Modern architecture is too often considered a clean-slate affair, razing entire sites to start afresh with buildings shorn of any link to the past.
This assumption is challenged in a new study by Geraint Franklin, Howell Killick Partridge & Amis, which shows how this post-war practice used cues from the historic places they loved to make a more responsive and contextual architecture.
As students in the 1940s, Bill Howell, John Killick, John Partridge and Stan Amis were taught by the architectural historian John Summerson, who opened their eyes to Renaissance, Baroque and Georgian architecture. But they liked full-blooded high Victorian buildings the most, their drama and feeling for materials chiming with their own Brutalist aesthetic. The partners took delight in architectural mavericks such as Sir John Soane, William Butterfield, C.R. Mackintosh and Antoni Gaudí.
Architectural history appears in different guises in HKPA’s work. Occasionally symbolic references evoke specific cultural connections: with Elizabethan playhouses (Christ’s Hospital Theatre, Horsham), gatehouses (Founders’ Building, St Anne’s College, Oxford) or traditional Japanese architecture (Chaucer College, Canterbury). More commonly, the underlying principles and properties of particular buildings and spaces—the way daylight filters through a building, the use of lead or mirrors, for example—were translated into an architectural language of their own.
Here we profile five HKPA projects which respond to the historic environment in very different ways.
Gothick Gazebo (1961-2)
HKPA kept quiet about this tiny gazebo at Marston Hall in Lincolnshire, a far cry from the big concrete structures for which they are known. John Partridge took a mischievous pleasure in its design: he confessed to his client, the Reverend Henry Thorold, that the commission represented ‘a very exciting trespass into the late eighteenth century’.
Constructed of painted wood, stone and plaster by Italian craftsmen, its interior was decorated with murals on an ornithological theme by the artist Barbara Jones. They include an English country garden, a South Sea Island scene and Edward Lear’s Owl and the Pussy Cat. That the collaboration was a happy one is suggested by the birds flanking the fireplace: an ostrich with Partridge’s initials and three penguins bearing the initials of Thorold, Jones and her assistant.
St Paul’s Choir School (1962)
HKPA’s competition entry for St Paul’s Choir School, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, features a dramatic exterior in shaped, storey-height panels of pre-cast concrete. The school is wrapped around three sides of an open courtyard, with views towards Wren’s Cathedral. The influence of Le Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette is apparent in the freestanding pavilions which dominate the court, a pyramidal hall and a chapel on stilts with an upswept roof.
The tower of the Blitzed St Augustine’s Church is treated as a free-standing object, at an angle to the HKPA building. It is a very different concept to the winning competition entry by Architects’ Co-Partnership, built in 1965-7 and today listed at Grade II*.
Senior Combination Room at Downing College, Cambridge (1967-9)
A commission to add to Downing’s neo-classical campus, laid out to an 1806 design by William Wilkins, presented a unique challenge for HKPA. Bill Howell designed a new combination room as ‘a modern version of the temple theme’ on the edge of the Fellows’ Garden. The split pediments of its lead and oak roof echo the portico of Wilkins’ Dining Hall while its Ketton stone walls blend with the existing College buildings.
A stone screen wall cleverly links the Combination Room to the Hall while masking kitchens and offices behind. Inside the combination room, chunky concrete columns and a monolithic roof light are juxtaposed with the fellows’ antique furniture and portraiture. At Downing HKPA responded to a sensitive setting with confidence and verve: there is no hint of compromise or ‘keeping in keeping’.
Great Bedwyn Chapel, Wiltshire (1972-4)
When Bill and Jill Howell’s children started at Marlborough School, they bought this redundant Methodist chapel as a weekend retreat for the family. This is no ordinary conversion job but an imaginative and irreverent take on the past: the sofa incorporates the communion rail and the pulpit is hiked up on salvaged cast iron columns to create a mezzanine guest bedroom with a tiny kitchen tucked underneath.
A fireplace in the style of Victorian architect William Burges and William Morris wallpaper complete an enjoyably eccentric interior. A later schoolhouse at the rear made a series of bedrooms, with Bill’s collection of First World memorabilia installed upstairs.
Jubilee Hill, Hyde Park (1976)
To mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Royal Institute of British Architects and Building Design magazine held a competition for the design of a new monument for Hyde Park. While most of the entries were for monumental towers or sculptural features, HKPA won the competition by proposing not a building but a hill for Hyde Park.
John Partridge envisaged a 100 feet (30 metre) mound rising from the green sward of the Park to break the tree canopy. Its twin peaks were to be planted with trees and provided with seating for all to enjoy: as Partridge put it ‘nobody would suggest that there should be an entrance fee to climb a hill’. The scheme, which was never realised, brings to the fore HKPA’s sensitivity to historic landscapes, seen early on in their remodelling of the mature landscape at the Alton West estate.
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