Acknowledging the layers of history in renovating a neglected building was a fundamental lesson, says Richard Griffiths
I moved to London in 1986 to work with Julian Harrap, who was then greatly involved with saving derelict buildings in east London – Spitalfields houses, Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s Limehouse, Teulon’s St Mark’s Silvertown and many more. As a member of the Hackney Society I met the remarkable group of people who had recently founded the Save Sutton House campaign, dedicated to preventing a ruinous Tudor house owned by the National Trust from being converted to private apartments. Mike Gray launched the campaign, Julie Lafferty organised the petition, Jane Straker masterminded the campaign to convince the National Trust, and Ken Jacobs spent his weekends sieving the dust below the floor boards. I became their architect, developing alternative ideas for the community use of the house. To discuss passionately an understanding of the building and the purpose that it might serve, and the nature of the conservation, conversion and reuse that it might undergo was an extraordinary experience for a young architect.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. I became responsible for planning the repair, restoration, conversion and reuse of a house about which little was known and which had been an embarrassment to the National Trust since the last tenants had departed 15 years before. Mike Gray’s researches revealed that, though the house was named after Sir Thomas Sutton, founder of the Charterhouse and the ‘richest commoner in England’, he had in fact owned the house next door. The complete history of ownership was unveiled, leading to the identification of the builder of ‘Bryk Place’ as Sir Ralph Sadlier (Rafe Sadleir), now renowned through Hilary Mantel’s novel ‘Wolf Hall’ as Thomas Cromwell’s sidekick, later Minister of State to Elizabeth I.
The project laid the foundations for a career in creating new architecture from old, in revealing the qualities of existing buildings and adding new layers to their historic fabric. The concept of layering has proved richly rewarding, as old buildings – not just not just the great cathedrals – are always more layered than one might imagine. At Sutton House I aimed to respect the character of each room, repairing the Tudor rooms with restored Tudor doors, Georgian rooms with classical fireplaces to replace those that had been stolen, the Edwardian Barn with a contemporary gallery addition. Squatters’ graffiti from the 1980s was preserved in the attic and spiders’ webs carefully preserved in the Tudor privy that had been bricked up in the eighteenth century and had been growing ever since. To the historic layers I added a contemporary layer of timber and metal, but with ash and bronze contrasting with the oak and iron of the Tudor house and the painted softwood and brass of the Georgian house.
Architects working in the field of existing buildings are too often pigeon-holed as ‘conservation architects’, specialising in the technical aspects of conservation and in the methodology of obtaining consent. Sutton House taught me that working with old buildings could be as rewarding as designing new buildings – or even more so, since old buildings have the qualities of history, memory and the texture of age that new buildings lack. The Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight is equally applicable when working with old buildings as with new. I have been supremely fortunate in my career to enjoy the abstract architectural qualities of form, light and geometry, as well as the beauty of weathered materials and of decay, in the creation of an architecture combining old and new for the benefit of future generations.