In the sensitive re-use and adaptation of buildings occasionally an opportunity arises to re-work the creation of a historically famous architect. Ultimately if an architect is recognised sufficiently to have made it into the architectural history books their reputation is not in dispute, and in terms of pre-1919 buildings, the redevelopment of their buildings is up for interpretation without fear of personal offence.
When the architect in question is the prolific Sir Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) there is a wealth of information available on his work: from the Natural History Museum, in South Kensington, to Manchester Town Hall, and a plethora of substantial buildings in between, his legacy one in the ‘National Treasure’ league. S.M. Gold describes Waterhouse as, ’One of the most important Victorian architects in England’ (1999, p197).
Having led a design team to redevelop part of the iconic ‘Prudential Buildings’ on High Holborn by Waterhouse in 2010 I have a particular interest in his other (many) buildings that may be due a re-work to keep them alive and well.(Click here for information on the project).
Waterhouse lived in Reading, Berkshire, for over 35 years of his life, following his father who moved there once Alfred had flown the nest. It is by wonderful coincidence, therefore, that from the top floor of our house I can peep over the University of Reading’s lake and spy his self-build home, Foxhill (1868) (Grade II* listed), nestled in the trees. Furthermore when I discovered the architect who had led the redevelopment of Reading Town Hall – part of which Waterhouse designed – lived but a few streets away I jumped at the chance to meet!
Michael Thomas, Partner of Architects Design Partnership before retiring, invited me to spend a wonderful Sunday morning chatting over the redevelopment scheme of the Town Hall, won via competition in 1981.
The Waterhouse-designed part of the building of 1875 is Grade II* listed and consists of the clock tower, Council Chamber and offices in soft French Gothic style set the form of the whole complex partly because of its prominent position. This extended in front of the Small Town Hall of 1785 by Charles Poulton (Grade II listed). A subsequent expansion of the Town Hall by Thomas Lainson by 1882 took clear inspiration from Waterhouse’s iconic design but lacking his subtlety and sureness of touch to create the Municipal Buildings comprising the Concert Hall, Public Library, Museum and Science Schools. The Art Gallery and a small extension to the Museum were added in 1894 by W.R. Howell – also Grade II listed. As a complex of five buildings, however, they were indeed complex, compartmented and disjointed, in need of sensitive innovative, restoration after the Council relocated to new offices in 1976.
The building faced an uncertain future: largely redundant and in poor condition it needed to find a viable use to justify its prominent and valuable land-take in the centre of town. Options for Reading borough Council to sell the building were mooted which prompted the Civic Society into action. Still a familiar struggle today, the local fight to retain this building and heritage was a catalyst for a driving a thorough analysis of what the building offered and what it could become. Give heritage time and attention it deserves, redevelopment can be dignified, respectful and take the building positively forward to proudly flourish in a contemporary guise.
The internal reorganising challenge at Reading Town Hall – to create order out of a chaotic plan, to form a new main entrance (by demolishing the main stair to the Concert Hall) with vertical and lateral routes to connect the former discordant spaces – while remaining respectful of Waterhouse’s essence and crafting, has been a triumph for the town. The complete redevelopment occurred in phases over nearly 20 years to its completion in 2000, buffeted by funding challenges. To the benefit of the scheme Michael was a constant figure throughout the project: it is now commonly recognised to maintain drive and consistency of approach on large construction projects retaining key personnel has a direct impact on success.
Michael and I recognised there was a certain amount of ‘shorthand’ to our conversation when it came to Waterhouse, and an appreciation of his intellect and architectural legacy. The impact of having re-worked a master architect’s creation upon our careers is palpable; Waterhouse reaches to us through the generations. Both of us hope our modest contribution will be considered respectful and appropriate to Sir Alfred Waterhouse – with an eye to longevity and for our future society demands.
The Waterhouse legacy goes on: EPR Architects has recently gained planning permission to redevelop Waterhouse’s 1880 1/1A Old Bond Street into retail, offices and residential use. Click here to see more.
The Grade I Manchester Town Hall (1868-1877) was seeking for an architect to head up a £160 million refurbishment and upgrade at the end of 2016. The architect to be appointed to this privileged position is yet to be announced.
 Gold, S.M., 1999, A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Reading, Reading, published privately.