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Contemporary Design in Historic Districts-A UK Perspective 

12-09-2015 17:35

In the Summer 2007 issue of this journal, de Teel Patterson Tiller struck a familiar chord when he introduced “Obey the Imperatives of Our Own Moment: A Call for Quality Contemporary Design in Historic Districts.” Tiller opened by stating: “It is axiomatic that the heritage preservation business preserves the best of the past for the benefit of future generations.” As a supplement to this thread, and as provided for in Criterion C of the National Register Criteria for Evaluation, we might note that the business of preservation extends beyond the “best” of the past to include those resources that may not be the best but represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction. Historic districts and conservation areas are, therefore, key examples where we experience a distinct contribution of the “collective” to the visual setting or character of an area of special interest.

Also relevant is an acknowledgement that the planning controls applied to individually listed/designated buildings are different from those that are generally applied to conservation areas/historic districts. In the latter case, the notion of the “best” of the past may be much more modest, reflecting a growing interest internationally in the concept of conserving “a sense of place.” In the UK, for example, Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the Historic Environment (PPG 15) provides a full statement of government policies in relation to the historic environment, and captures this theme this way:

It is the quality and interest of areas, rather than that of individual buildings, which should be the prime consideration in identifying conservation areas. There has been increasing recognition in recent years that our experience of a historic area depends on much more than the quality of individual buildings—[it also depends] on the historic layout of property boundaries and thoroughfares; on a particular ‘mix’ of uses; on characteristic materials; on appropriate scaling and detailing of contemporary buildings.

If we explore the matter of contemporary buildings in these areas of special interest, we might recall in Tiller’s article where he postulated that “The common understanding throughout these mid-20th-century, elite deliberations was that historicized additions were not only undesirable but that new architecture within a historic context ‘should obey the imperatives of its own historical moment,’ as the 1977 [National] Trust report stated.” This is promulgated in numerous internationally recognized conservation charters, standards, and guidelines. One might acknowledge that the first such record of that conservation philosophy was expressed by William Morris in the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Manifesto of 1877, which read in part:

In early times this kind of forgery was impossible, because knowledge failed the builders, or perhaps because instinct held them back.If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their very contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no [means] possibility mislead.

It may be worth noting that the UK’s British Standard 7913 (BS 7913) Guide to the Principles of the Conservation of Historic Buildings 1998), the New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value (1993), and Australia’s Burra Charter (1999) do not make explicit reference to “contemporary” design. Conversely, the near wholesale adoption of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (1995) (the “Standards”) in 2002 by the pan-Canadian working group, which were included as part of the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, made an amendment to Standard 9 of the Standards by offering the option of either “contemporary” design or one that made references to historic motifs, provided that in whichever case, the new should be distinguishable from the old. Tiller acknowledged that “Contemporary design will not always be the best or the most appropriate design choice in a historic setting. But it should have the first right of refusal and be the first option explored—not the last.”

This leads me to reflect less on the particular style that one might elect to design within, and perhaps more on the simple prescription for good architecture that draws strength from the Vitruvian precepts of “commodity, firmness and delight.” Consistency and continuity can, on the other hand, be as important within a group of buildings as within a single building and, as with alterations, it is considered that new buildings should not draw attention to themselves disproportionately.

This is perhaps where the challenge of designing in the historic context is most acute and can often give rise to interesting decisions on planning applications involving contemporary design in historic districts. More particularly, some of the threads exposed by Tiller may draw synergy from the particular UK perspective that is the focus of this article.

The UK Statue: Challenges in Interpretation

The Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act of 1990 (the “Act”) is the principal legislation in the UK planning system affecting the historic environment. Section 72 of the Act, which establishes the general duty of planning authorities in relation to conservation areas, requires that “special attention shall be paid to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of [conservation areas].”

Challenging issues can arise from the interpretation of the Act and National Policy Guidance in relation to conservation areas, and these are partly reflected in an increase in the number of planning appeals. It is acknowledged that there are often differences in the interpretation of government policy between local authorities which can affect outcomes; however, this type of occurrence is not limited to the UK. Perhaps the most notable challenge in this regard is related to the implementation of the statutory duty having to do with the “desirability of preserving or enhancing” the character or appearance of conservation areas. New development in conservation areas has been a particular area of discussion, in which the courts have held particular views as to what the Act intended by the duty “of preserving.”

As to the precise interpretation of “preserving or enhancing,” the Courts have held (South Lakeland DC v. Secretary of State for the Environment, [1992] 2 WLR 204) that there is no requirement in the legislation that conservation areas should be protected from all development that does not enhance or positively preserve. While the character and appearance of conservation areas should always be given full weight in planning decisions, the objective of preservation can be achieved either by development that makes a positive contribution to an area’s character or appearance, or by development that leaves character and appearance unharmed.

If we pursue the matter of “unharmed” further, we might reflect on planning appeal decisions. For example, a recent planning appeal involved consideration as to whether a contemporary design of compatible scale, location, and materials would satisfy the desire to preserve or enhance the character or appearance of the Bowden Conservation Area, near Manchester, UK. The local authority refused the application (partially depicted on pages 29, 31 and 33), citing that “by reason of its location, scale, design and massing [it] would fail to preserve or enhance the character of the Bowdon Conservation Area [and that it would] detract from the appearance of the street scene and the spacious well-landscaped character of the Conservation Area.”

