Review

/ Andrew Zahn / Conservation

We think it is good to carry out a review of buildings we have completed. To do this we ask colleagues who have not been involved with a project to appraise it. A new angle on this review process was posed, to explore retrospectively how our contemporary ideas on conservation thinking and strategies inform our new productions. The building in focus was our new boarding house for Fettes College – Dalmeny House which sits overlooking the central building of David Bryce’s Fettes College. What we hoped might emerge is a sense of how the architectural history of ideas, that has developed the campus, might feed an intelligent contemporary contribution. A sub text to this exploration was to reinforce the idea that history is an integral part of our present thinking, indeed it can yield surprising insights feeding contemporary creativity but above all, it can place what we do now in the context of that history.

In that respect David Bryce’s original central building for the school needs to be understood in his relationship to William Burn, his mentor. Looking at Burn’s Camperdown House, it exhibits a calm classical exterior with a clever juxtaposition of a pedimented frontage to the entrance approach and a side, which actually acted like a front. In contrast Bryce’s key house, Craigends House,carried out a similar programme but now contained within a then contemporary version wrap of the Scot’s Baronial, in cut ashlar with picturesque articulation and accentuation. Whilst on the face of it they seem completely different they are in fact extremely similar in the domestic activities that they are organised around.

Fettes can be said to blend these two positions. Bryce’s combination of a symmetrical frontage, albeit with his picturesque compositional skill, yet disassembled in a stepped asymmetric quality on the side elevation providing him with the axial strength to represent the power of the institution, but eroded wherever he had the chance. Bryce’s source appears to be the flamboyant classically symmetrical frontage of Fyvie Castle, where axiality and controlled informality are reconciled.

There was some typological development. Camperdown and Craigends were essentially large, squat blocks. Fettes was remarkably tall but actually very thin, generally one room (big rooms) deep arranged in the form of a squat U-shaped courtyard to the front, with an accentuated central bay and tower, expressed wings and to the side stepped U-shaped courtyards. Bryce hollowed out what might have been a four square block suggested by a view simply of the frontage.

It was this hollowed block that became the root of the new boarding house. Its own hollowed out U-shaped courtyard orientated on the old building, is replicated in the elbow of the corners of the block serving a year group and then within each sub-set cluster of bedrooms. The hollow court idea becomes like a set of Russian dolls in its repetition within the plan. This accumulative assembly of spatial experience is supported by the structural frame of the building enabling a free distribution of varying sized rooms echoed on the facade by a liberal arrangement of windows. The result is a plan rooted in Bryce’s hollowed out courtyard U-typology, enveloped by a rationalised picturesque distribution of window openings and surfaced with a ‘decorated’ skin of expressed timber jointing and timber window louvres.

Through this comprehensive analysis we seek to understand where our buildings sit historically. This stance postulates that the value of what we do now sits within a continuum rather than simply the present. The present is not a border to the past but integrated in the flow of time - conservation allows us to interrogate, intelligently our present actions in this broader context.

Fettes College by David Bryce