Profile - Dean & Chapter

Kate Griffin talks to former SPAB scholar Ptolemy Dean, who has recently been appointed Westminster Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric 

Ptolemy Dean with his sketchbookAsked about The Shard, architect Ptolemy Dean is initially diplomatic. “It’s been very interesting to see the way that it was built,” he says of the great glassy spike that overshadows his own Southwark office and pretty much everything else on the London skyline.

After a moment he continues: “Unfortunately it looms up everywhere now. It’s a constant presence wherever you look. It totally destroys the view from the Tower of London, shattering the sense of medieval authenticity of that place. It turns up over Parliament Square – poking up above the roof of Parliament. It means wherever you go in London you can never escape this particular symbol of contemporary commerce and I do find that very sad.”

Dean’s own architectural practice is situated at the end of a discreet alleyway off bustling Borough High Street – just few hundred yards from The Shard – in an old building that was once an office for the trade of hops arriving into London from Kent.

He explains: “A friend of my parents used to be a hop trader from Faversham and remembers coming to these offices. I’m a Kent person too so it seems very appropriate. In fact…” he grins, “…some stray hops still grow at home in summer – a nice reminder of the link, I think?”

Once you step through the arched entrance to the passage leading down to Dean’s office you are immediately aware of the rich history of this part of London.

One of the buildings incorporated into the passage is the former Old Goat Inn. “It was, apparently, South London’s last jettied building,” he explains. “It was gutted sometime after it was recorded as such by The Survey of London in the 1950s and is just a shell now, but, certainly, it remains a very evocative place.We’re in the heart of old Southwark here. You can easily imagine the pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales setting off from inn yards just like this one – after all this is London’s gateway to Kent, hence the hop trade.”

Dean points out that the passage where his office is situated is typically medieval. “There are many ‘secret’ alleyways like this off Borough High Street. I often think it’s rather like the old Royal Mile in Edinburgh where I was a student.”

The Wren model of Westminster AbbeyHe has co-written a study of Borough Market and he clearly enjoys working in this busy and increasingly ‘cool’ part of London. Close to the tourist-magnet food market and the biscuit-coloured bulk of Southwark Cathedral – where he and his wife Charlotte were married and where he worked for several years with architect Richard Griffiths on an ambitious and playful extension project – his office now employs nine other people, including two who have trodden the SPAB Scholarship route followed by Dean himself in 1993, and a Philip Webb Award winner.

The office is a hive of activity, the team working on projects involving a wide range of buildings, from the domestic to the extremely grand.

“We are very, very busy at the moment. In July, we’ll have been here for seven years, which doesn’t seem possible. But I fear that we might be moving into slightly uncomfortable territory. If you become larger – to a certain extent – you lose control. Your creative input becomes diluted by growing management responsibilities. That’s not a satisfying prospect and one I am keen to avoid.”

Earlier this year Dean took on a challenging and supremely satisfying role when he was appointed asWestminster Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric.

He smiles broadly as he explains: “I’ve become a member of college – that’s the ancient body that runs the Abbey. I’ve been installed – on special occasions I now have to wear black and scarlet robes so I look rather like our old school chaplain. And I have a stall in the quire.”

He says it is an “enormous privilege” to join this illustrious and ancient body and freely admits that he feels “the weight of history” bearing down on his shoulders. “When I think that my predecessors included people likeWren, Hawksmoor, JamesWyatt, George Gilbert Scott and SPAB’s ownWilliam Lethaby after whom the Scholarship is named – it’s a huge responsibility.”

Given that the Abbey, probably under Dean’s care, will at some point play a leading role in some of the nation’s most significant moments of history and pageantry – not least a coronation – you begin to get a sense of the importance of the appointment.

“And, of course, the Abbey is the most extraordinary building.” Dean continues. “It’s a Royal Peculiar and so outside the normal cathedral consent process. In some ways this gives you more freedom, but in others it’s more restrictive so it’s going to interesting…and fun!”

