Earlier this month a few of us from Studio 8 went to visit Compton Verney art gallery in Warwickshire, an amazing early 18th-Century country house that was refurbished by Rodney Melville Architects, with sensitive extension works designed in a contemporary style by Stanton Williams Architects in 2002. We admire the work of both practices and were very interested to visit the project and finally see it first hand. All we knew about the scheme was what we had seen in the media photography released when the building was re-opened to the public in 2004, and fleeting memories of an article in the Architect’s Journal at roughly the same time.
I will start by saying that we loved the architecture and that Stanton Williams have done a fantastic job, with their trademark attention to the tiniest of details evident throughout the extension building internally and externally. However now entering its 10th year of operation, the visit soon began an interesting debate about the way architecture ages, and the creeping compromises that emerge as the honeymoon period gives way to everyday reality. The below images are a comparison between the photographs shown in the A.J in June 2004, and the spaces we found in November 2012.
The main confusion we experienced was entering the building directly into the shop (traditionally the final space, and point of exit from these attractions), and having to negotiate a muddled and crowded corridor space before entering the exhibitions proper. Analysis of the original scheme plans from the AJ shows how this was not always the case; but that the original public ticketing reception had since been converted into a private rentable meeting room, re-routing the public through the shop and around, instead of directly into the galleries. Similarly a generous store room shown in 2004 has today become a much more financially viable secondary cafe space, doubling the amount of covers served by the kitchens, and explaining the long row of extra tables, seats and highchairs that currently populates the beautifully proportioned circulation corridor between the old and new buildings.
It was very interesting to see how the extension, although still quite young, had been altered and adapted to keep pace with the fluidity of the organization inhabiting it, and noting the implications of these seemingly minor revisions on the original meticulously considered architecture, and it’s experience as a sequence of spaces. These subjects are discussed at length in Stewart Brand’s book ‘How Buildings Learn’, which draws attention to the inevitability of changes within architecture, as companies hire and fire, and as families hatch and dispatch (an aspect that Brand suggests some architects willfully ignore in the pursuit of their own aesthetic design ideals). He argues that architects should spend longer considering the life of the building as an on-going process, rather than the delivery of the building as a wrapped up and finished final product. It is a discussion that continually resurfaces in Studio 8, particularly in our work adapting historic buildings for contemporary purposes.
But can a truly flexible architecture ever be achieved? Many great projects have incorporated ideas of adaptability successfully, such as Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer office block. But many buildings have also suffered as the architect’s intentions for user interaction and alteration are never realised, such as Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. Indeed a guide at Compton Verney had to concede that the movable walls designed by the architects for the temporary gallery space were rarely if ever relocated these days. Perhaps then it is better to tailor a suite of works to the required use now and the brief that formalises it (which was achieved with award-winning success by Stanton Williams), rather than diluting the design of the spaces to allow for infinite potential futures that may never come to pass? The debate continues with many interesting points on both sides.
One thing I feel strongly is that the alterations and changes tell a great deal about the lives lived in these buildings, and should be celebrated proudly rather than being ushered away and hidden. Although at 10 years the extension at Compton Verney could be described as going through it’s ‘architectural adolescence’ (neither brand new nor comfortably lived-in), eventually if it is well maintained and respected it will achieve a distinguished continuity just like the manor house it appends. New managers will hire new architects to make the spaces usable in ways we could never reasonably anticipate, and the works of 2002 will become another identifiable step in the long evolution of an exceptional building and its unique history.
photos copyright of Peter Cook Photography, Stanton Williams Architects & the Architects Journal