Reviving Ruins

Veronica Simpson travels back in time to bring you some recent inspirational approaches to reincarnating ruins from our past

‘WELCOME TO ORFORD NESS,’ Artangel’s director, James Lingwood, declared as he greeted a small group of arts writers to this windswept island off the Suffolk coast for Artangel’s main summer event of 2021, Afterness. A former UK ministry of defence (MoD) testing site, now uninhabited except by hardy sheep, rare plants and birds and a poignant collection of sculptural, sound and written art works placed around the derelict laboratories and abandoned nissen huts. ‘This is a place in a state of curated decay,’ he quipped. It felt like an apt summary, not just for Orford Ness but for our times. As the planet warms and global economies implode, ‘curated decay’ feels about as good as we can hope for.

And when the world hits a high pitch of existential angst, it’s often the cue for a deep dive into the past, into the ‘romance’ of bygone ages, expressed through art, literature and architecture. As Svetlana Boym declared in her 2008 essay ‘Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins’, ‘The early 21st century exhibits a strange […] fascination for ruins […] In our increasingly digital age, ruins appear to be an endangered species, physical embodiments of modern paradoxes reminding us of the blunders of modern […] technologies, and the riddles of human freedom.’

With blundering technologies now dominating our lives and freedoms increasingly compromised, small wonder that buildings steeped in history – from the 20th century to the ancient – are establishing themselves as the favoured symbols of rebirth and regeneration: status with in-built soul.

A glimpse at the design media of summer 2021 reveals a plethora of projects that seek to harness the kudos and craftsmanship of past architectural icons in order to whet consumer appetites or add a patina of longevity and authenticity. A quick snapshot in September included studio Laplace and Piet Oudolf’s transformation of an 18th century naval hospital in Menorca into the latest Hauser & Wirth gallery, or Tadao Ando’s redesign of an 18th century stock exchange building, the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, as a showcase for Francoise Pinault’s 5,000-strong collection of artworks. That ultimate icon of modernity, Apple, now prioritises – and preserves – buildings of historic and cultural significance in its global store roll out. Following the success of the Foster + Partners-converted Washington DC Library in 2019 (Apple Carnegie Library), the firm’s latest temple of tech for Apple is the 19th century Palazzo Marignoli in Rome. Great emphasis has been placed on celebrating the building’s historic features, including marble staircases and the revelation of an old central courtyard, planted with camphor trees in a nod to the 16th century convent that previously existed here – a setting that is no doubt an attempt to reassure the troubled technophile that all is well, providing an atmosphere of sanctuary to stop them from questioning their addictions.

But retail and hospitality have long had a penchant for capitalising on architecture’s past glories to lend new concepts gravitas and allure. Of far more enduring value to the wider populace is when neglected or under-utilised, local landmarks are lovingly restored and reinvented for the whole community to enjoy. And that is a factor recognised in the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s decision to switch its pipeline away from culture and towards facilities that might improve community cohesion. In their current roster, historic buildings and significant sites feature prominently, from graveyards (such as Coventry’s London Road cemetery) to much loved but structurally at risk local institutions like The Courtauld.

Caruso St John, the London and Zurich based practice, may be better known for creating landmark buildings for art, such as Walsall New Art Gallery which made their name in 2000, or the various monolithic, sculptural statements they have conjured for New York commercial gallery Gagosian’s outposts, in London and elsewhere. But their current project is a building that is the opposite of ‘starchitecture’. It involves the quiet restoration and enhancement of an arts and crafts house in Arbroath, Hospitalfields, which itself was built on the ruins of a medieval monastery.

