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The Royal Military Asylum was built in 1803 to educate and discipline the children of soldiers. One thousand boys and girls, strictly segregated and provided with either military training or the skills required for domestic service, were drilled in vast ‘classrooms’ 250 at a time. The building, constructed of brick with Portland stone trimmings, is practical, highly formal and, internally at least, simple. As a piece of solid, no-nonsense architecture the asylum neatly expresses the rational and uncompromising values of its age. A State-sponsored institution, it is a pared-down palace, an intimidating barrack block of some grandeur. The building is fronted by a running track on which, it is said, Roger Bannister trained for the 4-minute mile. It is here, in 2007, that art collector Charles Saatchi will relocate his collection after withdrawing it from London’s County Hall…

Over two centuries, the asylum (later renamed the Duke of York’s Headquarters) has suffered more than its fair share of repairs, adjustments, modifications and indignities, although its essential robustness has allowed the building to survive with only superficial scars. The most significant intervention was the 19th-century removal of the classroom mezzanines and the construction of a second floor in their place. Less intrusive, although quite ridiculous, was the more recent partitioning and dry-lining of the building to create a new set of interiors for the Territorial Army and a variety of other military occupants: the original fireplaces disappeared behind plasterboard while their ersatz equivalent appeared elsewhere, in no relation to the chimneys, throughout a labyrinth of cubby holes and wardrooms. The rigid internal geometry of the building was obliterated. And the second floor, home to an intelligence and communication element of the SAS, became virtually closed to the rest of the world – cages, access keypads and high security locks made entry an awkward process and imprisoned is occupants. (In the 19th century, when functioning as a school, occupants were educated under the monitorial system devised by the Reverend Andrew Bell, in which talented pupils would teach others; these ‘sargeant monitors’ were empowered to order cadets who were paying insufficient attention into an iron cage which would be suspended from the ceiling.)

During 2006 the military vacated the building and it became the subject of yet another reinvention. Under the direction of Paul Davis and Partners, working for the Cadogan Estate, the entire complex was stripped back to its essential self. For a brief moment, one could glimpse simultaneously both the workman-like mass of the original building and the broken inner skin of more recent times which purported to lend the building some sort of respectability; the heavy doors of that SAS comms unit swung open easily and rooms were piled with builders’ junk. The architectural team also discovered that the parapet gutters in the dormitory wings had, for two centuries, been too small to cope with sudden downpours, and frequent inundations had caused the ends of many joists to rot dangerously.

The asylum, originally a confident expression of the ambition and reach of the State, had become merely a container for government employees. Apart from the historic value of its imposing facade, the building itself had become almost irrelevant. Part of the job of the architects was to look for any residual value in the building itself, to rediscover the rigour of its geometry and volumes.

‘Everything you can think of in an old building, we’ve found it,’ said project architect Alec Howard. ‘But as we start to strip away its old clothes, I think we start to get back something of the building’s dignity.’

Paul Davis, founder of the practice, talks about the ‘energy’ of buildings – they acquire it, he says, and energy can subsequently fade. Davis is an interesting man. His practice has established a strong reputation for restoring and reusing elderly and listed buildings, often for the Grosvenor and Cadogan Estates in Central London. But Davis is far from a sentimentalist and his primary interest is neither historical nor conservation-led. Instead, Davis is sensitive to ‘the trace of human use’ and the ‘spirit’ of a place. That being the case, his rationale is often hard to pin down and his responses to any site have much to do with how a building lodges itself in Davis’s imagination through subtle suggestion. ‘I always like to go into a building for the first time, trying to feel its past, and what it might be,’ says Davis, who some years back walked into the Victorian interior of Number 15 Sloane Square and decided on a programme of uncompromising facadism because the building had become, he felt, ‘dead, spiritually’.

‘It felt so depressed. That’s one of the ones I’ve felt the strongest about,’ says Davis. ‘It’s incredibly important to feel open to a building and to be able to take your lead from it. Sometimes I can feel it immediately; occasionally it takes longer to get a feeling for a place. It’s about letting a building talk to you and not walking inside with a lot of preconceptions.’

In many ways, Davis has the temperament of a Romantic artist. His approach is intensely personal, one based on subjective judgements rather than established systems; he is more comfortable quoting sources and influences than discussing methods. He will discover what moves him and then try to establish what it was that made the difference – it might be the quality of light, a geometric purity or the embodied energy of a culture or era that is implicit within a building …

This is an extract from David Littlefield’s text on the Royal Military Asylum, featured in David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis, Architectural Voices: Listening to Old Buildings, John Wiley & Sons (Chichester), September 2007, ISBN 978-0-470-01673-2. It is priced £24.99.

The book can be purchased on line direct from John Wiley or Amazon: