2005 Architectural Award

The City Trust’s annual award, open to all buildings constructed or restored in Durham District during 2005, has been won by two very different projects – the rebuilding of St Brandon’s Church, Brancepeth, and by the new Visual Arts Centre of the Durham Gilesgate Sixth Form Centre.

St Brandon’s Church, Brancepeth

In October 2005 St Brandon’s Church at Brancepeth was rededicated and thus handed back to its congregation and village, seven years after fire had destroyed its roof, vaporised all furnishings and shattered the interior stonework of arcades, arch and window surrounds. The outstanding Grade 1 medieval church, which had been embellished by Cosin in the 17th century, was irreplaceable. While replication would have been a forgery, an alternative reconstruction presented a challenge of the highest order. The outcome, clearly meriting commendation by the Trust, is little short of a miracle. The appearance of the external walls and north porch entrance give little or no evidence of the recent disaster. Surprise is thus the first reaction as one steps inside. The space is no longer heavy with furnishings, but is open and light, a space evoking peace: a building at unity with itself. A more satisfying proportion to the interior is suggested by a uniform floor level. Since it was raised by ten inches, the consequent equivalent ‘reduction’ in height of the arcade pillars by the same few inches reinforces the suggestion. (A raft floor was constructed to avoid disturbing extensive buried remains.) Harmony flows from a restrained colour palette: buff sandstone (Catcastle) flooring, light wooden (ash) ceiling and lime-washed walls. The last are punctuated by clear glass windows with patterns of leading derived from designs of medieval cross-slabs which were revealed in the restoration work. The windows, following the tradition of ‘Northumbrian’ glazing, are quite stunning.

The architect responsible for all of this is Christopher Downs.The subsequent liturgical fitting-out and furnishing of the interior has been under the direction of Martin Stancliffe of York, including ‘marble’ hexagons around the font (shattered in the fire, but the Frosterley marble has been wonderfully restored by Hanna Conservation) and altar, lighting, seating and, not least, the olive-green, panelled cupboards.

Specialists, other than architects, have of course been crucial to the programme. Here, foremost acknowledgement must be given to Alfred March, structural engineer of Patrick Parsons Ltd, and to archaeologist Peter Ryder. The former had the daunting task of ensuring structural stability, at the same time as trying to retain as much as possible, of the fire-ravaged arcades and walls. Peter Ryder had the initial task of sifting the debris and of excavating trial pits to ensure rebuilding did not disturb buried human remains, as well as undertaking a detailed survey of the damaged structure. The last exercise revealed not only numerous medieval cross-slabs, but also quoins towards the base of the tower, thus confirming the building’s Anglo-Saxon beginnings. Not least, and crucial to the whole programme, were the organisational skills of the main contractors, MM Plasline Ltd.

Visual Arts Centre of the Durham Gilesgate Sixth Form Centre

If Brancepeth Church was the obvious choice for the Trust’s Commendation, the qualities of a second building so surprised Trustees that they decided, exceptionally, to award a second Commendation for 2005. In more recent decades school buildings have hardly been characterised by their architectural quality, but the new Arts Centre at Durham Gilesgate Sixth Form College immediately attracts attention. Appropriately sited towards the end of the drive through the grounds from Freeman’s Place, its satisfying curved form guides one towards the entrance of the main College building, which is itself thereby enhanced. (Before arriving at the Centre, the first sight of its distinctive outline of sloping monopitch roof and perforated white rendering may well recall to mind Le Corbusier’s famous chapel at Ronchamp.)

Externally, the steel frame exhibits terracotta cladding (echoing the red brick of the main building), glazing and white render. Inside, there are spacious studios and workshops for fine art, ceramics, textiles and fashion, together with an innovative ‘Window on the Arts’ programme, with a Chinese Artist in Residence. Confirmation of the whole project’s success is the comment of the headteacher, Mr Mike Brett, that the new environment had instilled an enhanced sense of pride and enthusiasm among its users.

The architect for the Centre was Ian Scott of Niven Architects of Darlington, who had earlier created a Learning Resource Centre by an imaginative infilling of a courtyard. The contractors for this second successful project were also MM Plasline Ltd.

See Bulletin 60, February 2006, for details of these buildings and other candidates for the award.