(Pay close attention to that word, it’s something that Dean believes in very strongly when it comes to architecture.) Starting officially atWestminster on March 1, he has inherited some interesting on-going projects from his predecessor John Burton as well as some new challenges, notably a project to create easier access to the vast triforium at gallery level. The design will include a lift and new staircase. “The challenge will be to make it work and to make sure that this addition is visually positive and appropriate,” Dean says.

In 1745,Westminster Abbey as we know it today was finished when the west towers were completed to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor.Wren died in 1723, and Hawksmoor became Surveyor of the Abbey in his place. It was Hawksmoor who oversaw the completion of the Towers.Wren’s working model of the Abbey is in the triforium.

Less controversially, one of his first tasks at the Abbey was to commission a stone to National Trust founder Octavia Hill. “I thought that was rather fitting. The National Trust specifically asked that Rory Young should be the person to carve it and I was simply delighted. It was the most wonderful link because Rory was one of the first people I met on my Scholarship year.We spent a very enjoyable weekend in his house at Cirencester and he taught us about lime – indeed he had a lime pit in his garden.”

Henry VII chapel at Westminster AbbeyDean has fond and positive memories of his year as a SPAB Lethaby Scholar. “Do you know, I only applied at the last minute?” he laughs. “I was sitting at a desk one afternoon feeling a bit gloomy and I realised that I didn’t want to be in the same place in a year’s time. I remembered being told about the Scholarship and that was it. I looked it up and saw the deadline was that very day, but with no specific time. So, I filled in the application that evening and practically took the last bus over to Spital Square to hand it in at about five minutes before midnight. I had a strong feeling that it was absolutely the thing to do.”

Dean says the biggest impact of the Scholarship for him was The Plunket stage where scholars spend time working on individual projects in some of the nation’s finest country houses. It was the beginning of his deep interest in the work of architect Sir John Soane – a subject on which he has written two books.

“Little did I know that those glorious weeks would lead to 13 years of Soane research, but it was inevitable. I was staying in these wonderful houses, often with the descendants of Soane’s actual clients and I had been able to bring photocopies of his original design drawings with me. I fell in love with the thinking process shown in his drawings, many of which had never, previously, been re-united with the houses.

“Plunket takes away any sense of time, so there I was, no email, no mobile, no distractions. They were heavenly days – just me, the people, the house, the parkland and the passage of time and weather. I drew every day and it dawned on me that the architectural plans were just a fraction of the Soane process. So much more of it was about his daily experience on site – talking PHOTO: AWESTMINSTER ABBEY and collaborating with the builders, and about that other great architectural temptation of changing one’s mind on site. I think that in those weeks I really learned about the architectural process, and I realised that, historically, it was absolutely the same process then as it is now. And, quite simply, it was great fun.”

Back to that word “fun”.

Dean comes from creative stock. His sister Tacita is an acclaimed Turner-Prize nominated artist working primarily with film and his grandfather Basil Dean was a theatre actor, writer, director, film producer and founder of Associated Talking Pictures, which later became Ealing Studios.

It’s almost inevitable that his own work has such artistic and theatrical swagger. He squirms, visibly embarrassed, when asked about his (considerable) artistic talents, but admits that there is something of the showman in him. “I think an awful lot of what we do as architects is…choreography,” he says, thinking for a moment before expanding on this. “Our work is often like creating a stage set and we are the choreographers who can shape emotional responses to what you see and experience within buildings, and, almost more importantly, in the outside spaces that lie between them.”

"When I think that my predecessors included people like Wren, Hawksmoor, James Wyatt, George Gilbert Scott and SPAB’s own William Lethaby after whom the Scholarship is named – it’s a huge responsibility" Ptolemy Dean on his appointment to the post of Surveyor of the Fabric at Westminster Abbey.

Warming to his theme, he continues: “I do think there’s been, in the recent past, a tendency for architecture to be rather serious. Frankly, some jolliness would go a long way. It’s so easy to take a completely bleak and functional approach to repair, but why not make things just a little more fun?”

