Julian Harrap explains why repair and conservation architects need no special label, understanding specialist language, his major influences and his pride in the Soane, and how woodwork has served him
Knowing what you know now, did you make the right decision to be an architect?
The answer is more than a yes! It’s an absolute endorsement that, by some good fortune, I grasped a vocation that I’m delighted I adopted every day I wake up.
Architecture offers a vocabulary of different professional lives within one field. It is a field in which you can develop yourself and concoct a route towards a manifesto of ideas.
What was your route into architecture?
Inevitably, having been brought up in an atmosphere of design by my engineer father and my silversmith mother, I was guided towards making things. I started off with carving bits and pieces and making furniture. Then I decided I needed to think about a room for the furniture, and then the house that contained the rooms.
I’d gone to school in Gravesend with the children of watermen, lightermen and barge hands. I was living in the atmosphere of a port where 100 ships a day came into the docks from around the Empire. I’d failed my 11+, and my trade school had mapped out my future as following a pattern makers apprenticeship at Chatham Dockyard working on submarines. My early engagement with Greenpeace made this career in the military unappealing, and architecture seemed to offer such amazing alternatives.
At Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture, I was the youngest at just 16 and a bit. Everyone else seemed so grown up to me – I was there alongside mature gentlemen with handmade donkey jackets from posh public schools, and chaps with two years National Service experience in some foreign colony. And, the student body came from all over the world. It was quite a shock to the system to someone from my little provincial background. But my facility as a model maker in balsa wood and cork was a great asset in the studio.
How did you come to focus on restoration and conversion?
The simple answer is that existing buildings provide a greater architectural versatility and challenge from which to create new works of architecture. Since the start of the practice, we have held to the view that it is better to mend than to build new.
The bizarre separation in the popular mind between new architecture and old architecture leads to the use of such imprecisely defined terms as restoration and conservation. These terms aren’t widely understood in the wider or professional worlds, and it is important to use them appropriately.
Restoration is to venture some speculative version of history, while conservation may simply be the repair of a ruin without a functional purpose. Restoration is a Beaux Arts concept based on the self-confident idea of a national historic ideal which may only be available in an architectural archive.
Conversion is an architectural term loaded with prejudice and implies indefensible compromise, in that the new use is compromised by the existing building while the existing is compromised by the new use.
When I worked for Jim Stirling, who was really committed to the value of new architecture, I used to say to him that an existing building is just another part of that matrix within which you form your design, along with where the sun rises, and the slope and archaeology of the site, etc.
The profession has a duty to conserve our present cultural fabric by way of sensitive adaption, renewal, alteration, amendment, extension or reconfiguration. Conservation and repair brings with it the joy of meeting the long dead architectural mind of the original designer through intense study and the built work. We have to respond to the value of the existing building fabric by using our architectural intelligence and understanding. We do not need a special label. We are architects, not space planners or old building experts or developers' hacks or designers of follies.
You established your practice nearly 50 years ago. Has it been a good time to be an architect?
The cycling economy of the past 50 years of practice has brought opportunities and hardships. This is just one aspect of practice. I don’t luxuriate in the good times and I’m resistant to misery in the bad times. You have to carry your torch for architecture whatever. Essentially, I believe in the accumulation of experience over time as being beneficial to daily practice. One must build on an ethical stance worked out during the execution of built work.
The rise and fall of the conservation movement has given first hope and then despair to our towns and villages. The translation of our inner city markets to retail and cultural purposes has been enriching, while the encircling of old settlements with a corona of cheap developers’ housing is deeply depressing, as is encroachment onto the Green Belt. I think our towns have lost cultural value thanks to the careless abandonment of their magnificent fabric for febrile gains. Had there been a greater realisation of the value of old buildings, we wouldn’t have thrown so many away.
We don’t have a planning agency that’s concerned with respecting the pattern of the old in building the new. The old profession of the architect-planner should be reinvented. We might then have avoided the threat to the Liverpool Waterfront’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
What was your breakthrough project?
We are still awaiting that breakthrough project! It would bring together all that we have learnt through decades of practice. However I don’t really like to think in terms of breakthroughs. In essence, the question is based on the supposition of exclusive authorship, which is an entirely false and unreliable concept. We were part of the team with Foster that created the Royal Academy gap project and we won the Neues Museum with Chipperfield in Berlin. These are, among others, satisfaction enough.
At the Royal Academy, the confrontation of the rear elevation of Burlington House with the cliff-like façade of Smirke’s exhibition galleries was initially perceived as an unpromising space – a light well with hanging lavatories bestrewn with pigeon netting. However, a scheme was devised which inserted a new lift and staircase ascending to the refitted Pennethorne galleries at second floor level.
At the Neues Museum in Berlin, the project involved understanding the derelict, underpinned ruin of the first multi storey museum is Europe, designed by Friedrich August Stüler in 1843. Rather than restore the museum to the state of when it opened in 1865, we argued that new interventions where wartime bombing had created lacunae would give the new museum freedom for 21st century curatorship. We repaired the ruin over a 12 year period and it became especially significant following the demolition of the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the reunification of the now capital of Germany.
What project are you most proud of?
