Gavin Robinson on preserving London's civic buildings
16th October 2018
Gavin Robinson was asked by New London Quarterly to share his views on how lateral thinking to help extend the life of civic buildings. The full story can be found below.
I have spent the last 12 years helping the London Business School create a new satellite campus in the capital. Most of this time was focused on interrogating and repurposing the Old Marylebone Town Hall (OMTH) and transforming it into a 21st Century centre of teaching. The project – which hinged on the refurbishment of OMTH’s Council House and Annexe, whilst adding a bold new glass and steel entrance and lecture theatre block – has been a process of ensuring that one of London’s great civic buildings is re-invigorated.
Now that the Centre is up and running, it seems an opportune moment to reflect on London’s numerous other notable and historic town halls. In particular, to consider how these often beautiful and masterly crafted civic buildings can be preserved and adapted to ensure that they are both relevant and in full use. The productive and unusual partnership between London Business School and Westminster City Council offered an effective solution to rejuvenate two heritage buildings – a relationship that unlocked the potential of an asset in need of repair.
Generally, the high quality of the original construction materials meant that the OMTH buildings were incredibly robust, however, we were surprised by how malleable the existing spaces were to creating a modern teaching and learning environment. The new insertions offered an opportunity to create bespoke teaching spaces whilst the real challenge was to incorporate modern services within the listed interiors, whilst addressing the concerns of the Conservation Officer.
Through our long involvement with the building, we discovered why these special spaces are highly regarded by the local and international community, with their celebratory nature heightened by the qualities of the original building. We spent time rediscovering the original finishes, proportions and features – a number of which had been concealed or remodelled. This makes you wonder how many of these wonderful details are currently hidden from view in buildings across London.
The process of repurposing and extending the life of a building such as this requires a definitive architectural approach, which – in line with recognised conservation philosophies – is determined by the clear distinction between faithful restoration works and any contemporary insertions. When transforming a prominent historic building, taking such a position is made considerably easier when working with a client and project team that understand the significant difference between a pragmatic refurbishment and genuine stewardship of a valuable asset.
A lateral approach and the transformative impact of this project could have an interesting bearing on a number of other important civic buildings, which speak of London’s history and character. They too could find fruitful partnerships that bring their historic buildings – which might currently sit underused and underappreciated – back to life.