Saving our Architectural Heritage: Restoring British Landmarks for the Next Generation

Recently the bill for restoring the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament raised some eyebrows in the press, but in a country like the UK which is brimming with heritage, expensive restoration projects are the norm. What makes restoration so exciting is the combination of cutting-edge technologies and collaborative project management, and here at Restorative Techniques we know a thing or two about both.

As the new Channel 4 programme on restoring British landmarks hits our screens, we thought we would look back on some exciting restoration projects carried out on British landmarks. These projects span royal palaces and public theatres, and include some of the most inspiring British buildings.


Westminster Palace: Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben

Westminster Palace, which houses the Houses of Parliament, has recently made headlines with its vast restoration and renewal project. Especially the proposed silencing of the iconic Big Ben clock-tower caused much consternation in the press.

Though innovative for its day, this Gothic Revival building from the mid-1800s is in need of vast modernisation. Extensive rewiring and fire safety improvements are badly needed. The stonework has suffered from pollution and neglect, and internal plumbing regularly fails. Failing plumbing in turn creates irreparable damage to historic stone ceilings.

Asbestos, used as an insulator the post-war era, needs to be removed in large quantities. Asbestos is very dangerous and can cause lung damage so its removal is a priority. Where it cannot be removed, it must be isolated and regularly tested.

The logistical challenges of carrying out essential repair and maintenance work around Parliamentary sessions, means there is a huge backlog of work which needs doing at Westminster. The restoration and renewal project aims to tackle these issues head on, and bring the building up to 21st century standards over the next few years.


Image credit: Aiwok

Elizabethan theatres: The Globe and The Rose

Recreating Shakespeare’s theatre on London’s Southbank was a huge architectural and cultural project, largely funded by the American actor Sam Wanamaker. The idea behind recreating The Globe was that it would allow people to experience Elizabethan public theatres for themselves.

The Globe project was largely informed by the 1989 excavations of the nearby Rose Theatre. To this day, the Rose has only been partly excavated (now standing at two thirds excavated) and restored. Currently the foundations are covered in a few inches of water to stop cracks from developing. The Rose houses a few performances a year and runs a visitor centre which opened in 2007. Difficulties with funding have impeded the permanent restoration of the site.

The Globe project was also informed by contemporary woodcuts and references to Elizabethan theatres in print, though both were few and far between. The main issue with contemporary sources was the lack of any detailed description of the stage, which architects had to recreate by making educated guesses.

The project of actually recreating The Globe was not so much one of restoration, but total reconstruction. The Globe was painstakingly crafted using traditional methods- a unique collaboration between historians, builders, architects and archaeologists. In the Globe, oak staves support lime plaster made by traditional recipe and the whole building is covered in a traditional lime wash. Even timber (‘green oak) was cut and worked using 16th century methods.

The Globe was finally opened in 1997 by the Queen. It now attracts people from all over the world, who can pay £5 to experience watching a play standing outside like a ‘true Elizabethan groundling’.



Image credit: Bernard Gagnon

Tower of London: The White Tower

The White Tower, built in 1075 by William the Conqueror, was restored over 3 years in a massive £2 million cleaning and conservation project, finished in 2011.

The White Tower is a symbol of British royal and civic identity, though originally it was built by Norman invaders. The idea was that the majestic tower would scare Londoners and enemy invaders into submission.

Though The Tower has been restored on numerous occasions, part of the most recent restoration project was actually undoing damage done by previous restorations. This involved changing from hard cement-based pointing to more malleable lime mortar pointing.

Some of the pollution on the masonry had to be painstakingly removed by hand, revealing the true white colour of The Tower once more.

Thorough restoration and conservation projects always make sure that provenance traditions are upheld where possible. Part of the extensive masonry restoration project involved uncovering The Tower’s stone archaeology, tracking the provenance of all the various stones used. This helped builders replace decayed stones with appropriate, historically accurate substitutes.



Image credit: Duncan Harris

Royal Palaces: Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court, owned by the magnificently rich Cardinal Wolsey, was snapped up by Henry VIII in 1528 after Wolsey’s disgrace. It quickly became the King’s flagship palace, and the scene of many lavish banquets and feasts.

The royal family left the Palace in the 18th century, after which it was converted into ‘grace and favour’ apartments. During Queen Victoria’s reign the Palace doors were thrown open to visitors and the Victorians spent vast amounts of money restoring the building’s Tudor elements, removing things like 18th century sash windows.

Restoration works continued on and off for more than a century. A devastating fire in 1986 sparked a new era of restoration that lasted until the mid-1990s. In the 1990s considerable improvements were made to the visitor experience of the Palace. The Palace’s kitchens were also opened up to the public in spectacular fashion, as restoration work continued to focus on accessibility and ‘bringing history to life’.

The Palace’s complex geography which combines Tudor architecture with later Baroque additions has always challenged Hampton Court restoration projects. There have also been other logistical challenges over the years, like restoring old tapestries that had been scattered around and sourcing similarly scattered royal possessions.

The current restoration projects at Hampton Court, due to be completed in 2018, centre on the Baroque era of the Palace. The focus is on bringing key elements of the later Baroque additions to the public’s attention. So far this has included the opening of the only royal Chocolate Kitchens in 2014.


Image credit: Mvkulkarni23

London Bridges: Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge, built in the late 19th century, has become one of London’s best loved icons. Many people still confuse it with the earlier London Bridge from the nursery rhyme.

An extensive £4 million restoration project of the Tower Bridge was completed in 2011, which involved a huge network of scaffolding, grit blasting bascules and a full repaint.

All the metal paintwork was stripped, re-primed, and repainted. This new coat of paint now has a life expectancy of 25 years, which is quite long considering how easily paint weathers outside.

One of the trickier aspects of the project were the repairs made on the bascules. Bascules had to be raised and lowered so engineers could get to the damaged parts. Scaffolding was tricky to fit around the bridge and its bascules, and working so close to water brings its own challenges. From the erected scaffolding, people then had to grit-blast the bascules. Grit-blasting is an abrasive restoration technology which removes surface contamination, keeping the bascules in good working order for the next generations.

Keeping bridges in working operation is a tough job, and there are likely to be further extensive works needed on Tower Bridge.


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