Dean begins to measure his words, perhaps aware that what he is about to say might sound heretical to SPAB purists. There’s a mischievous glint in his eye when he adds: “I really think that we shouldn’t produce work that is banal and dreary. The phrase ‘conserve as found’ is often quoted, but 90 per cent of the time you are removing hideous and ill-considered alterations from the post-war period or something that really intrudes into the sense of a building’s character and composition. Repairs require as much design skill and understanding as new design and I think that this need not necessarily be a timid and overly cautious response.

“As to the dogma about ‘overtly expressing honesty’ – it seems to me that it is, in reality, very hard to conceal the date of when something was really built. Every Victorian church one has ever been to – however hard they’ve tried to replicate medieval styles – is always pretty easy to date. There is no building that conceals its age, really, when you look properly.

“So, for me there is no real need to justify creating a stylistically discordant addition simply ‘because it is honest’ if something quieter and kinder would benefit the overall sense of composition. I think we should talk more about beauty and ugliness for buildings.”

He believes, passionately, that a good building – no matter its age – should sit well in its landscape and background. “Take the bookshop by architects Gillespie Kidd & Coia for Wadham College at Holywell Street, Oxford. It was built in the 1970s to a very strident, modern design. But it fitted into the Oxford streetscape perfectly because of the care taken with its materials and scale. It was sensitive to its site. But last Christmas I saw that this great example of 1970s contextualism is being redeveloped and I feel very sad about that.”

Ptolemy Dean at works on Salisbury CathedralDean readily admits that his feelings about conservation can be conflicted. “Some farm building conversions are just so awful one almost wishes they had been left to fall down. You are longing to go over the next hilltop and see a beautiful, romantic and decaying barn that you can draw. If these buildings are not saved and given a new use they will collapse, but it must be possible to convert outbuildings so that their essential character can be better preserved? It’s all such a delicate balance this unpicking, this unravelling. It’s a challenge.”

When Dean talks about “longing” to draw something, it’s no affectation. This is man who draws compulsively no matter where he is. His sketchbook is his constant companion.

If he arrives early for a meeting, he draws the street scene around him. He uses the daily commute from his family home in Kent for design work and painting. “I love my hour of peace on that train. There are nine tunnels so no one can find you or reach you by phone – and because we live in England no one says a word.”

Viewers of the BBC2 Restoration programmes, which Dean co-presented as “ruin detective” with fellow SPAB Scholar Marianne Suhr, will recall the marvellously detailed, lightning-fast sketches he produced on camera. He also deployed this skill in the BBC4 series The Perfect Village, which lead to a book of his sketches, Britain’s Buildings: Place & Spaces, published by DK in 2008.

Dean sighs: “The book was never really publicised. Every year I receive a publisher’s royalty statement saying I am more in debt from returns during the previous year.”

He is modest about his talent, explaining that he always draws swiftly from left to right on the page. He is dyslexic and when asked if this is his way of making detailed notes about a building or project he considers the question for a moment then nods. “I’ve never thought about it like that before, but yes that could be true. There might well be something in that.”

He continues: “I am evangelical about drawing. It helps you distil what is essential about a building. You stand there and listen to the sound of the place and almost absorb it. I miss trains, I delay meetings, I upset my family because it [drawing] has to be done. It’s all part of life – to do with looking, really looking. You should never stop looking. Your creative juices are starved by not looking.”

Despite his various television appearances, you sense that Dean is quite happy not to be looked at and recognised so frequently these days. “If I am it’s usually by elderly ladies at National Trust properties, never young ones.” He hoots with laughter and adds: “But I was very grateful to those programmes for allowing me to visit some wonderful places and for the fact that I had Marianne as a colleague.

“We don’t see each other or talk often, but when we do we just pick up where we left off – a bond. And that’s something I’ll always have with the three other Scholars from my year, too – Rebecca Harrison, Sarah Ball and Mark Evans.

“There’s something very special about the SPAB Scholarship. For me, it was a re-charging sabbatical year and a real privilege.”