Flouting tradition

As a woman at the top in a man’s world, Jane Kennedy is a rare thing. It’s conservation work, most notably her role as surveyor to the fabric at Ely Cathedral, that’s put her there

Protective custody: Kennedy among the choir stalls of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Protective custody: Kennedy among the choir stalls of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

Two weeks in India, starting and finishing with Le Corbusier. It isn’t the most obvious holiday for someone who made their name in cathedral architecture and then went on to help make Purcell the biggest presence in conservation. But it perhaps demonstrates Jane Kennedy’s catholic perspective, as shown when she asked Niall McLaughlin Architects to jointly bid for the £17m restoration of Auckland Castle, the 800 year old bishop’s palace in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, which they won just before Christmas. 

Ask anyone in the world of conservation architecture about Kennedy and they jump to Ely Cathedral. This is where she made her name, only the second woman to be appointed surveyor to the fabric at any cathedral, and taking on Ely in the late 1980s and 90s at a time when a huge amount of work was going on. She moved her whole life and family there from Norfolk to the Ely home where she still spends most of her week.  Clambering up a scaffold to inspect work on the vaults of the very smallest of the cathedrals under her charge, Christ Church in Oxford, it is a reminder that a surveyor to the fabric (or in this case architect to the foundation – Christ Church College and Cathedral) has not only to know their historic architecture, hundreds of years of alterations to it, and work closely with dean and chapter, but also needs a fearless head for heights. ‘I love the quinquennial inspection, it is a thrill to get up there and walk on the roofs and high level walkways,’ she says.  ‘After 20 years in Ely I am still discovering things about it.’ 

If Kennedy’s design life has revolved around Ely, her professional life has to be seen through the lens of Purcell, or Purcell Miller Tritton as it was when she joined in 1988. It was as assistant, then deputy to Peter Miller that she started working at Ely Cathedral. Later Kennedy moved on to run the London office, from where she took on the role of ‘chairman’ for five years, running the practice with the board, as she notes. She saw herself as a figurehead but one that had to be available to staff. She also tried to tackle the thorny question of quality. Every expanding firm asks itself the same questions about systems being fit for the business. Architectural practices must also consider the quality of their design output, an issue few expanding firms have found the perfect solution to. ‘I steered the board in certain directions,’ says Kennedy. ‘I wanted to look at raising quality at all levels from design, to organisation, to management. I wanted people to think about what they do and how.’ That meant reminding people about what they were good at and could share and what they could learn from other people, and there were awards too. Now it has 15 offices and 185 staff in the UK.

Purcell had been a conservation practice from the off. Kennedy took time to get there: studies at Manchester University were ‘horrid’, but after a year out in the city council she returned to architecture – at Manchester Poly­technic. Leading the campaign to save the historic Liverpool Road Station allied her to the valuable history of architecture. Spells working with SPAB’s David Jeff­coate, some years on her own when her children were small, more with British Waterways and a stint as a historic buildings officer at Norwich plan­ning department, laid further groundwork. 

Her early years at Ely saw the £8m project of external repairs and the realisation of her designs for a processional route linking the Cathedral to the Lady Chapel and a new (heated) floor in the Lady Chapel itself. Now 61, she knows that soon somebody else must take over this precious role. Would she be happy to see the works of others on her doorstep? She is still wondering – could she retire here with her painter husband and their ­canal boat or would it be too uncomfortable?

Identifying colleagues in Purcell to take on that sort of major conservation role is part of the way she likes to work in the practice. ‘You need to give people autonomy,’ she says. The packages of work for Stowe House where she has worked since 1999 have been delegated to a senior architect in the Oxford office. Oxford also handles much of the work at Christ Church. She is fully signed up to the Purcell mantra of local offices for local jobs, despite regularly commuting herself to where expertise is needed. She is also running the repair to Christ Church’s vaults, particularly the hanging stone lanterns, or ‘pendentive bosses’. She admits: ‘It’s so interesting, I wanted to do it myself.’ The lanterns use stone most unhelpfully: ignoring its compressive strength to test it in tension, so several have long been wired up to stop them dropping onto choir members below. It will be a six week job of invisibly threading stainless steel armature inside by old collaborator and stone expert Cliveden Conservation.

A  climb up into the vaults of Christ Church to inspect, consider  and advise.
A climb up into the vaults of Christ Church to inspect, consider and advise.

It is like a specialism of a hospital or theatre architecture. There is a really important design element and aesthetic in something like how a Medieval wall is repointed

She reckons Purcell has a good chance of a continuing succession as older partners hand over to younger ones. ‘Yes, this process is easier for conservation architects; they have less ego,’ she says. She is not convinced that most architects consider context and environment as Purcell does. This is what attracted her to Niall McLaughlin, the brief seemed to be calling for an icon, but here was someone who did something quite different. At the medieval Auckland Castle, repairs, conservation and presentation of rooms will go alongside the conversion of part of the castle and its extension (this is where McLaughlin comes in). ‘One view is that conservation architects are just like surveyors,’ says Kennedy. ‘But it is more like a specialism of a hospital or theatre ­architecture. There is a really important ­design element and aesthetic in something like how a Medieval wall is repointed.’

She has no list of buildings or periods she’d like to work on. ‘One of the great things is you never really know what you’ll do next,’ she says happily. Her first project at Christ Church was making the grade 2* Powell & Moya student residences more habitable, which took a lot of tinkering with their innards. She takes great pleasure in the original materiality of the building, which ‘came up a treat’, she says. She believes many experimental buildings get tweaked in their first 100 years: the pitch of Ely Cathedral, for example, was rebuilt more steeply. ‘It is not realistic to keep buildings that are not functioning,’ she says. It is another reason for keeping the long oversight of buildings – something cathedrals are rare in enjoying in this country.

Compact, plaited and wearing a plaid scarf, she has many roles outside the practice, including as an English Heritage Commissioner since 2006, and recently joining the Heritage Advisory Board of the Canals and Rivers Trust – a reminder of her earlier days at British Waterways when she was one of those trying to stop engineers guniting bridges with sprayed concrete render. 

The sole female partner at Purcell, she nods at the idea of being a female pioneer only in passing, except when it comes to her appointment as surveyor to the fabric at Ely. ‘Times are changing,’ she says cautiously. ‘To a certain extent.’ At Manchester, all those years ago, she was asked at her interview about whether it was worth educating her as she would go off and have children. But more recently too, odd remarks show that sexism is alive and well, a three-women interview team were met with ‘Are you all lasses in your practice?’ More interesting though is that this fiercely independent woman found herself in such corporate positions. Perhaps a result of the common sense and determination others see as her hallmark. She has her own answer: ‘I like to be in control.’