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Price: 'Planners must not ignore the setting of historic buildings'

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Clare Price of The Twentieth Century Society on why there is more to protecting Arne Jacobsen’s listed St Catherine’s College building than just preserving its structure  

Setting issues have been high on the agenda since The Barnwell Judgement of 2014 when, in a headline-grabbing ruling, the Court of Appeal quashed the planning inspector’s decision allowing four wind turbines to be built near the 17th century Barnwell Manor in Northamptonshire, a National Trust property.

The case underlined the need for planning authorities to give ‘considerable importance and weight’ to the harm caused by setting issues, and placed the onus on the developer to justify any harm caused by a new development.

Despite this, settings are still poorly understood and are often given insufficient consideration in planning decisions.

It is clear that the setting of Arne Jacobsen’s St Catherine’s College in Oxford would be harmed by TP Bennett’s recently resubmitted Manor Place development on the neighbouring site. The landscaping at St Catherine’s, which extends right up to the site boundaries, forms part of the original design of the college.

It is one of a very few 20th century buildings which is Grade I-listed – and only a tiny number of those belong to the period since the Second World War.

Designed and constructed from 1961 to 1966 by the important Danish architect, it is a complete design piece: everything was carefully designed to fit into the context by Jacobsen himself – even the door handles, furniture and cutlery (still in use by the college). Pevsner, in his Buildings of England, Oxfordshire, calls it ‘a perfect piece of architecture’. The complex is celebrated internationally as a uniquely complete work of art.

Any new building affecting this special ensemble calls for particular scrutiny

Jacobsen’s design for St Catherine’s responds very particularly to its context, especially in the original formal approach to the college, where the view of the main college buildings is concealed until visitors have passed the wall of the Master’s Garden and the water garden and entrance are then revealed. Any new building which affects the setting of such a unique and special ensemble calls for particular scrutiny in terms of its bulk, massing and impact on sightlines.

The existing buildings in Manor Place are shielded from view by walls and beech hedges. It is this approach that will be the most adversely affected by the proposed development. The eye will be drawn over the trees in summer and through them in winter, detracting from the impact of the choreographed reveal.

The question of whether good design goes some way to mitigating the proximity of a new development to a listed building presents a difficult judgement call.

The new towers now rising by the Grade II*-listed Commonwealth Institute in Kensington – admittedly given consent long before the Barnwell case – obviously represent an intrusion on the setting of the listed building and its designed landscape, however exceptional their design quality. The proposals for the Manor Place development are not of a similar design quality. The recent revisions to the application do not address the issue of visual impact on St Catherine’s in any meaningful way, and presenting them over the holiday period must not result in reduced scrutiny.

This is an important application, the outcome of which will have implications far outside Oxford, particularly as development pressure threatens an increasing number of listed buildings.

Recent tweaks to the listing process are also exacerbating the situation. Once elements of designed landscapes could be treated as curtilage structures, and thus essential as part of a listed building. Now boundaries are much more tightly delineated. Thus the recent upgrading of Balfron Tower to Grade II* has resulted in an inadvertent reduction of protection for the ancillary landscaping and playground around its base. This is now newly excluded from the listing, and protected only by setting considerations.

Fortunately this is not an issue at St Catherine’s, where all the ancillary buildings and garden structures are explicitly listed. But there are bound to be more cases where similar issues arise.

Clare Price is a conservation adviser at The Twentieth Century Society

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