‘It’s steadily removing the honesty, authenticity and simplicity Morris fought to save
ANYONE who has visited Kelmscott Manor will remember its soft and gentle form: a timeless expression of an ancient Cotswold house in an unspoiled Oxfordshire setting. Kelmscott’s special quality is owed in large measure to its celebrated 19th-century owner, William Morris, founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. Morris published an illustrated book on the house and lovingly repaired and decorated its interior as an example of how old and historic buildings should be preserved without intrusive alteration or self-conscious modernisation.
Since 1962, Kelmscott has belonged to the Society of Antiquaries of London, an elected body of more than 2,900 fellows founded ‘for the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries’. The Society opens Kelmscott to the public and keeps it in good repair.
Inevitably in today’s heritage world, there is a desire to improve visitor interpretation and facilities—in other words, to add a new cafe, shop and loos. The success of this initiative will be measured by the impact— or, ideally, non-impact—of the new additions. The selection of an architect, therefore, is evidently a daunting task. What would Morris himself have done? Certainly not the process that the Society of Antiquaries has begun.
It has approached a firm of commercial project managers that seeks someone with £10 million of professional indemnity insurance and an appetite to form a ‘consortium’. The application form is wary even of specifying that an architect is required at all. Instead, responses are invited from ‘Economic Operators’, which are supposed to come together to form ‘a separate legal entity, such as a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)’.
This perhaps means that the individual selection of architect, structural engineer and services engineer can all be lumped together into one easy block without having to be bothered with engaging the consultants individually. The selection, made by the project managers and on a point-scoring basis, will balance past experience with ‘Design Delivery management of staff and sub-contractors’, ‘management of stakeholders and statutory Consultees’ and ‘community engagement/outreach in line with Heritage Lottery Fund grant conditions’.
In the project manager’s world of construction risk-management, a safe team will be appointed, from large well-known consultant firms that have done this all before.
In so doing, the owner of Kelmscott will achieve the ‘delivery’ of its proposals without having to engage in the larger and more concerning question as to how we can stop our historic sites, whether they be owned by the National Trust, English Heritage or anyone else, from becoming the same homogenised mix of bland commercial convenience that is steadily removing the authenticity, honesty and simplicity of places that people such as Morris fought to save in the first place.