Historic York goes modern and shows off its 21st century style
Best known for its historic landmarks, York is adding a layer of bold new architecture to its cityscape. Sharon Dale reports.
DEVELOPERS keen to push the boundaries of design used to roll their eyes and groan at the mention of York City Council, recounting nightmarish dealings with planning officials who shunned anything that didn’t look safe.
That cautious approach led to a sea of dull, uninspired new-builds while adventurous architects and builders took their business elsewhere.
“Historically the council had been conservative in its approach to new development, but part of my role when I came here in 2009 was to make sure this is a modern, forward looking city,” says David Warburton, Head of Design, Conservation and Sustainable Development.
He adds that a report by architectural urbanist Professor Alan Simpson in 2010 helped to change an attitude that had already started to soften.
The study, York City Beautiful, revealed that while the city displayed a wealth of visible architectural layers, from Roman to Georgian, Edwardian and beyond, it lacked good examples of 21st century design.
“We were in danger of losing a layer,” says David. “In terms of domestic architecture, there were lots of ‘anywhereville’ houses, whereas what we look for now is quality, craft and architectural diversity.”
The council doubled its efforts to embrace modernity and were spurred on by progressive former Lord Mayor Janet Hopton, who founded the York Design Awards.
Some of the best contemporary buildings that burst into life following this fresh approach feature in a new photographic exhibition Beautifully Modern York, which is part of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Love Architecture Festival.
It includes Moss Street Housing by Bramhall Blenkharn and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Derwenthorpe development, along with a host of sensational, one-off homes. These include the AD++ house on Trentholme Drive with an extension by Coffey architects; Beech House in Upper Poppleton by Mass Architects; a green oak extension to the 1920s Oak Cottage by Native Architecture and Zero House in Clifton, designed by architects Mark Bramhall and Nick Midgely.
Energy-efficient Zero was built in 2009 at the end of a street featuring unremarkable suburban semis. It still stops traffic with its avant-garde shape, Siberian cladding and gull-wing roof. David Warburton sees it as one of the defining moments in the city’s architectural history.
He says: “Some people thought it should never have been built but it adhered to fundamental principles of good design and that was confirmed when it won an award. The chairman of judges, Robert Adam, said the opportunity to make a statement should be at the heart of the planning process. It’s also our job to make sure these statements don’t compete with our most important historic buildings.”
The exhibition, organised by the York Architecture Association, opened last night at City Screen, the building that many believe was a catalyst for more contemporary design.
Janet O’Neill, of O’Neil Town Planning Consulatants in York, says: “We feel that the real boost came in 2000 with the City Screen and Davygate schemes. These introduced exciting and extremely well-considered developments into very sensitive historic locations. Their success led the way for other schemes like Moss Street housing and Trinity Lane, along with the Berrick Saul and Ron Cooke Hub buildings at the University of York.”
Architect Ric Blenkharn believes that the council’s long- held caution may have been a backlash against controversial 1960s developments like The Stonebow.
“City Screen marked a significant change and paved the way for some new architecture in the city. Other buildings, such as the Early Music Centre in 2003 by van Heynigen and Haward, were again seen as positive contributions. Janet Hopton also helped. She could see the benefits of good design in the regeneration of the city.”
Beautifully Modern York features photographs of 11 properties that have all won awards.
“York is known for its heritage buildings but this about showing people that York also has good contemporary design, including lots of hidden gems of domestic architecture,” says Lucy Morris, of Native Architecture.
But while the exhibition marks the leap forward made by the city, there are concerns for the future. The council’s proposed Local Plan identifies land where 20,000 new homes can be built over the next 20 years but there are concerns about the design quality.
Ric Blenkharn says: “Good contemporary design can and does make a positive contribution to the city and it can only be judged and encouraged through the council. There must be both the support and expertise within the planning authority to implement it. One fear is that ongoing cuts within the authority will have a serious impact on this process.”
Only time will tell though David Warburton says: “Derwenthorpe is a great example of new houses with high standards of design quality that provide space, light and flexibility.
“We’d like to see more well considered schemes like that. We don’t want to see “anywhere houses” We know we can do better than that.”
is at City Screen foyer, Coney Street, York, until June 30.
MAKING A STATEMENT: The Zero House by Mark Bramhall and Nick Midgley for Mike and Erica Hammill. Bottom left to right: Moss Street Housing by Bramhall Blenkharn; Beech House by Mass Architects and the AD++ house extension by Coffey Architects. These and other buildings that have given York a modern face will be celebrated in an exhibition at City Screen in York.