Last year (2010) Trustees did not give any award, and now, in the manner of buses, two have come along together, the World Heritage Visitor Centre in Owengate and nearby, the Zizzi Italian restaurant at 43-44 Saddler Street. Both are essential components on the visitors’ route to the cathedral. Both are restorations incorporating new build which have been brought back vitality and interest to the historic core.
The World Heritage Visitor Centre occupies the 19th century almshouses half way up Owengate. At first glance the only external alteration is a modest projecting sign; closer inspection will reveal careful, minimal restoration of the stonework. Inside, the first reaction is surprise at the light and welcoming entrance, not at all the dimness which must have characterised the former dwellings. The answer lies in the creation of a central conservatory or atrium between the former main living quarters. Beyond again, is an open, paved courtyard. Throughout, the treatment has respected the basic simplicity of the units, care extending even to using reclaimed floorboards and re-inserting old fireplaces from the County Council store. The modern additions have an equal simplicity in line and detail. The blend of old and new is, at the same time, both convincing and honest, with no attempt to disguise the two.
On the ground floor the former units provide a reception area and rooms with exhibitions and videos and mementoes for sale. Upstairs are rooms for the WHS Co-ordinator, Seif El Rashidi, Centre staff and, appropriately, the University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Study.
We are indebted to several sources for the finished result which we see. The basic design was undertaken by Harrogate Design until they ceased trading, when the work was taken over by Howarth Litchfield of Durham, who oversaw the site work. The contractor was Vest Construction. The University’s own Estates and Buildings was responsible for project management. Finally, it would have been impossible to record any of this without the generosity of the University itself, which donated the site.
Unfortunately, the World Heritage Visitor Centre has been moved to Palace Green Library, against public resistance, and this building is now closed to the public.
Nos 43-44 Saddler Street has had its frontage boarded up for several years and been the cause of many a letter from Trustees to the Planning Officer. The fascinating late 18th century double frontage with its Doric columns supporting segmental arches, and with the ‘drunken’nature of its main fenestration, is now beautifully shown exemplary respect for its context.
Happily, they and their architects recognise that the attractive frontage has sufficient inherent interest not to need any standard attention-seeking treatment characteristic of many a retailer. Its advertising is applied in a subtle manner, but, then, its wide windows – when the eye has stopped focusing on its ancient glass – reveal a lighted interior, which is in itself the best advertisement.
It is noteworthy that ASK Restaurants, which has 120 outlets in Britain, has a policy of respecting the context in which it operates: there is no standard livery to be applied, irrespective of location. Here, respect for context continues inside, with evocation of the cathedral woven into seat design and large mural on the stairs between the two floors. Other regional references can be found. Their architect was Stiff-Trevelyan of London.
The building is on a different scale from that of the other award winner in that it falls through five floors down the riverbank. Crucial earlier work, therefore, was that undertaken by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners of London, both internally and with the restoration of the back elevation. The latter, fully visible from Elvet Bridge, happily retains a traditional appearance.
See Bulletin 72, February 2012, for details.