Building Landscapes

Managing Change in Scotland’s Landscapes conference was held towards the end of 2012 to look forward at the next 50 years for Scotland’s landscapes.  It marked 50 years since the first (and, up to that point, only) National Landscape Policy Conference.

Cambusnethan PrioryWhen I was reading the conference presentation abstracts, which are available from here, it struck me that it was deeply ironic the last national conference was held 50 years ago at Cambusnethan Priory in the Clyde Valley, South Lanarkshire: a wonderful building, built in 1819 in the Gothic style, which recently appeared on the excellent Ruination Scotland blog.  Indeed, in the abstract for one of the presentations Reflections on the Past 50 Years, architect Peter Daniels refers to working at the house when he first arrived in Scotland and of its sad demise when it was burnt down for its insurance value….!

Now seen by most as a picturesque ruin, fifty years ago Cambusnethan Priory was a functioning building, and it is, as an A-listed building, Nationally Important in architectural, historical and cultural terms.  Does this ghostly shell, perched on a terrace over looking the River Clyde, still have the potential to breath again?  What will its future be in fifty years time?  Perhaps to answer this question positively we may have to think of it less as a building, and more as part of a series of contiguous spaces occupied by people, integrated as part of a wider cultural landscape.

Well, it should be no surprise that Cambusnethan Priory is listed on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland (see Cambusnethan Priory) as CRITICAL: which suggests there is some hope and (unlikely ?) possibility of an intervention which stops the ongoing process of decay and collapse but that the window of opportunity to prevent one inevitable future is rapidly passing.

Looking at the accounts of Cambusnethan Priory in the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland of what has happened in this fifty year period (a woeful tale of neglect and deterioration of this property), it is worth reflecting on what occurred since it was saved from demolition in 1967 to its current state.  There are various entries which refer to the deterioration of the building (stripping of interiors, stripping of lead and piping, damage by fire, destruction of roof, bricking up of windows…) and proposed plans for redevelopment (which were objected to and / or refused on grounds of…, or fell through due to funding issues…).  The last recorded proposal for redevelopment received outline planning permission in 1998 but in 2001 was still receiving objections at least in part due to the need for enabling development within proximity required to make the project economically viable / profitable:

Scottish Natural Heritage objects due to concerns at adverse effects on the local environment. SCT objects on the grounds that the scale of the new build would compromise the setting of the Priory and have traffic implications.’ (From Buildings At Risk Register)

Its not clear ultimately why the redevelopment did not take place, whether due to such objections or whether for example the financial package fell apart.  It is, however, interesting that in both cases the objections referred to adverse effects from enabling development on the wider landscape (local environment and setting being referred to).  So ironically the concerns, about getting the balance right between saving the building and ensuring the character and quality of relationships to a wider landscape were protected, recognised that Cambusnethan Priory does not sit as an isolated building but was part a wider cultural landscape.

The now ruined building replaced a 17th century country house after it had burnt down in 1809.  Both structures were (or are in archaeological terms) immediately situated in gardens and designed landscapes, which in some respects were intended to relate the house to the wider landscape, for example with the principle view to the River Clyde.

The Earlier House at  Cambusnethan - from RCAHMS, Canmore

The Earlier House at Cambusnethan – from RCAHMS, Canmore

In its broader context, much of the wider landscape within which Cambusnethan Priory is set is particularly cultural.  Comprising in the 18th and 19th centuries, a remarkable density and quality of country houses in estates, running for well over 20 km in the Clyde Valley.  The gardens and designed landscapes at the core of most of these estates would have been complemented by home farms and a wider suite of cultivated field and orchards.  Many of these estates functioned but based on social inequalities and economic models which were unsustainable: yet created a remarkable character of landscape. This legacy is still evident through the designations as Gardens and Designed Landscapes (GDL) from the west at Hamilton Palace, through Chatelherault, Dalzell House and to the east of the Falls of Clyde.

Now hindsight is a wonderful thing, and perspectives have clearly changed in Scotland about the importance of the historic environment in terms of it wider contributions to economy and society (see for example Scottish Historic Environment Policy).  However, as seen in the case Cambusnethan Priory, the reliance on the market to provide a solution to the plight of such buildings over a twenty year period did not manage to find a viable solution (agreeable to all parties) to save a Nationally significant building and balance the other landscape sensitivities.  Indeed, in the case of other buildings on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland, such market driven solutions are arguably even less likely to occur in many cases (particularly in rural contexts), not least due to the current economic conditions making finance even more difficult to secure.

However, in other parts of Europe there have been very different perspectives to the relationships between conservation, restoration and regeneration for some time. For example in Holland, The Belvedere Memorandum dating to 1999 linked cultural history to spatial planning with a policy vision which could be summarised as: ‘Conservation through development’ is the motto.’

