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05-Jan-2015

40 Countdown to 50_Reading Town Hall

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By ADP

By Roger FitzGerald

Spanning 20 years, from May 1981, the longest single project carried-out by ADP is blog number 40, in our countdown to 50.

Spanning 20 years, from May 1981, this is the longest single project carried out by ADP.

The original Town Hall was the product of several architectural practices, the best-known being Sir Alfred Waterhouse, who extended an existing Georgian building with the prominent Council Chamber, meeting rooms and stair towers facing Market Place and Friar Street in a ‘soft’ French Gothic style.  Waterhouse fell out with the Council and later additions are rather harsh imitations, mainly by Thomas Lainson.

Following changes to the structure of Local Government, in 1974 Reading Borough Council had moved its administrative functions into new premises and the Town Hall was largely unused: the Council wanted to sell the (then unlisted) site for redevelopment.  This caused huge local uproar, with the Civic Society and others campaigning to retain the best example of Victorian architecture in the town.  By the mid 1970s attitudes to conservation were changing, exemplified for example by the reversal of plans to demolish Covent Garden in central London. 

With the building listed Grade II in 1976, a limited competition was launched by the Council in 1980.  Competing against three well-known national firms, ADP won the commission, demonstrating thorough historical research, enthusiasm, an ingenious design approach, and a frank assessment of the likely cost of the works.

The building was in a very bad state. A stick of bombs dropped near the south end in 1943 and demolished it including a Waterhouse stair tower. Dry rot, wet rot, buddleias growing inside, broken decorative glass and chandeliers, three tonnes of bird droppings, and leaking roofs meant that deterioration was accelerating fast.  Even more fundamentally, the building was heavily compartmented, making direct lateral navigation through the interior impossible.  Problems during construction were compounded by fire damage caused by an arson attack.

But there were strokes of luck too: such as the discovery in the Clock Tower vaults of an original watercolour by Waterhouse (now safely archived).  Even more usefully, the Berkshire Chronicle’s detailed account of the official opening on 31 May 1882 of the new Town Hall, Concert Hall, free library and museum provided the source of the original stonework: a quarry in Dumfriesshire.  Providentially, the quarry had just reopened.

ADP’s design philosophy was to make new interventions “legible” and of their time, consistent with English Heritage’s then emerging policy.  An example of the approach can be seen in the handling of the main entrance: beneath a retained original arched opening, bold modern elements elegantly resolve changes in level.  Contemporary interventions include a new staircase, lifts, reception desk, glass walls, display units and a Wendy Ramshaw sculpture. 

Distinct modern interventions are balanced by elements of careful preservation and restoration that retain the essential character and qualities of the original building fabric.

The bomb-damaged south tower was rebuilt to ADP’s design, heavily influenced by Waterhouse’s Gothic.  (This was so convincing in its use of terracotta, brick specials, special specials, and polychrome details that it was cited in an AJ article by a top engineer as an exemplar of original Victorian workmanship.)  By contrast, a strikingly contemporary approach was used to create the Atrium Gallery.  Formerly a light well it has become the focal point to the museum, including at its heart a modern glass lift. 

Other challenges included accommodating the famous replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, the rebuilding of the famous Father Willis organ, and a multitude of technical challenges, now largely unseen but essential to the functioning of the building.

The work has had to be funded in phases, the final stage being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  Any project spanning two decades inevitably involved many members of ADP staff, but the consistency of philosophy from start to finish was led by Michael Thomas, partner in charge throughout.

The success of the approach has been recognised by winning several awards: Reading Architecture and Design Award, the (first) Berkshire Heritage Award, RIBA Regional Award 1990 and a Civic Trust Award 1990.  Even more rewarding, a redundant complex facing demolition has been unified into a stylish and thriving cultural centre for Reading.  It is therefore an exemplar of conservation and the imaginative re-use of an existing building for future generations to enjoy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roger FitzGerald

Roger FitzGerald

Roger joined ADP in 1983 and is the chairman of the practice. As chairman, he has overall responsibility for design quality and he is closely involved in a range of projects across the
practice.

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