The appellant’s team contended that the reasons for refusal appeared to be based on the assumption that a contemporary idiom was somehow not compatible with conservation area character. Evidence provided at the appeal demonstrated that the proposal was in accordance with the area’s character and that it was compatible in the elements of scale, height, massing, form, and materials. It was acknowledged that the proposed design differed in respect to the building’s articulation and detailing, however these were not considered negative or detrimental elements, rather, they were merely an expression of contemporary architectural design.

The Inspector (appointed by The Planning Inspectorate, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to hear the case) held that “the appeal proposal [was] unashamedly modern in overall form and detailed design, particularly in terms of its flat roofs, the massing of its rectilinear elements and the relationship between windows and walls.” However, [he did] not share the Council’s view that it replicate[d] the international style of the first half of the 20th century. He went on further to observe the following: “Overall, the proposal would be recognizably of its own time and a worthy partner for the surrounding Victorian buildings and as such it would add interest to both East Downs Road and to the wider Conservation Area.”

The Inspector thereby concluded that the proposal would preserve and enhance the character and appearance of the Bowdon Conservation Area. The Inspector was correct in his recognition that the proposed design would be “of its own time” and he was entitled to reach that observation on the strength of the information put before him. In another case, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council v. A & B Construction, the central subject of appeal focused upon whether a replacement cottage built on the site of a former Grade II listed cottage (destroyed by fire) would preserve or enhance the character or appearance of the conservation area. The replacement cottage was built following the granting of planning permission, though not in accordance with the approved plans. A subsequent application for planning permission that reflected the changes was refused by the Council.

The appellants argued that “the design of the new cottage was negotiated to reflect the detail and appearance of the lost building; that of a modest, thatched and tiled building in the Picturesque style incorporating Gothick detailing.”

The Inspector considering the appeal agreed with the appellants “that in certain respects the appeal building, in terms of its design, materials and employment of local thatching techniques, endeavours to present a building that reinforces local distinctiveness. The use of thatch and brick certainly reflect the vernacular building materials drawn to my attention during the visit. Additionally, elements of the form of the building, such as the irregularity of plan expressed on the west elevation and the half hipped modelling of parts of the roof are convincing attributes.”

This might suggest that the threshold represented by the “desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance” of conservation areas would therefore have been satisfied by the Inspector’s conclusions.

However, in this particular instance, the Inspector held firmly that “the primary issues [were] the proportion[s] of the principal east elevation; [that] the house lack[ed]conviction as a building seeking successful visual integration with its context; [that] brick was employed with little variety of colour, and [was] laid in a stretcher bond,betraying the modernity of its construction. Furthermore, the window heads [were] set in a flat soldier-course, and [were] not gauged or set at a shallow camber as one would anticipate in such a structure.”

The Inspector further considered that “the appeal building would fail to preserve the character and appearance of the conservation area, insofar as the proposal would not contribute to the area by either preserving or enhancing its character.” He went on to state that “the appeal building fails as architecture because its detailing is not absolutely correct; the result is more an approximation than a convincing portrayal of the neovernacular style.”

In this case it would appear as though considerable weight had been given to the detailing and quality of the as-built structure. It would therefore appear as though the Inspector was not under any statutory obligation to apply the full force of s72 of the Act to what seems to have been a negotiated agreement between the local authority and the applicant. That agreement had been to reinstate the “character” of the fire-ravaged cottage with an absolutely correct “reconstruction.”

In this appeal case, one might have expected that the terms “absolutely correct” would imply “reconstruction,” which would of course “preserve” the character and appearance of the conservation area. It would appear, however, that the widely recognized meaning of the words “to preserve” (to keep something in its existing state) may have been applied to the conservation area in the same manner as is frequently applied to individual buildings, structures, or parts thereof, whereas to preserve the character of the conservation area more often than not simply means that it shall be left in no worse a condition than before, or at the very least, left unharmed.

He might therefore have held a similar position to that arising from the South Lakeland decision that while the as-built cottage may not have been absolutely in accordance with the approved plans, it may have left the integrity, and thus the character and appearance of the conservation area unharmed.

New Construction as "Preservation"

If we now re-visit the term “to preserve,” we might note that the government acknowledges in PPG 15 that “The historic environment in England is all pervasive, and cannot in practice be preserved unchanged.” This may appear to some as being an inherent dichotomy. It is also acknowledged that “preserving” may be interpreted, in the conservation context as applied to individual buildings and structures, to mean the action or process of protecting, maintaining, and/or stabilizing their existing materials, form, and integrity. Applied to conservation areas, new work, regardless of its style, that maintains the scale, height, location, and materiality of the area, is said to “protect” its integrity and thus “preserves” its character and appearance.

In order to preserve or enhance the character or appearance of conservation areas, Conservation Area Appraisals ought to be undertaken to identify the areas’ “special interest,” define their capacity for change, and assess any new development in terms of its potential impact on the “special interest.” An element of that new development may very well be “contemporary” in design.

It is further acknowledged that contemporary design in historic contexts derives considerable support from many internationally recognized conservation charters, which may be considered to be on par with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. While there is virtually no mention of “contemporary” design per se in most conservation charters, standards, or guidelines, the use of the term “new work” is omnipresent, and there is certain unanimity in the underlying philosophy that new work, in addition to expressing “commodity, firmness and delight,” should also exemplify compatibility, distinguishability, and excellence. 

Publication Date: Fall 2008


Author(s):Murray G. Miller

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