• Kerry Fox

OSA Review: Donald Insall Associates, OxArch Reconstruction Review


Donald Insall Associates are a practice that specialise in conservation and historic architecture. They demonstrated that depth of skill at their lecture, taking us through the details of the Palace Hotel, part of their work on Regents Street for the Crown Estate.

The building was originally an Edwardian hotel; the largest in Europe when it opened with a thousand rooms. It was designed for use by the middle class, and was at first hugely popular, but it fell out of fashion after the first world war. As the area around it degenerated, the operator of the hotel lost its ability to run the business, and returned the building’s 100 year lease to the Crown Estate for regeneration.

Originally, the client intended to demolish the hotel and build an entirely new block on the site, but due to local outcry the building was Grade II listed before planning could be granted and therefore a new approach was necessary. Donald Insall Associates were brought on board to carry out a historic buildings assessment. They worked alongside the architects, Dixon Jones, to propose a scheme for the site based on this assessment, in a demonstration of a theme of collaboration which would continue throughout the lecture.

They began with an appraisal of the site and its surroundings. The building took up an entire block and, as an impermeable perimeter but for one entrance, created an island condition. As this solid piece of architecture, the building failed to address its surroundings and to give anything back to the urban context. There was, however, great importance to be found in the corners of the building, where the existing facade had great presence on the street. It was decided because of this to carve the block into smaller pieces, create a route through, and infill a modern block in the centre.

The other key factor that the historical assessment picked up on was the 1920s interiors, and this subject formed the basis of the rest of the lecture. Because the designer of the interiors was a set designer, and because his original drawings remained, it could be said with reasonable confidence that the interiors would be able to be demounted and rebuilt in the basement. This was a task that required great collaboration between the architects, consultants, manufacturers and contractors. For example, the same manufacturers that were used to repair the original facade constructed the facade of the infill building, to ensure coordination and a similarity of finishes between the two. Services engineers had to be heavily involved in the movement of interiors, to ensure that original grilles and light fittings could be used in their new lease of life as restaurant or bar interiors.

A key factor that was stressed in the lecture was the importance of the feedback loop between architect, historian and manufacturer. As the interiors were moved, damage had to be repaired. On several occasions, Donald Insall Associates had to instruct the contractors on how to work with period materials - skill sets that have been lost as the materials have gone out of use. Interestingly, it was mentioned that some of the contractors had called up older workers who had been part of previous heritage projects to work on site and train newer workers. Through repair and heritage work, skill sets that would otherwise have been lost are being organically shared throughout organisations.

It was clear from the lecture the detail and sheer hard work that goes into a heritage project, but it also made certain that this work does not only come from one consultant. Each party involved must pull together to ensure a project that honours the original building, while being viable in today’s context, and protected for generations to come.

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