The £5 million Clifford’s Tower conservation project is a pioneering example of how to do a light-touch intervention on a historic monument, writes Teshome Douglas-Campbell. Photography by Dirk Linder
Only five minutes walk from York Town centre, populated with staple high-street brands, sits the medieval Clifford's Tower – the existing fabric of which has been conserved, and a new timber deck and suspended walkways added, by Hugh Broughton Architects in partnership with conservation specialists Martin Ashley Architects for English Heritage.
Strategically placed at the crotch of the river Ouse and the River Foss, the tower is perched stoically and defensively on top of a 15m-high conical mound, the beefy lobes of its rounded buttresses forged from heavy stone blocks.
English Heritage’s head properties curator Jeremy Ashbee refers to the site as ‘a place of phenomenal change’. It’s a structure with an eventful history, being the largest surviving element of the Castle of York established by William the Conquerer in 1068.
Built from the need to assert a military stronghold after the Norman conquest, it harks back to an age when York was the strategic centre of secular government for the whole of northern England. Clifford’s Tower has since been the site of many notorious events, the most tragic being the massacre of the city’s Jewish population who took refuge in the tower from anti-Semitic riots which swept the country in 1190.
After an explosion in 1684 left much of the building scarred and in disrepair, it remained in a relatively untouched ruinous state until some restorations in 1935.
Given the chequered history embedded in its fabric, it made sense to pay homage with only the gentlest of touches in its conservation. As Ashbee says: ‘We’re not by any stretch pretending to renew Clifford’s Tower into a royal palace.’
With little indication of any architectural intervention from the foot of the mound, internally this project takes the approach of employing contemporary industrial materials to contrast with and accentuate the surrounding history, offering a hybrid experience of the ancient and the contemporary.
On entry, looking up, a vast square aperture punctures the new timber roof structure, opening up to the sky. Reminiscent of a James Turrell installation, the opening allows in light and a cascade of dramatic shadow-play throughout the double-height space. A comfortable contradistinction is created between the precise geometry of the timber elements and the irregularity of weathered masonry.
The structural interventions essentially create a shelter over the existing structure to make the space functional while not encroaching on it too much.
Jagged turret window openings are left open to the elements, underlining to visitors this is a ruin that has stood for centuries. With this comes a duality of the here-and-now with the historical, as the sound of cars and passers-by are allowed to permeate the tower's defences. This could be offputting or detractive, but the combination of different architectures makes clear this is a celebration of a confluence of history and the present, an approach carried out throughout the building.
What’s notable is that the structure is so forthcoming in its legibility. Visitors without construction knowledge are able to see clearly how the structure supports itself. This is not some high-tech intervention but rather a labour of care, craft and attention to detail.
Hollow glulam columns sitting in each quarter of the space are the main supports of the loading of the roof structure while taking concealed rainwater downpipes to the floor. Advances in material technology allow for a thin slab of exposed concrete to form the floor and work together with columns to spread the load equally over the whole footprint of the space. As a result, this has minimised any need to bore into the mound so as not to compromise the original tower’s structural integrity or disturb archaeological remains in the soil.
‘What we’ve done structurally here at Clifford’s Tower would have been impossible using 20th-century technology,’ says practice director Hugh Broughton.
Historical references have also influenced the design process and final outcome, in particular taking cues from an early Lowry painting that depicts the steep entrance to Clifford’s Tower. Broughton explains that they were keen to preserve the visual identity of the impressive 55-step entrance, so opted for providing a resting platform every 10 steps to allow breaks in the ascent as opposed to inserting any stair-free access.
Throughout the space leading up to the roof deck, there’s a careful use of industrial materials. Wire-mesh fencing and metal grating minimise visual intrusion while lightweight steel stairs reduce the perceived bulk of the circulation. It makes it easy to focus attention on the physicality of the tower itself.
Helping to animate the experience, the tower’s roof deck now features a 360-degree viewing platform with integrated amphitheatre seating. New interactive elements such as soundscape installations and a performance space provide the potential for multiple ways to interact with and interpret the architectural heritage, given that not everyone enjoys gawking geekily around historic monuments as you might do in a museum.
Overall, the architecture, with its light-touch intervention in the historic fabric, refreshingly leaves space both for interpretation and appropriation for future uses while staying true to its story.
Teshome Douglas-Campbell is an architectural designer for TRIBE Meditation Retreat and an alumnus of the New Architecture Writers (NAW) programme
It has been a special privilege to work with English Heritage on such a significant project for the city of York, and we are thrilled that the tower can now enjoy the next chapter in its rich and varied life. The entire project team has worked so collaboratively and so hard to deliver a project of excellence. The existing fabric has been carefully conserved, and enhanced interpretation introduces visitors to the many stories associated with the tower and the wider castle precincts. The timber deck and suspended walkways improve access, introduce visitors to previously unseen historic fabric, allow more time for people to enjoy the spectacular views of York and complement the special character of Clifford’s Tower. Hugh Broughton, director, Hugh Broughton Architects
At Clifford’s Tower, new architecture is transforming a centuries-old landmark, opening it up and unlocking its secrets. We’re protecting Clifford’s Tower for future generations and inspiring more people to discover its stories. Kate Mavor, chief executive, English Heritage
Start on site: November 2020 Completion date: March 2022 Gross internal floor area: Existing 340m2, new areas 375m2 Gross (internal + external) floor area: 715m2 Procurement route: Commissioned by English Heritage Construction cost: £5 million Construction cost per m2: £6,993 Architect: Hugh Broughton Architects Conservation architect: Martin Ashley Architects Client: English Heritage Structural engineer: Ramboll M&E consultant: Preston Barber Quantity surveyor: RNJ Interpretation designer: Drinkall Dean Project manager: English Heritage Principal designer: Philip Waller Consulting Approved building inspector: City of York Council Main contractor: Simpson (York) CAD software used: Vectorworks
On-site energy generation: None Annual mains water consumption: N/A Airtightness at 50Pa: N/A Heating and hot water load: N/A Overall area-weighted U-value: N/A Design life: 100 years Embodied/whole-life carbon: Upfront embodied carbon 363 kgCO2eq/m2 Whole life embodied carbon: 451 kgCO2eq/m2 (including timber sequestration benefits)
Tags conservation English Heritage Hugh Broughton Architects Retrofit Tower York
York is definitely a city
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