes Martyn Evans. In 1925 Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst came to Devon to find a place to start an experiment in rural community-building. He was the son of a Yorkshire vicar and she was one of the richest women in America, a Whitney heiress from New York.

They met through Cornell University, where Leonard was studying agriculture and where he met the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet/artist/philosopher/agricultural reformer Rabindranath Tagore, who invited him to lead a series of progressive projects in West Bengal. Dorothy was an amazing woman – a social progressive, philanthropist, supporter of women’s suffrage, co-founder of The New Republic magazine and funder of The New School for Social Research in New York (both of which still thrive). She and Leonard came to Dartington to create an experiment in rural living and learning around a beautiful medieval hall, which they restored from a ruin to be their home and which is still at the heart of the estate. Dorothy later described their mission to create a place that encouraged the expression of a ‘many-sided life’ – a life that included access to beauty and nature, a good home with security of tenure, good education, the right to meaningful, properly-paid employment and a full and vibrant cultural life.

They built a progressive school and later an art college, started businesses (a cider press, a furniture company, a building company, a sawmill, farms, a textile mill and a glass-making company), built a sophisticated arts centre and used it to bring world-class artists to South Devon. The estate is a study in architecture from the Medieval hall to High Cross House, a masterpiece in Modernism by the American architect William Lescaze. There are 42 listed buildings on the 1,200-acre estate. When Walter Gropius left Germany in 1934, he came here and drew plans to convert a medieval barn into a theatre. It’s now a working cinema.

When the Elmhirsts died (she in 1968, he in 1974), they left the estate to The Dartington Hall Trust, which has had its ups and downs over the years.

Eighteen months ago a new management and trustee team was installed to develop a strategy to revive it. I visited last November at the invitation of the new chief exectuive officer, Rhodri Samuel, to join a property workshop on how development of the estate’s property could contribute to its sustainable financial future. I was bewitched. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • In my Totnes schooldays of the 1950s and 60s both the town and Dartington seemed to be doing really well - but the subsequent challenges to the future of Dartington were paralleled by drastic change in the economy of Totnes.
    Long gone are the largest employers - the sawmills down by the river at the Baltic Wharf (now housing, where ships unloaded timber from Archangel); the Harris bacon factory down near the Plains (now the site of a supermarket); the wharf side warehouses (converted to housing, including the cider barrel store that started life as a Wesleyan chapel); the classic boat builder on the Bridgetown side of the river, beyond the Steamer Quay (for many years abandoned by the Dartmouth paddle steamers, but the last one has now returned); the creamery out by the railway station (mostly rezoned for housing) and the Dartington enterprise of Staverton Builders at Staverton (they constructed many of the modernist buildings at Dartington, and more recently specialised in office furniture and fitouts before being taken over and departing Devon). Likewise, the the Arts College established at Dartington departed, and although Totnes seems to be inhabited by just as wide a variety of people as ever, the character of the place has been 'sanitised' - by a combination of industrial consolidation and the all-powerful market forces generated by the way in which the national demand for housing is handled, or rather mishandled.
    Go out of Totnes in various directions and you'll find young people living on the verges of the wider 'green' lanes - and not just a few people - Steinbeck would recognise the scene.

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