A storm is brewing. A story, recently revealed in Truro Voice (16 June 2021), perfectly shows the strength of feelings that buildings have the potential to stir. On one side of the argument is the reasoned claim that ‘It’s a unique building despite its dilapidated state’ while angry comebacks portray local communities as being ‘devastated’ and ‘spitting with rage’. So what is the furore all about?
The former infants’ school at Treyew in Truro was built for Cornwall County Council between 1959 and 1961, having been designed by Harry Dootson, Michael Kirkbride and G. Harper of the council’s Architects’ Department as led by F.K. Hicklin. It was later extended and used as a community centre. In response to the immediate threat of demolition, an application was lodged with Historic England who, after meticulous investigation, applied a Grade 2 listing on the building. The process of applying a statutory listing is robust and involves exhaustive research to understand a building’s architectural and historic significance. The outcome of this work shows that Treyew School is noteworthy because of its progressive design that deploys five linked hexagons to create an inspired, perfectly functional, cluster plan and the use of locally distinctive materials including Delabole slate-stone and pre-cast concrete panels, possibly made from china-clay waste. Its state of survival, despite its obvious neglect, is remarkable − the importance of the interiors and outdoor ‘arena’ were particularly noted by Historic England. After its construction Treyew School received a Civic Trust Award, was used as an exemplar by the Ministry of Education and received positive coverage in the persuasive Architects’ Journal. Beyond the importance of its design and quality of materials used the building contributes significantly to our understanding of the social need for the local authority to provide schooling facilities.
In many ways Treyew school is a typical example of how significant historic assets are often left to rot over many years without any recourse. The Cornish Buildings Group who lead an initiative on buildings at risk has uncovered many cases of severe neglect on a whole range of buildings types including chapels, important houses, farms, quayside buildings and schools. We welcome the listing but remain sensitive to the community’s desire to demolish. After all, the planning legislation provides for the listing of or designation of historic buildings and structures, but leaves it in the hands of the Local Planning Authority to demolition of a listed building if the public benefit outweighs the harm to the historic asset. We hope that once the initial upset subsides, a tough conversation can commence that will balance the building’s special architectural and historic interest with the needs of the community. Of course, listing does not preclude demolition and some might argue that years of mistreatment has created a default situation whereby demolition has become a foregone conclusion, the loss of such a remarkable and important building should not be the reward of neglect. The listing will ensure that its historic significance will be fully taken into account when future discussions take place, this can only be a good thing which hopefully may serve to reach a conclusion that pleases opposing viewpoints. Our hope is that the existing building can be repurposed or the benefit of the local area. In the extreme situation that the building has gone beyond repair (which is seldom the case), then at the very least a historic buildings report should be compiled that properly acknowledges its important design, construction and history.
Several years ago the Cornish Buildings Group campaigned for the survival of the Foster Complex in Bodmin – an unlisted complex that was demolished without the production of a building record. We applied four times for listing without success and our campaign prompted questions to be raised in the House of Lords about the sustainability and sensibility of flattening historic assets. The world has moved on since then and lessons have been learnt but our work highlighted the need for open conversation taking in all views before historic assets, whether listed or not, are lost. Our past casework around the Tregolls Road area of Truro, which was prompted by the loss of the Tudor Gothic Tremorvah house, the Art Deco Brookdale hotel, the Brutalist police station and currently the potential loss of St Paul’s church in Truro, serve as a reminder about how historic character and setting can be lost at the swing of the wreckers ball. Perhaps the bigger question here revolves around the duty to look after redundant and empty buildings, Treyew perhaps is proof that investment in maintenance would have been money well spent.
Treyew has suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ but are we better off without it? Or, is it a case of potential architectural vandalism? You decide. The full listing can be seen at Former Treyew County Primary Infants School, Truro – 1475907 | Historic England which can be measured against the application to have it demolished which can be found on the Cornwall Council planning portal PA20/10693.