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Invisibility

“This is an unusual architectural award-winning project as at first glance it is difficult to see what work has been undertaken – and yet this is a measure of its success in meeting the client’s objective of restoration with a light touch.” – RIBA West Midlands Judging Panel.

FCBStudios were delighted to win 3 regional RIBA awards for the refurbishment of Middleport Pottery at the West Midlands prize giving ceremony at the end of April, including the hotly contested ‘Building of the Year’.  After the appointment of the design team in 2011, these awards are a testament to 4 years of efforts from a wide range of consultants, designers and client representatives who are truly passionate about delivering the highest standards of conservation. Alongside this humbling recognition from the architectural and conservation communities, one of the highest complements we are paid is that ‘it looks exactly the same as it did before’.

The need for invisibility was immediately apparent within minutes of visiting the site for the first time, and early discussions with the client team only reinforced what we had already instinctively understood – that the compelling ‘magic’ of Middleport was its thoroughly unique atmosphere. Although the appeal of the site is based on the robust honesty of its time-worn industry, it was clear that this character was very fragile, and in real danger of being lost to heavy-handed restoration, or over-sanitised heritage commodification. The buildings were dangerously at risk of dilapidation and collapse, however the act of their conservation could jeopardise everything about the site that the team hoped to save.

The early stages of site investigation sought to interrogate this ‘spirit of place’ through drawing and photography, so that we may better understand its essential ingredients, and the way they may be safeguarded. Flues 01

The success of the project hinged upon the protection of this ‘special character’, and this was achieved through the iterative development, creative communication and steadfast implementation of a holistic conservation philosophy – that could inform all architectural strategies, from the masterplan of uses across the site, down to the way materials connected to one another at a detail level.

The ‘light touch’ approach that the team proposed also accords with our own philosophies on working with the historic environment; firstly that the authenticity of existing fabric and its evolution should not be censored, edited or post-rationalised, secondly that where intervention is necessary it is undertaken boldly, supported by a rigorously researched understanding of the site’s history, significance and stories, and finally that securing positive new uses is the only way to guarantee the long term survival of our shared heritage.

Where necessary adaptation required more visible intervention, the design language drew inspiration from the site’s legacy of simple honesty and robustly practical innovation, and some of the poetic remnants that evidence 125 years of messy accretion. Given the complexity of the site’s 18 different buildings, control was retained by establishing a consented ‘rule book’ to dictate the hierarchy, legibility and materiality of all alterations. This has developed on to form the basis of the long-term maintenance plan for the factory, ensuring the continuation of the site’s legacy as and when later phases or future repairs are required.

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That this quiet ‘background’ approach has been applauded by the RIBA as being amongst the best of contemporary architectural projects is an exceptional honour, and we would like to thank again the West Midlands group for their generous support of this project over the last 4 years.

We agree that it is not easy to understand the conservation work undertaken from the drawings and photographs of the completed project – and absolutely urge anyone to visit the site and experience the atmosphere of the factory first hand!

Charlie

p.s: I personally really enjoyed sharing my experience working on this project through writing articles for this blog over the last few years. The below links chart the progression of our teams ideas from the early research, through to the discussion of regeneration achievements post-completion.

https://8late.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/crafting-emptiness/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/the-real-thing/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/tell-me-a-story/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/ghosts/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/sites-sounds/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/british-ceramics-biennial/ https://8late.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/redundancy/

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