Architecture: Barriers to change at Windsor Castle: The restoration of St George's Hall was settled before 'consultations', says Amanda Baillieu

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The Independent Culture
AFTER the big fire last November, the debate about Windsor Castle's restoration has failed to ignite. Conservationists thought the challenge of Windsor would clarify issues about restoration: it would be a textbook case of how to rebuild a ravaged historic building.

If conservationists imagined Windsor being restored to its exact former state, architects hoped contemporary design would be used to set Windsor aright - especially St George's Hall, an unremarkable example of Regency 'Gothick' designed in the 1820s by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, in which plaster walls imitated stone and the plaster ceiling imitated wood. The fire destroyed the roof of the hall.

At the end of April, it was announced that St George's Hall would be restored 'as it was before', although the possibility of further discussion about the roof was left open. Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, said that the Royal Household had been consulting with the leaders of the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and English Heritage about Windsor's rebuilding. But, in fact, crucial decisions regarding refurbishment had already been taken in principle months before this public relations exercise in consultation. The need for swift action was justified officially by the desire to cover St George's Hall with a new roof to protect what remained from the weather.

Last month Buckingham Palace announced that Donald Insall, the respected conservation architect, had been appointed as the co-ordinating architect for phases three and four of the reconstruction, which includes the ceiling of St George's Hall.

So the case for rebuilding St George's Hall in a contemporary style was scuppered before it had a chance of being developed seriously. Soon after the fire, the RIBA had argued that there was now an opportunity for the Queen to commission a dramatic new roof for the hall. The Royal Household itself had been divided. The Prince of Wales favoured a new, albeit conservative design - an oak hammer beam roof.

The Palace still insists that only a few irrevocable decisions about refurbishment have been made; nevertheless, work went ahead in February and March on drawing up the Palace's specifications for the new roof of St George's Hall, before the consultation with the experts of British architecture and heritage.

Lord Rodgers, director-general of the RIBA, says: 'I think in the end it was a disappointing outcome. We had been led to believe that everything was open to discussion. But it became plain that decisions had already been taken.'

Oddly, Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the RFAC, failed to make a case for a new roof at a meeting held on 22 April at Windsor chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh. The RFAC is normally a champion of modern architectural causes. Lord St John, who had been invited to Windsor in a 'personal capacity', agreed with English Heritage that the Wyatville interior should be restored. He must have known that his view about Windsor would not match that of his fellow commissioners.

When it became known that the Windsor meeting had taken place, Lord St John faced a rebellion. The commission met in May and agreed unanimously that to restore the Wyatville interior at St George's Hall would be wrong.

The Royal Fine Art Commission is empowered by a royal warrant to intervene in any project or development that 'may appear to affect amenities of a national or public character'. Several commissioners thought it odd that they had been debarred from doing just that in this case.

So after the fire we have the ashes of British muddle, a bungled consultation. As one senior conservationist working at Windsor admitted, 'People at the top put their foot down. We will never know what we could have had because the debate about Windsor's future was never thrown open.'

(Photograph omitted)

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