Monday, 16 October 2017

'These ruins are inhabited!’ Oxford’s endurance, decay and renewal

The Curiosity Carnival, a day-long research extravaganza run by Oxford University (and also involving researchers from Oxford Brookes) was held on Friday 29 September 2017. Across Oxford, there were live experiments, games, stalls, busking, debates, music, dance and guided tours looking at the city from various angles. The whole day was about taking research out into the public domain and engaging with people.

As part of the Curiosity Carnival, David Garrard, Senior Lecturer in Historic Conservation and leader of the MSc Historic Conservation at Oxford Brookes, led two guided tours around central Oxford. The tours looked at the phenomena of decay, persistence and renewal in the historic built environment and were based on his research on the philosophical basis for conservation and preservation. I went on the first of the tours and took a few photos (additional text by David Garrard). Click on the blue links for more information about the history of the sites we visited...

The start of the tour - outside the Museum of the History of Science

The Heads of the 'Emperors' outside the Sheldonian Theatre. Not as old as you think.

Look at them closely. They actually look quite cheeky and cartoon-like.
These versions (and the third set of heads) were made by the sculptor Michael Black and were completed in 1972They are often found to be adorned with various accessories
The present heads replaced an earlier set put up in 1868 to replace the 1660s originals.
Historic conservation is much concerned with authenticity and identity. But can a replica be authentic? Can a copy be identical with the original? Does it matter?

The Sheldonian Theatre itself was closed as the Oxford University 
graduation ceremonies were taking place inside. 

So we stood across the other side of Broad Street, outside the Weston Library
to discuss the history of the Sheldonian.

Built to Christopher Wren’s designs in 1664-9, the Sheldonian was originally (due to last-minute budget cuts) faced in poor-quality Headington freestone. This proved extremely vulnerable to the effects of weathering and pollution and by the 1900s the lavish Baroque exterior was blackened and crumbling to dustThe building was almost completely re-clad in new stone during the 1950s. The roof had already been wholly replaced a century earlier. Much of the timber interior has also been renewed. The Sheldonian recalls the so-called 'Ship of Theseus', replaced plank by plank until no part of the original fabric was left. Is it still the same object at the end as it was at the beginning? What do we mean by that phrase ‘the same’? 

...before heading off down Broad Street to see the Bridge of Sighs (Oxford version).

Which is over there... 

The Bridge of Sighs. Linking two parts of Hertford College. The bridge celebrated its centenary in 2014. Oxford’s bridge was based on the 17th-century Bridge of Sighs in Venice. There is also a similar bridge in CambridgeAnd what Cambridge has, Oxford has to have also.
Is this another of a copy, like the Emperors’ Heads? Or something different?

 David explains the history of Hertford College‘Hart Hall’ (a hall of residence, not a college) was founded here in 1282. It took the name ‘Herford College’ in 1740, but closed for lack of students in 1804. Another institution, ‘Magdalen Hall’, was transferred to the old Hertford buildings in 1818. Re-founded in 1874, it too re-branded itself as ‘Hertford College’. Most of its current buildings are from after this date. What is the relationship between these institutions? How old is Hertford College? 

This curious octagonal building, now part of Hertford, has its origins in a chapel set into one of medieval city gates. This the original 16th-century doorway. The rest of the building was changed beyond recognition over the ensuing centuries, when it was used as (among other things) a house, a cordwainer’s shop, a book bindery and a billiard hall. It was ‘restored’ to [what the architect thought might have been] its original appearance in the 1920s. Something old survives here. But what? 

More about the history of Hertford College.

Round the back of Hertford College and onto New College Lane.

Another enclosed bridge, this one built c.1600 to connect the Warden’s Lodge at New College with the guest lodgings and college barn across the street. During the Industrial Revolution many buildings in Oxford suffered from severe discolouration and decay. The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, causes acid rain, which reacts with limestone to form a gypsum crustThis absorbs further pollution and may eventually crack and flake off, accelerating the deterioration of the stone behind. 

This side of the bridge, like the Sheldonian, has been re-faced to restore its original appearance. 

This building on New College Lane originally housed the college latrines.

St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall) – another Oxford University institution with a complex past. 
We went in to discover...

Part of the old city wallLike most medieval cities, central Oxford was originally encircled by a high stone wall with bastions (like the one shown here) and fortified gates. The remaining portions of the wall are mostly well hidden and not widely known, even to residents, but it would once have been a defining feature of Oxford life. What is its significance today?

We walked down Queen's Lane and crossed over the High Street to get a good look at...

…the Queens's College. More than any other institution, Queen’s shows Oxford’s talent for combining continuity with metamorphosis. Founded in 1340, its original buildings were completely torn down in the early 18th century to make way for the present front quadrangle – now widely regarded as one of the triumphs of English Baroque architecture. This could never happen today. If it still stood, the medieval quadrangle – which seemed a mere old-fashioned inconvenience in 1700 – would be a treasured and carefully preserved part of Oxford’s heritage. Nowadays we tend to preserve the things we value. But this may mean we don’t get other things we might come to value even more. Is this a good bargain?

Queen’s is home to some of the most beautiful bus stops in Oxford

The end of the tour. And a first hand introduction to Oxford's issue with buses.

Back across the High Street for the next tour.

For more information about the MSc Historic Conservation at Oxford Brookes, click here.