The project which gives us most pride is the work over 36 years which we have undertaken at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, initially with trustee Philip Powell. The intimacy of our conversations with these buildings has been intense. Every five years we review their longstanding ailments and strive to register change in the past and to devise a prognosis for the future. This quinquennial inspection is like a five-year health check – all historic buildings should have them.
At the Soane Museum, each room is the equal of an individual building in its complexity as architecture, and as a record of antiquarian collecting in the first decades of the 19th century. Every five years or so we collaborate with the Museum to realise in architectural form the outcome of archival research, which is a continuous process within the institution. This approach ensures a continuous patination to new work over decades. It brings a timelessness to interventions.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your career as an architect?
The realisation of the value of my trade school background which developed skills with my hands, especially working with timber. Having the capacity and vocabulary for a meaningful conversation with craftsmen is an essential part of how you operate as an architect, so that you’re engaged together in a common endeavour.
There is also the recognition that the language of architecture and cultural artefacts applies equally to the new and the old - I don’t see any distinction between designing a building and designing the repair of a building. To design a new door is identical to the process of repairing an old door within an adopted set of criteria. Each project demands a mini manifesto to establish an approach.
Satisfaction also arises from working with fellow professionals who share a willingness to engage with existing and new fabric in a serious intelligent and knowledgeable fashion. Simply asking the client what they want abdicates the need for informed debate and the giving of professional advice. All parties need to grasp a level of understanding equal to the significance of the design task in hand. The absolute responsibility of each contributor cannot be delegated.
What has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?
The greatest obstacle to communication in any specialist sector of a profession is the distance the generalist needs to travel to reach a level of meaningful engagement with the specialist. The generalist architect isn’t trained in the field of conservation. We often have to start at a teaching level to establish the vocabulary with fellow professionals. They can’t understand what we do if they can’t come some way towards understanding our language.
A second issue is the use of steelwork as a first choice Meccano structure. Structural engineers of a certain calibre always avoid the evaluation of existing construction and propose redundancy and replacement rather than repair and improvement. Another issue is the need to persuade the client to commission adequate pre-scheme design surveys.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
There is no alternative available to the determined but to soldier on striving and striving to coax, cajole and persuade the tradesfolk to grasp the commitment essential to realise the ambitions of a thoughtfully designed repair.
Is it easer, or harder, to get high quality projects built now than when you started out?
When I was working at St Andrews University with Jim Stirling back in the 1960s, he and I would be at the top of the table in team meetings. The others would be around the table but there was an implied hierarchy that we were first among equals. Now, I’m at the bottom of the table and the project manager, QS and engineers are at the top in a rather pyramidal way. The architect has lost status. It all goes back to the RIBA saying that all the architect’s value goes into Stages A-C, and then you hand it over to contractors who either build it well or not. I believe that’s completely wrong. We have to engage from the beginning to the end in a meaningful dialogue. You do not walk away after the CGI.
Only a few, smaller contractors understand the scope and extent of true conservation work. There is a false belief that the contractor will overcome the design issues that the professional teams have failed to resolve. In the end, the client appears to pay several times for a service that competent professionals should have provided before works started on site. A further issue is the need to establish pre-tender sample repairs to enable the contractor to see what they are expected to match in order the secure the contract.
Looking back on your work over the years, who have been your biggest influences?
Jim Stirling and Jamie Gowan are the primary influences. Also Aldo van Eyck, Eldred Evans, and my tutors at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture, who were fantastic as artists, architects and engineers.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I now have a reaffirmed belief in renewability, and doubts about the justification for some interventions I might have made in the past. Carpentry repairs using traditional joints are immensely destructive of historic fabric as many exemplars demonstrate. But for about six or seven years I was swept along by my enthusiasm for woodworking skills to engage with a frame in that way, and this limited my palette of interventions. My engineering side said to me constantly that it would do less damage to the old fabric to add another layer of intervention to provide a better, more significant repair. We prefer to use bolted reinforcement or exoskeletons, that do the job elegantly.
Why do you think the profession ignored the need to design sustainably for so long?
The profession was educated and posed as the artist in the attic, isolated from the life of the building they presumed to alter, adapt and reconstruct. It takes about a decade to educate an architect sufficiently for them to overhaul, repair and extend an 18th century house to a culturally significant level. Sustainability is a direct confrontation to the builders’ merchant who is ill-equipped to prepare salvage for reuse. In Berlin, for example, we were told we could not use second hand bricks on the Neues Museum because they did not have a DIN standard classification.
Do you have a dream project you’d still like to achieve?
No! Dream projects are like those on Grand Designs - nightmares to escape from! Every project is interesting, if only to consider. The more challenging the ruin, the more challenging is the vocabulary of repairs and adaptions necessary. At a distance, little should have appeared to have changed but as one approaches, so understanding brings a broader engagement with cumulative minor interventions. Touching the fabric of the building, one is overcome by the beauty of each individual replacement and mend.
What is your most treasured possession?
My grandfather’s chisels and gouges that enabled me to do the woodcarving pieces that got me into Regent’s Street Polytechnic School of Architecture. Some have new handles while others have new blades in old handles and some have new handles and blades but all fit my hands like a comfortable ball and socket. Each tool is gripped with thumb, first finger then the three remaining fingers. As my Chatham Dockyard shipwright woodwork master use to say: thumb, one, three boy!