‘We have always been equally interested in working on existing and old buildings, as well as creating new ones,’ Peter St John tells me. But he agrees that the current mood has swerved away from extravagant statement buildings, and doubts that there will be many new buildings commissioned for culture, saying: ‘It does feel like a different time now. Things have changed. Now, it’s about being sustainable and stable.’ And sustainability takes into account not just the carbon footprint of construction, but also the wider social and economic landscape. Hospitalfield’s director Lucy Byatt sees their improved facilities and enhanced, year-round programme as key to unlocking this region as an attraction for culture-and food-loving visitors – perhaps starting or ending with the V&A in Dundee, 15 miles south, but also stopping to enjoy the spectacular Arbroath coast and fine, local food scene. Says Byatt: ‘We want to feel that this is a place to share. It’s a pretty nice part of the world to spend some time in.’

Collective, Edinburgh’s homegrown artist-run, not-for-profit, has likewise transformed a historic set of buildings, the Category A listed, 19th century William Playfair City Observatory on Calton Hill into a year-round destination for art and food lovers, with its restaurant and cafe, and a rolling programme of exhibitions and workshops. But what marks both of these Scottish schemes out is their modest budgets and careful husbandry of resources in making good what was once loved or lovely in order to let it live again. And that comes from a deep knowledge of place as well as audience. It was while occupying the Observatory for an Edinburgh Festival commission in 2010 that Collective director Kate Gray realised the potential for its reincarnation; and plenty of useful local insights were then gathered while Collective was camping out in portakabins during building works. What they heard from many a windswept dog walker was that they wanted loos, views and a cafe – which the new scheme provides in spades. However, it’s only by a stroke of luck that such gorgeous ruins were available to a small arts organisation, thanks to a peculiarity of Scottish law: As Gray says: ‘Edinburgh Council couldn’t do anything with it as it was held in the Common Good – the council was responsible for the buildings and could neither sell them off nor loan them to a private entity that might prevent public access.’

The donation of remarkable sites to unlikely recipients is not as unusual as you might think. The aforementioned Orford Ness was handed over to the National Trust in 1993, after the MoD had taken full advantage of its lack of neighbours to experiment with aircraft design, radar and even atomic bomb components, before, during and after two world wars. Now, after nearly thirty years of Trust stewardship, its re-wilding programme has been hugely successful, with a growing ecology of migrating birds, rare plants and lichens.

And this example articulates what is so seductive about restoring ruins at this time – it speaks of rehabilitation, of second chances; a re-discovery of forgotten legacies or enduring values re-appraised and re-celebrated. It speaks of care.

Care is something Witherford Watson Mann (WWM) knows more than a little about, having won a Stirling Prize for their sensitive insertion of a contemporary holiday apartment into the ruined fabric of Astley Castle in 2013. And their latest project, the transformation and restoration of the Courtauld Institute’s strange arrangement – essentially, five, completely separate Georgian townhouses – into one coherent whole, also shows huge respect for the era and the intentions of original architect Sir William Chambers while giving contemporary audiences a seamless, welcoming and distinctive experience.

As WWM wrote in their original Astley Castle submission: ‘We are convinced that history is not what happened to other people, but a dimension of human nature, and a fundamental part of our working conditions, even in the modern age.’

The most profound statement we can make right now is one that demonstrates that human nature through careful stewardship of resources – environmental, financial, emotional, social and cultural.


Orford Ness is an extraordinary island in a remote spot off the coast of Suffolk. From 1913, it had been used by the UK War Department and the Ministry of Defence for military experimentation, including the testing of aircraft, radar, homing beacons and atomic bomb components. When they moved out in 1993, it had been barely used for some time, and the island was slowly being reclaimed by diverse wildlife. Which will have inspired the decision to donate this uninhabitable spot to the National Trust, who have continued this bold re-wilding initiative, only occasionally interrupted by summer visitors. What brings these visitors to the site – and drives them to return many times – is that dual charge of seeing rare birds and plants thriving in a place once used to plan only destruction.