Monday, 11 September 2017

MSc Historic Conservation: the 2017 field trips

Bricks and mortar (and stone and timber and thatch and plaster and…)
Good work in historic conservation requires both abstract knowledge and practical know-how: a firm grasp of architectural history and planning law, but also a trained eye for detail and a hands-on appreciation of traditional craft practice. The Oxford Brookes MSc Historic Conservation tries to instil both, with classroom teaching supplement by a varied programme of workshops, training days and site visits. Wielding a stone chisel, splitting a log, moulding a brick: the experience of doing these things fosters a level of insight that no lecture can produce. It's also good messy fun. Photos by David Garrard.

The dark days of early March found us at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. Begun by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515, completed by Henry VIII and partly rebuilt in the 1690s to a Baroque design by Christopher Wren, the sprawling complex - more like a small town than a single building - is said to contain over 1,000 rooms and 26 million bricks.

Hampton Court Palace

Much of the responsibility for maintaining this colossal fabric falls upon conservation surveyor William Page, who was our guide for the day. Ranging from the palace's foundations right up to its bewilderingly complex roofscape, we examined the effects of several hundred years' worth of repairs to stone, timber, lead, plaster, terracotta, tile and, of course, brick. Wind, rain, frost and pollution constantly take their toll, especially on the building's vast array of extravagantly-shaped chimney stacks, which have to be rebuilt every few decades in specially hand-cut brickwork.

Roof-top detail

A week later, our brickish appetites unsated, we travelled deep into rural Buckinghamshire for a tour of HG Matthews' brickworks at Bellingdon, near Chesham. This part of the Chilterns is rich in good building clay, and used to support dozens of small brick-makers. Matthews are now the sole survivors; their hand-made red and grey bricks, still fired traditionally in open-topped Scotch kilns, have the same subtle texture and colour variegations as the historic local product, and are widely used on conservation projects.

HG Matthews' brickworks

The same trip also took us to the Chiltern Open-Air Museum at Chalfont St Giles. Director Sue Shave gave us a tour of the museum's collection of reconstructed local buildings, which range from a 15th-century cruck-framed barn to a set of Victorian cast-iron public toilets, and we discussed some of the unique challenges – both practical and conceptual – involved in the conservation of relocated structures.

Buildings at Chiltern Open-Air Museum

In the first warmth of spring we visited the premises of IJP Owlsworth at Mapledurham, near Reading, for the annual Lime Day event. Lime – a group of calcium compounds obtained by burning limestone, chalk or shells – is used in every aspect of traditional building work, and an understanding of the relevant properties and processes is essential to good conservation practice. Lime Day allows students to try out a range of lime-based crafts, including mortar mixing, bricklaying, plastering, rendering and daubing.

Lime Day at IJP Owlsworth

Back on campus, we received a practical training session in the ancient craft of thatching from Northamptonshire master thatcher Roger Scanlan. (He claims there's no such thing as a 'master thatcher', but he clearly is one.) British thatching embraces a range of methods and materials, each originally specific to particular regions of the country; we tried our hand at the water-reed, long-straw and combed-straw techniques.

Thatching demonstration

Towards the end of the semester we took a long drive down into West Sussex to visit the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton, near Chichester. The oldest and largest of its kind in England, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of vernacular timber-framed buildings drawn from across the region. After a visit to the Artefact Store – an extraordinary assortment of rural building components, tools and machinery – we attempted the surprisingly difficult art of making oak pegs, upon which all traditional wooden construction depends. Joe Thompson, the museum's head carpenter, then gave us an illuminating tour of the buildings collection, discussing the variety of ingenious methods used to treat, repair and replace decaying timber, along with the principles that determine their application.

At the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum

The year ended with a 3-day residential trip to Bath and environs. This exquisite 18th-century city is now a World Heritage Site, but faces ever-increasing pressure from tourism and new residential development. Amy Frost of the Bath Preservation Trust and Stephen George of the District Council both spoke to us about the challenges of preserving and sustaining its unique character. Bath is also famous, of course, for its golden Cotswold limestone; we visited Stoke Hill Mine, a vast underground quarry from which the stone continues to be extracted, and Wells Cathedral Masons, where it is cut and carved for use in both conservation and new-build projects, and where master mason Simon Armstrong kindly let us have a go with some chisels.

In the city of Bath

None of us, it seems, is on course to become the next Donatello. But the experience of trying out these activities, feeling their difficulty as well as something of their rewards, gives participants an enhanced respect for the skills involved, as well as a sense of the centrality of good craft practice to successful conservation. It isn’t everything – but it’s a start.

For more information about the MSc Historic Conservation, take a look at our website:

Thursday, 6 July 2017

School of the Built Environment Graduation 2017

Graduation 2017 took place on one of the hottest days of the year, Monday 19 June. The actual ceremony took place in a transformed sports centre and the reception in the beautiful grounds of Headington Hill Hall. Which meant that the students and staff had to walk across Headington Hill Bridge...and I was there to catch them.

School of the Built Environment staff outside the sports centre

Waiting on the bridge...

...the students...

...and staff.

And in the grounds of Headington Hill Hall...


...the paparazzi

Prizes being handed out by (a very hot) Professor Joe Tah (Head of School)

Where's everybody gone? Retreating into the shade as the day got hotter...

Now that you've graduated, don't forget to keep in touch. Join one of our alumni groups on LinkedIn/Facebook...a great way of keeping in touch with your mates and the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes. We use our groups to post job opportunities, source mentors (for the Real Estate Mentoring Scheme), share news and to use your experiences to inform our course development, so make sure you join!

LinkedIn: Real Estate Management
LinkedIn: Construction, QS and Project Management
Facebook: Planning and Urban Design

Finally, for a full set of photos, take a look at the Graduation and Prizes 2017 album on the School of the Built Environment Facebook page.