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Don’t divide new and old

Hugh Pearman

Are you a modernist or a conservationist? Why not both? We need continuity in architecture

15th century ribbon-window modernism in Newark.
15th century ribbon-window modernism in Newark. Credit: Hugh Pearman

If you’ve never been to Newark in Nottinghamshire, I can recommend it. A large and largely intact town dating from Norman times with two railway stations on different lines, the fully-functioning Trent river navigation, a big active market square including several medieval timber buildings, a Town Hall by Carr of York, one of the finest parish churches in England (St Mary Magdalene) and the remains of an impressive castle overlooking the river. 

It’s not perfect as a town of course – there are the usual bits of insensitive traffic planning,  too many land-hungry superstores near the centre, and it is in the constituency of Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government who – how to say this? – sails very close to the wind at times. And of course wants to revolutionise the planning system in favour of developers and builders, with a dollop of ‘Building Beautiful’ spin applied here and a lot of oversight-free permitted development there.

But never mind him. The reason Newark is in reasonably good shape is, I’m told by Nottingham-based design historian Chris Matthews, down to a good council ­conservation department, and the efforts of conservation-minded local architects back in the 1970s including noted modernist the late Lincoln-based Sam Scorer as then head of the East Midlands Victorian Society.

It’s not necessarily a binary affair, architecture. Being a modernist architect – in Scorer’s case with particular expertise in hyperbolic paraboloid roofs – doesn’t mean you can’t be a good conservationist as well, despite what a few ideologically-driven traditionalist boosters might claim. We must always resist that reductive culture war. And Newark is a good example of this. What could be more modern than a medieval post-and-beam building?  

What could be more modern than a medieval post-and-beam building?

I give you as an example the former White Hart Inn, in Newark’s market place. Ruinous in the 1970s but saved and restored, its frontage has been tree-ring dated to 1451, says building historian Nick Molyneux.  It is arranged in horizontal, slightly jettied  layers as so many timber buildings of this period were. It has ribbon windows (of course arranged in contiguous small panes) and a large ground-level opening leading to the yard behind. It  gives the lie to the preposterous theory that vertical emphasis is the only true way to do architecture, and that ‘hovering’ modernist buildings are in some way inhuman.

Plus of course medieval timber buildings are prefabricated and relocatable, not that ­anyone has ever tried to shift this one.  This is the kind of medievalism that appealed to the high-tech architectural set, especially the Hopkinses. You can see why. And it shows timber can be as durable as any other material.

The old White Hart in Newark is richly decorated with carved motifs and figures and appears to have been quite colourful – none of the default black-and-white here.   It reminds me slightly of the work of Louis Sullivan centuries later.  It and its kind represent continuity in architecture and point to the future. Imagine: a building, and a way of building, that all sides of the profession can agree on.