So I insert a extract from The Belvedere Memorandum, which gives further sense of its spirit:

‘Belvedere is the Italian word for a ‘beautiful view’ but it also appears in the English dictionary as a ‘pavilion or raised turret intended to afford a general view of the surrounding area’. The Netherlands boasts countless such towers, often graced with Belvédère (the French spelling) as part of their names. One can also draw an association with the Belvédère quarry near Maastricht, site of the oldest archaeological discoveries ever made in the Netherlands, some 250,000 year old.
 

With a little good will (and poetic licence), archaeology, building conservation and historic cultural landscapes can be now summed up in one and the same word: ‘Belvedere’. Above all, it must be remembered that a Belvedere is a point from which to expand one’s viewpoint and to look ahead.’

I wonder if such perspectives were held in Scotland in 1999 (or earlier), whether we would be faced with the ghostly ruin which Cambusnethan Priory is, and whether its future in 50 years times would be very different from how its appears now, most likely a mound of collapsed stone, barely recognisable as once having been a building, slowly absorbed back into the last vestiges of a cultural landscape.

Cambusnethan Priory

If we are happy to leave a legacy of picturesque ruins for future generations which will ultimately collapse and disappear we should continue to do nothing.

If as a society we truly value such Nationally important buildings (and the character of the wider cultural landscapes they historically relate to) perhaps we need to take a longer term view about what their regeneration could deliver.  We need to explore how such buildings can become vibrant social and cultural hubs, find innovative new uses for them, and re-imagine how they can potentially relate to activities extending into a wider integrated multifunctional landscape but this would require ambitious proactive strategic funding programmes with input from local and national government.  Perhaps new funding models such as a form of Social Impact Bond could be explored.

Perhaps it is too late to change the future of Cambusnethan Priory but we must learn lessons to ensure such built historic environment assets are sustainably connected to their broader cultural landscapes.

If not, as such buildings collapse and disappear, we can look forward to more work for the archaeologists of the future….

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Straw, Sticks and Stones

Straw, sticks and stones are three key traditional building materials in the story of the wolf and the three pigs: a story which perhaps demonstrates the need to have the right materials to hand for building conservation projects…!

Traditional Roofing

The most recent English Heritage  Conservation bulletin is on the theme of building materials.  It contains two short articles which show the huge importance of sustainable sources of traditional building materials.

The first article ‘The Strategic Stone Study -matching stone sources to end uses‘ is by Tarnia McAlester, who explains the important links between geology, quarry sites and availability of appropriate materials for repairing historic buildings in particular landscapes.  More information about the Strategic Stone Study can also be found at the British Geological Survey website.  There has also been a good work done on such issues by Historic Scotland’s Conservation Group who have produced Technical Advice Notes and Research Papers about traditional materials.  Two reports are of particular interest and available online, including the TAN 12 Quarries of Scotland and TAN 21 Scottish Slate Quarries.

Front cover for Conservation Bulletin 69

The second article in Conservation bulletin, ‘Ensuring supplies of suitable thatching straw‘ by Stephen Letch, explains that problems with supplies of thatching straw has led to an increased use of imported water reeds as an alternative material.  This led to the formation of the National Thatching Straw Growers Association who are doing growing trials on different varieties of wheat crop to establish what conditions are required to produce the best straw for different applications and techniques.

However, the maintenance of sources of traditional building materials is not simply a historic building conservation issue, they also allow architects to incorporate these materials into new buildings in ways which can be more sympathetic to the setting of historic buildings and to the character of the broader landscape.  Indeed, the growth of traditional crops, and a greater number of varieties in our landscapes, would help with biodiversity, and is perhaps more sustainable than importing from across the world.

That’s got to make the big bad wolf happier…?

Heritage Craft Skills

Many of our heritage sites appear timeless.  Historic buildings are usually key components of the character of our streetscapes but, as they are so familiar, usually go unnoticed.  Often, we only really pay attention when they are destroyed and a gap site is presented: the missing tooth in the smile !

I always take time when I am in York to pause and watch the stone masons working at the side of the York Minster in the Stoneyard.  The high level of their skills is apparent in the finished pieces which sit inside the yard before being raised up onto the Minster.  Some of the stone components of the Minster have been standing for about 800 years: so the ravages of time inevitably begin to take its toll.  However, it is not just wind and rain which can damage stone, the Minster has also been subject to major fires in 1840 and 1984.

The work of the stonemasons is currently part of a major conservation and restoration project York Minster Revealed.  As well as the work of the stonemasons, there is also a programme of stained glass conservation being undertaken by York Glaziers Trust. Importantly, the project is allowing for an expansion in training in the skills in working stone and stained glass on historic buildings.

Without constant maintenance and conservation, to ensure that they will be there for future generations to appreciate and enjoy using them, we easily lose the heritage assets which make our towns and landscapes distinct.  But conserving our heritage is more than simply protecting the physical remains of the past, it is also the maintenance of understanding and skills required for the future.