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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 17th July 2009
Take the risk with contemporary design, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

‘Beethoven is quite ripe for the madhouse.’ ‘Mr. Van Beethoven goes his own path, and a dreary, eccentric, and tiresome path it is: learning, learning, and nothing but learning, but not a bit of nature or melody. And, after all, it is but a crude and undigested learning, without method or arrangement, a seeking after curious modulations, a hatred of ordinary progressions, a heaping up of difficulties, until all the pleasure and patience are lost.’

Why has Beethoven come to mind this week? And how does he relate to the usual subject of this column, buildings and their architecture?

The quotations are from critics of Beethoven’s time – the first was from the composer Weber, the second from a contemporary newspaper. Both were speaking of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony – hardly what we would these days consider a revolutionary work. Only a few years later Wagner called it ‘the apotheosis of the dance’, and that is how it is generally regarded these days (though Sir Thomas Beecham said of it, ‘What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about’).

The point is that contemporary criticism is not necessarily a guide to quality. Last week came the news that the Prince of Wales and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) have parted company. The Prince has been Patron of the Society, and had penned an introduction to a SPAB book. The Society disagreed with the Prince’s views, which, simply stated, were that repairs to historic buildings should be reproductions of what is already there – or might once have been.

SPAB says that they and the Prince
‘. . . hold differing views on the best way to repair and extend old buildings, arguing for good, new design rather than reliance on past styles. This has been the Society’s view since its foundation by William Morris in 1877. Indeed the Society’s Manifesto warns against “feeble and lifeless forgeries”. Historic buildings inevitably change and adapt over time. As they evolve they generally contain elements from different historical periods. This adds to their interest and story. We hope that future generations will look back at the extensions and alterations made today, and value them as worthwhile contributions of our own time. What matters to us is first class design, materials and craftsmanship.’

This is surely a correct attitude. If we do not encourage good design for today, but seek slavishly to copy the past, how can we ever progress? And that’s where Beethoven comes in. Had ideas like the Prince’s been adopted as a universal principal, how would music even have evolved beyond – well, Mozart? Bach? Where do you take your base point? Or should we all be writing in Elizabethan English, or like Chaucer? Should artists always paint like Raphael or even that revolutionary, Turner?

Morris founded SPAB when there was a mania for ‘restoring’ churches and cathedrals to their ‘pure’ state. Undoubtedly there was some need for repair – many of the great churches were not in a good condition – but over-zealous, speculative restoration (‘scraping’ was the contemporary term) was anathema to people like Morris. Taken to its extreme, this could have resulted, for example, in rebuilding the nave of Ripon Cathedral in its Norman style; at least we escaped that fate. Morris always supported honest repair, where it is obvious what is new and what is original. And he always argued that buildings should be allowed to retain the patina and accretion of ages, as that showed the history of a building in the most honest way.

So what happens if you have a historic building and you need to make an addition to it? What style should it be in? The Prince would suggest that you should match the style of the original as closely as possible, so that it merges into one. SPAB, on the other hand, says that you should design thoughtful and construct carefully in a modern style that respects but does not attempt to imitate the original. It cites as a good example the new refectory at Norwich Cathedral. You might add the additional buildings attached in the 1960s to Truro Cathedral and in the 1980s to St Albans Abbey. These are all obviously modern buildings, but blend well with the historic buildings beside them. Consider, too, the Art Deco additions to the Tudor hall at Eltham Palace or the recent modern roof at Hellifield Peel near Skipton, featured on ‘Grand Designs’ – evidence of a more encouraging attitude from English Heritage .

There will always be controversy about such new buildings, but we should have the courage to at least try to build in a modern idiom. Otherwise we retreat into a timid and saccharine pastiche – the sort of thing that our local planning policies seem to encourage at present.

Is there a lesson here for Ripon? Certainly. Not only should we be more open-minded about modern design, and encourage the planners and the conservation officers to be so as well; we should also consider how new design could actually enhance the city. There will be differences of opinion about the new Booths development, but it has made an effort in this direction. And there is the opportunity to use the site of the Spa Baths to build a contemporary building behind the elegant Art Nouveau frontage. Certainly, if we try some will say that we are ‘ripe for the madhouse’. But the future will put our work into perspective, either praising or condemning. We run a risk; but if we do not take that risk, we will fail.

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