The island has to be accessed by a small and infrequent ferry boat, and there are few creature comforts, apart from one rudimentary toilet and an information hut. The point of being there is to revel in its wildness and its atmosphere of life interrupted: abandoned nissen huts, an octagonal, timber-clad lookout tower, rotting concrete laboratories and pavilions used to test explosives, it’s all there, just as the MoD left it – though given that history, it’s best to stick to the strictly prescribed paths that lead around the island.

Over summer 2021 (and hopefully again in 2022) some of these haunting structures have been occupied by artists, creating site specific works for a programme devised by public art pioneers Artangel. The poems of Ilya Kaminsky (born close to the Chernobyl reactor meltdown in Odessa, Ukraine, now living in the UK) can be listened to on headphones while walking between certain structures, including the octagonal, timber building – known as the Black Beacon – that also features field recordings by Iain Chambers, Chris Watson and Brian d’Souza, for a work titled Library of Sound. The building was constructed in 1927 to develop radio systems for marine navigation. Visitors to it now hear archival field recordings, captured on the Ness at various times of year, including boots on shingle, strong winds, the drone of a single bee.

Artist Alice Channer has inserted a spiky, metal sculpture like a mutant thorny plant into a small shelter next door. Shaped from rolled aluminium bars with sharp thorns welded onto the metal, they are designed to evoke both nature’s resilience but also the possibility of virulent mutations in nature caused by experimental fall-out.

Emma McNally has created a large, floating cloud of drawings that hovers above the floor of the concrete bunker known as the Armoury. Its dark multitude of circles and marks made with graphite on paper evoke subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, radar waves, or burning forests.


Most viscerally spooky of all is Tatiana Trouvé’s installation (The Residents) in Lab 1 – built in the 1960s for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment’s testing programme. Roofless and filled with water and wild plants, this lab is now ‘furnished’ with Trouvé’s haunting flotsam, speculative detritus from lives in transit: a suitcase, blankets, a child’s shoe, chairs, books and clothing lie around looking like the real, fragile thing but actually most of them are cast in aluminium or bronze. They speak of communities fleeing from danger, or obliterated in some apocalypse. A ruin brought to life in spectacularly eerie fashion.


The Courtauld Institute may present as one long, sweeping neo-classical facade as it faces The Strand, but behind this unified 1770s front, architect Sir William Chambers’ creation housed nine institutions in five Georgian townhouses, including the nascent Royal Academy, the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries and later the General Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths. The Courtauld only relocated there in 1989, doing its best to inhabit what the architects of its reinvention, Witherford Watson Mann (WWM), describe as ‘an idiosyncratic assemblage of disconnected suites’. A major overhaul of the whole complex has long been overdue; if its condition wasn’t quite ruinous, it was certainly endangered.

The lack of connections between buildings, the multiple changes of level between floors, and the accretions of various eras of office and administrative insertions made for a difficult institution to run both as an exhibition space, a collection and archive, and also an educational establishment. But it made the logistics of the redesign possibly more of a headache, along with the challenge of creating a coherent material and visual palette despite the various influences Chambers had drawn on – French classicism, Italian baroque, Inigo Jones and Vanbrugh – and all while adhering to the strict requirements of its Grade I listing.


Incorporating several major interventions and ‘1,000 small adjustments’, according to Stephen Witherford, refurbishment has been carefully calibrated to smooth the visitor’s journey around the complex, expand and upgrade both display and conservation space, and also support the Courtauld’s curatorial agenda, grouping its world class collection by themes. New and transformed galleries are devoted to the Medieval and Early Renaissance collection, as well as to 20th century art. A suite of six galleries will showcase some of the highlights of the collection, from Renaissance paintings to decorative arts, including the Courtauld’s celebrated works by Peter Paul Rubens. A new Bloomsbury Room is located on the top floor, in an immersive, domestic presentation, while in the attic, the removal of former apartments has made space for two full-height galleries where the Courtauld will host international loans.


