BUILDINGS AT RISK
ABERDEEN university's Crombie Halls of ResidencE
NEWS LEAKED IN EARLY JUNE
We understand from Ronald Leith, Chairman of the Old Aberdeen Heritage Society, that there is a major threat to the future of one of the finest buildings in Scotland by Sir Robert Matthew, architect of London's Royal Festival Hall.
The Crombie Halls of Residence were Aberdeen University’s first major postwar residential facility. Conceived in 1953, they were deferred until 1957 because of cost constraints and finally completed in 1960.
According to the architectural historian Miles Glendinning, Matthew’s covering note for the scheme explained that he had avoided giving the building any "monumental character" out of respect for the "generally small-scale, intimate" townscape of Old Aberdeen. The building is now Category "A" listed.
The Old Aberdeen Heritage Society has now been informed that its owner, the University of Aberdeen, is "in discussion with the authorities about having Crombie de-listed". This was stated at a public alumni event in Glasgow on 6 June 2018 by Professor Richard Wells, a Vice-Principal at the University.
PLANS STILL UNCERTAIN
It is not yet known how far discussions have progressed, nor whether the University has submitted a request to Historic Environment Scotland yet. If so, the request could be assessed and decided at any time.
The Heritage Society says it is shocked that the University might be attempting de-listing, preparatory to comprehensive alterations, interior and exterior, or even to have it demolished on "economic" grounds.
The University is understood, however, to be planning to demolish the neighbouring hall of residence, which is un-listed, and which, with Crombie, would give it a large tract of developable land.
In the view of the Society, there is no justification for de-listing Crombie Halls. They were listed Category "A" in 2004 and no permanent changes have been made since then, merely a temporary partition that is entirely removable.
Crombie Halls are described in the listing by Historic Environment Scotland as "an excellent and almost unaltered example of the early post-war private practice of Sir Robert Matthew" and "among the very best 1950's Modern Movement buildings in Scotland".
The Society has written to Docomomo Scotland about this and is inviting the support of Docomomo.UK as well, as this concerns the work of an architect with work of UK-wide significance.
HERITAGE SOCIETY'S REQUEST
According to Ronald Leith, the situation is "exceptionally worrying ... as the 'de-listing' process all happens behind the scenes, with only the owner of the building and the City Council being consulted. It was only by chance that we were informed of this risk. We understand that [developments] could happen quite quickly, and the University of Aberdeen does seem to have a lot of influence.
"We, who care about this stunning building, would be most grateful for any help that Docomomo.UK could give.
"If your members can help, could you please voice your protest as a matter of urgency to Dawn McDowell at Historic Environment Scotland (email firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ross Wilson, Senior Planner (Historic Environment), Aberdeen City Council (email email@example.com) as soon as possible.
MILES GLENDINNING WRITES
(from Robert Matthew, Modern Architect (RIBA Publishing, 2007, pp171-173)
As in the case of power stations ... another project originating in 1953, for Aberdeen University, paved Matthew’s way into the wider field of education building. The Aberdeen project established a pattern that was to become very prominent in his private practice—an institutional commission of modest character, that ‘grew and grew’, sometimes in unexpected ways, over a number of years. In spring 1953, with his ‘planning’ rather than ‘architectural’ hat on, Matthew was asked by the formidable but lugubrious University Secretary, William Angus, to prepare an overview report on student accommodation on the Old Aberdeen campus—which at that time was focused around the quadrangular Kings College group, facing on to the Old High Street, with its traditional burgage plots and backlands on either side. In early September, following a detailed walk around the area, Matthew prepared an initial report of impeccably Geddesian ‘conservative surgery’ character, which set out a general development formula for the area. This proposed extensive rehabilitation of the High Street to ‘maintain its character’, and concentration of new buildings around a series of ‘courts’ formed in the backlands. To the west of High Street, Matthew suggested that the library could be placed south of Meston Walk, and one ‘hostel’ (hall of residence) to its north and another at the far north end of Old Aberdeen. Matthew’s initial sketches of October and November 1953 indicated the Meston Walk hostel as a compact, three dimensional rectangular grouping, with a residential tower of around six storeys at the centre, a lower slab block along one side, and a wide refectory hall at one end—all with low pitched roofs. The overall effect was more abruptly picturesque and ‘traditional’ than Turnhouse - not unlike some 1930s/1940s Scandinavian social complexes such as Århus University (1935-47, by Kay Fisker, C F Møller and Povl Stegmann).
Over the following two years, the Aberdeen hostel project gradually matured. An initial scheme for piecemeal rehabilitation around High Street was prepared by Tom Spaven and Margaret Brown, but was eventually carried out by Robert Hurd’s firm. Increasingly Matthew focused on two aspects of the project: the design of Crombie Hall, the university’s first major postwar hall of residence, and, later, the preparation of an Old Aberdeen masterplan. Cost restraints forced deferral of the building of Crombie Hall until 1957-60, but Margaret Brown’s main design effort was finally underway by June 1955—by which time the site had been shifted south of Meston Walk. Brown’s final working drawings showed the women’s blocks brought into a tight courtyard grouping with the central block, their timber facing and two storey height contrasting effectively with the more muscular forms of the men’s block, with its harling and rubble, and jutting external service stair; the refectory was more free-flowing again, with its wedge shape, swept up roof and dramatic timber internal roof cladding. Travelling to Aberdeen to present the scheme to the University Court on 13 March 1956, Matthew’s schedule obliged him to travel up by overnight train from London. Nuttgens recalled that ‘Tom Spaven and I had to meet Matthew while the London-Aberdeen train was stopped at Waverley for a few minutes changing engines—we handed the Crombie Hall plans in through the window, briefed him quickly, and by the time he arrived in Aberdeen he’d completely mastered the brief. He was a phenomenon!’ Matthew’s covering note for the scheme explained that it had avoided any ‘monumental character’ out of respect for the ‘generally small-scale, intimate’ townscape of Old Aberdeen.
(We are grateful to Miles for letting us use this extract from his book.)