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John McAslan and Partners have a reputation for reconstructing 20th century buildings

19 Nov 2004

by Peter Wilson

Northampton doesn’t exactly spring to mind as an essential stopping-off point on any self-respecting architectural itinerary but occasionally a forgotten project re-emerges to demand a diversion from the prescribed route. Such a building is the extremely narrow, terraced Georgian house at 78 Derngate, converted in 1917 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the engineer and model railway manufacturer W.J. Bassett-Lowke, which has recently undergone a complete and careful restoration by a team led by the London-based Scot John McAslan.

McAslan has made something of a reputation for surgically reconstructing notable 20th-century buildings, including Mendelsohn and Chermayeff’s De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College, Basil Spence’s Swiss Cottage Library and, most recently, the Peter Jones department store in London’s Sloane Square. Each has had McAslan’s “adaptive re-use” magic dust sprinkled upon it to enable fresh 21st-century air to be breathed within. Number 78 Derngate is perhaps the smallest such project that the burgeoning practice has undertaken in recent years but its importance in the relatively small canon of completed Mackintosh buildings is hard to overemphasise.

Aside from his entry for the Art Lover’s House competition, 78 Derngate has arguably been the most mythologised of Mackintosh’s projects, with only a few grainy images and some geographically scattered pieces of furniture to indicate the extraordinary interior – and the final constructed flourish of the architect’s talent – which once was there. So much, indeed, had been removed – either by Bassett-Lowke himself when he moved to “New Ways”, the house he commissioned from Peter Behrens, or by subsequent alterations to the property – that the recent works might more accurately be described as re-creation than restoration. This is not to diminish the work of the team involved, but better explains the pragmatic approach adopted by John McAslan + Partners: that which was extant has been restored and the parts that were missing but identifiable from photographs have been forensically analysed and accurately re-created. For conservation purists, the final result can only be a compromise – the original bedroom furniture, for example, resides in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, with replicas manufactured for the rejuvenated Derngate property – but for those interested in experiencing the actual spaces created by Mackintosh (in a house he himself never actually visited) the historical provenance of the various pieces is of less importance.

To achieve this solution, adjacent properties were purchased and 80 Derngate is used to access its more illustrious neighbour as well as providing additional display, toilet and shop facilities, but McAslan’s larger scheme for educational and museum facilities faltered at the Heritage Lottery Fund hurdle, being considered too ambitious. This is unfortunate and goes to the heart of the conservation dilemma – it is understandable that HLF felt the focus of funding should be on the listed historic buildings but denying the funding for the additional facilities, which would have made the whole assemblage a more economically viable proposition, only contributes to an uncertain future for the project. For the architects, a project carefully orchestrated to ensure its ongoing financial security remains incomplete but frustratingly outwith the team’s control.

A similar fate afflicted McAslan’s design for a new footbridge link between Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and its university – intended for completion during the latter institution’s centenary celebrations three years ago, the project faltered, due to insufficient funds. All architects, of course, suffer from projects being delayed or cancelled, but some propositions arguably deserve strategic political and institutional support for the potential urban, social, tourism and cultural benefits they can bring. Perhaps with the ongoing major renovation of the Kelvingrove facilities the bridge may yet be realised.

The problem, however, is not exclusive to Scotland or, indeed, the UK. McAslan also proposed an elegant interpretation centre in Morocco to relieve visitor pressure on the remains of the Roman city of Vorubilis. Sites of such historical and cultural significance ought to transcend normal decision-making processes but, again, political inertia has stalled the project indefinitely.

While frustrating, each of these examples is balanced by many highly successful masterplanning, infrastructural, commercial and educational projects. This is a practice eager to find appropriate solutions to the architectural challenges it is confronted with and, indeed, to the long-term sustainability of the profession. In McAslan’s view, too many architects have been prepared to delegate away responsibility and allow Public Private Partnerships, Design-Build et al to diminish the overall quality of the built environment. While recognising that his practice has been fortunate in being able to position itself differently, he is clear on how he wants its next stage of development to proceed – essentially “to build to a higher standard and to demand the right to do so”.

To realise this ambition, John McAslan + Partners has evolved its own internal group structure – aside from architectural design, JMP Landscape deals with infrastructural and landscape projects, JMP Research provides the background material for conservation and historical work, as well as resourcing the practice’s other areas of design with well-grounded analysis, and JMP Visualisation provides computer back-up and model-making services to the other teams as well as external consultancy services.

Alongside these, the practice produces its own house journal and commissions outside experts to document the different areas of its work: 78 Derngate received its own special issue and is an indication perhaps of McAslan’s enduring respect for Mackintosh and his work. In revisiting the work of key 20th-century architects, McAslan and his team have shown that they have not only researched and understood the original motivations behind their designs but that they can defer to the inherent qualities of each project without being obsequious to its originator. For many architects conservation and creativity are mutually exclusive phenomena but in this particular practice these twin forces are continually married, to unusual and beneficial effect. And, refreshingly, McAslan appears to have no desire to replace his practice’s concerns for the raison d’etre of each project with the illusory products of the “signature” architect.

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