Well-loved features, such as the Courtauld’s domed skylights and spiral staircase with its distinctive blue metalwork, are preserved, and new incisions between buildings subtly done – a new, York stone cantilevered staircase now connects the ground and lower ground floor, spiralling down in a nod to Chambers’ original staircase. A sense of ease in transitioning through the building is reinforced by the progressions of materials and volumes – rooms increase in size as the building rises, with the Great Room, London’s oldest purpose-built exhibition space, restored to its full, top-lit glory at its apex. It will also house The Courtauld’s collection of impressionist treasures.


The biggest move by far was the creation of a new vaulted lower ground floor beneath the entrance – right under the road that provides vehicular access to Somerset House. Concrete and brick combine in this new lower ground reception space, while on the floors above, traditional craftsmanship and contemporary technologies combine to achieve the finest finishes to all the plaster, stone, wood and concrete elements. As part of the Courtauld Connects project – with the second phase focusing on the Institute’s learning spaces – the idea, says WWM, is ‘about a change of culture, from an introverted institution segregated by disciplines to a culture of internal and external collaboration.’

The Courtauld Institute of Art
Witherford Watson Mann
Contract value
£39m (includes £11m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund)
Area (gross internal)
5,824 sq m
Phase 1 completed September 2021 (Courtauld Gallery, visitor spaces and conservation studios).


Hospitalfield has long had a place in the hearts, minds and summer cultural schedules of locals in Arbroath and the wider Scottish arts education community. Built in the 1850s by artist Patrick Allen-Fraser and his wife Elizabeth, this striking arts and crafts mansion emerging from the remains of a medieval monastery and a 17th century farmhouse, was filled with the work and craftsmanship of their many artist friends, and the couple put in place a legacy that would turn it into a residential art school after their deaths. It later evolved into a postgraduate school, used by all the leading Scottish art colleges for residencies and workshops, enriched by its idyllic, coastal setting, 15 miles north of Dundee.


But by the 1970s, this local landmark was struggling both financially and structurally. When Lucy Byatt took over as director in 2012, she launched a fundraising campaign to improve facilities for both visitors and artists and expand the programme while retaining all those best-loved qualities and characteristics of the house and its 60-acre site. In 2013, Caruso St John was selected through architectural competition for its thoughtful, low-key and long-term masterplan.

The first phase of that £12m vision was completed in summer 2021: restoration and replanting of the monastic, walled gardens (under the direction of Olympic Park designer Nigel Dunnett), plus the reincarnation of a ruined Victorian fernery, and the creation alongside it of a glasshouse companion, housing a new, permanent cafe, serviced by a professional catering kitchen.


While the house is important for its idiosyncratic style and impressive collection of Victorian paintings, drawings and sculpture, the gardens are arguably more vital to the surrounding community – not just to the volunteer garden maintenance team that has been nurtured over the years (rewarded for their efforts with their own plots for growing vegetables) but also to local primary schoolchildren, who have taken part in Hospitalfield’s annual parades and festivities, under the guidance of the education and outreach team plus visiting artists, for the last decade.

The next two phases entailed a new accommodation building – providing 10 bedrooms to supplement the current accommodation for residency visitors – within the west side garden, and a new studio building that will also be suitable for artists working in new media along with renovation of existing studios at the rear of the site. With these upgrades and extensions, says architect Peter St John, ‘We are improving facilities for artists, but also providing Hospitalfield with good accommodation so they can use the site more flexibly, for conferences and events. It’s about creating a revenue stream for the house to make it more sustainable.’

Caruso St John’s interventions respect and enhance the house’s history and its additive qualities – that visible layering of periods and uses - which makes it, says St John, such a special building, in the true spirit of the arts and crafts movement. The new accommodation building has been designed like a little cloister, making a garden within a field and incorporating an existing stone wall into the structure.

Contemporary elements – such as the steelwork that supports the new fernery roof, as well as the glazed courtyard café – sit lightly against the red sandstone and brick. To preserve the house’s tranquil atmosphere, parking has been relocated nearer to the main connecting road, in an area that, it is hoped, may one day feature a new collection building (Phase 4), which will be the first point of reception for visitors, with a shop, an open archive of the collection and an exhibition space.

