Why less is definitely more when reinventing estate buildings

To avoid an institutional air use a lighter touch, suggests Interiors Editor Giles Kime.

You don’t need to look far for examples of buildings that have been buffed with such enthusiasm that they take on an institutional air. An increasingly popular alternative solution is do as little as possible, other than making a building structurally sound, protected from the elements, functional and thermally efficient. This approach owes much to a cocktail of influences, in particular, the work of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa. He liked to allow buildings to tell their own story, notably, Verona’s magnificent Castelvecchio Museum, perhaps the most eloquent expression of this desire.

riding house

Equally influential were those free spirits who colonised New York lofts in the 1970s, who revelled in revealing the raw innards of a building. More recently, the use of reclaimed materials – a practice turned into an artform by interior designers such as Maria Speake and Adam Hills of Retrouvius – has demonstrated the exciting possibilities of living with timeworn materials.

A breathtaking manifestation of this approach is the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury’s recent restoration of the 17th-century stables at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset, where they have exercised the same refreshing restraint that garnered them awards for their sensitive reinvention of the main house. The latter reveals its past with exposed brickwork, plaster and layers of wallpaper, but the Riding House features eight bedrooms among the loose boxes, with timeworn finishes that create spaces with a gloriously intimate atmosphere through the synthesis of ancient and luxuriously modern. You’ll be hard pushed to find any hint of a mezzanine floor or a steel spiral staircase.

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riding house bathroom

Although all this might seem like putting a light hand on the tiller, it’s anything but. Old buildings, particularly those that were never intended to be habitable, come in all sorts of awkward shapes and sizes. An unsung example of this genre is the Hunting Tower, designed for Bess of Hardwick by Robert Smythson (the architect of Hardwick Hall, Longleat, Wollaton and so on), which towers majestically over the park at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Consisting of four floors with a plan that would defeat most designers, it has been transformed by a healthy mix of pragmatism and gusto.

The heartening result of this approach is spaces with a charm and intimacy that would have been lost if they had been destroyed by either an obsession with period perfection or heavy-handed modernism. More, I suspect, will follow in their wake.