Client: Hospitalfield
Architects: Caruso St John
Landscaping: €21 Nigel Dunnett
Cost: £12m over three phases
Completed: Phase one, summer 2021


The City Observatory was one of Edinburgh’s lost landmarks. A monument to the Enlightenment, this complex of Category A listed buildings, designed by William Playfair, had been enjoyed by amateur astrologers of the Edinburgh Astronomical Society since its construction in 1818, but it was in poor shape when it was finally vacated in 2009. The public – who had rarely been allowed into its neo-classical spaces – had pretty much forgotten it, despite the popularity of its prominent spot on Calton Hill, near Edinburgh’s National Monument (modelled on the Parthenon in Athens) and with panoramic views over the city.

When Edinburgh’s homegrown, not-for-profit contemporary art entity, Collective took over the space briefly in 2010 during the Edinburgh Art Festival, they saw its potential and took up temporary residence in two portakabins in 2013 while they fundraised and planned a more permanent development. In 2014, Collective’s director Kate Gray launched a competition to re-imagine these buildings as exhibition, office, workshop and retail spaces, which was won by Malcolm Fraser Architects (MFA). However, after MFA went into liquidation in 2015, the same scheme was taken on by the then Glasgow-based Collective Architecture (no relation) in 2015, retaining the original project architect Emma Fairhurst, who is now one of Collective Architecture’s permanent team.

Image Credit: TOM NOLAN
Image Credit: TOM NOLAN

A mixture of contemporary and restoration work, the scheme entailed extensive refurbishment of the City Observatory, Transit House and Observatory House (where resident astronomers were once accommodated) and restoration of the City Dome plus construction of new office and exhibition space, and a new restaurant.

With the rare luxury of referencing a set of Playfair’s original drawings, the architects were able to reinstate original features as Playfair had intended. This included restoring the City Observatory’s single central hall with double column arrangement, which allows light to flood into the space, now used for reception, retail and workshops. Some contemporary improvements to Playfair’s design include glazing two ‘Meridian Slots’ – 180-degree viewing apertures which slice into the roof and elevation of the east and west wings of this building. They had originally been covered in timber shutters, but now the night skies can be enjoyed by all (the original shutters are still there, and fully restored).

Image Credit: TOM NOLAN
Image Credit: TOM NOLAN

The smaller City Dome, added in 1895, has been stripped back to the original brick, and a false ceiling removed to create a dramatic and intriguing circular gallery space for exhibiting more established artists.

The architects added a new, two-storey restaurant, The Lookout, which cantilevers over the north-east corner of the boundary wall, and is designed to complement the geometries of the Playfair Monument, balanced diagonally opposite. Approached along the adjacent dining terrace, it appears to be single storey, supported by stone columns which anchor the building back into the hill. The pyramid roof is topped by a glazed oculus – a nod to the complex’s historic purpose. The full height glazing of this upper storey offers the same stunning views out over the city towards Fife as the terrace.

A new ‘Hillside’ gallery and office space for Collective was excavated into the basalt mound north of City Observatory. This earth-sheltered building becomes integral to the landscape, thanks to the roof terrace above it. Connections around and between these buildings are enhanced by the inspired landscaping scheme from Harrison Stevens Landscape Architects. The last element – a refurbishment of Observatory House into two elegant, luxury holiday apartments – will bring much needed revenue into Collective’s coffers, and adds unique and atmospheric accommodation for the city.

Client: City of Edinburgh Council, and Collective Art
Architects: Collective Architecture (competition scheme up to RIBA Stage 3 by Malcolm Fraser Architects).
Value: £4m
Completed: November 2018/Old Observatory House completed September 2021
Landscaping: Harrison Stevens Landscape Architects

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