Londoners to Look Up: Spencer Hall
London is full of incredible people doing interesting things.
In the first of my new series; investigating interesting Londoners, I interview Spencer Hall ACR (that’s Accredited Conservator-Restorer) who is the Head of Conservation at PAYE.
What made you decide to go into Conservation?
My father was an architect who trained in the 1960’s with a particular fascination in classical architecture, so as children my sister and I were dragged around historic buildings. Growing up in London, we were surrounded by wonderful buildings and had ample opportunity to visit museums, galleries and theatres all within easy grasp – this obviously planted a seed. Having hailed from a family of artists on my mother’s side, both my sister and I followed careers in the arts – she as a painter and me as a graphic designer/photographer. As life has a habit of doing, I changed paths following university and in the early 90’s ended up working with my then girlfriend as a restorer of painted finishes within churches and historic buildings. 5 years on, having worked on a number of high profile projects including the restoration of Windsor Castle after the fire, I decided that I had found my career. If I was to maximise my opportunities within the industry I knew I should undertake some further training, so attended a post graduate Masters in Historic Building Conservation. This course gave me a greater insight into the theory of conservation and opened a number of doors facilitating access to working with a number of the country’s leading Conservation companies.
I finally undertook the ICON (Institute of Conservation) accreditation over approximately 2 years gaining the suffix ACR (Accredited Conservator Restorer) in 2012. I see my training as an ongoing process and attend seminars and conferences regularly to keep abreast of new ideas and best practise.
Can you elaborate a bit on some of the key techniques you use to conserve buildings?
Generally the key to maintaining a building is water management to the external envelope. Most damage is as a result of water ingress via weathering details being lost or damaged and/or water not being channelled away for the building successfully. This is why maintenance to guttering and rain water pipes is so important.
The other side to our work is reversing poor quality or inappropriate repairs that have been executed in the past. The general rule of thumb being that repairs should wherever possible be of a ‘like for like’ nature, namely that the same materials and techniques are used as were originally.
Lastly, cleaning can be important too as the build-up of black sulphation (the result of years of oil laden fumes) can create an impermeable layer over stonework, preventing it breathing and exacerbating its decay. Removal of these layers, without damaging or stripping the stone of its natural patina is a skilled judgement.
What’s been the trickiest building to conserve?
Every project has a unique set of challenges and so can be both tricky but in turn rewarding. We have recently completed a number of cleaning trials using laser technology, where the stone we need to clean is SO friable it can be destroyed by touching it with a finger. Conventional cleaning techniques just wouldn’t work in this scenario and so we needed a differing approach. The laser however allows us to clean the stone without actually physically touching it and once cleaned it can then be consolidated.
At the other end of the spectrum, my greatest personal challenge was probably the recreation of The Grill Room at Café Royal on Piccadilly which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 2010. With a talented team of craftspeople and a conservation architect familiar with the challenges of restoration, we managed to conserve and reinstate anything that could be salvaged and faithfully reproduce all aspects of the room to exacting levels of detail elsewhere.
How does your job shape and/or change your view of London?
I consider myself almost uniquely privileged with regard to the works I undertake and rather than change the architecture around me hope to help preserve it for future generations to enjoy as I have.
What’s your favourite London building? And is there any London building you’d like to see knocked down?
That’s a difficult one… Each have differing qualities and an almost unique quality which sets them apart from the next. Even the most modern architecture has a place in my heart and I actually encourage architects to move with the times and materials available – after all, many of the historic buildings we see around us were at one point considered avant garde and modern. With this in mind, I’d like to think that all architecture has its place, even the brutalist concrete structures of the South Bank are now seen as having aesthetic merit – so, no I don’t think there is anything specific I would like to see removed. London is now, as I suspect it has always been, a great melting pot of architectural styles, taking its influences from all over the globe. This is something which must be retained
Are there any times when conservation has gone badly wrong?
Like all aspects of life, science is constantly offering us new technologies which are seen as the solution to all of our problems. A great example of this was the mass use of Cement as a new repair technology from the end of the 19th Century. Much of our work today is undoing these ‘well meaning’ repairs; which are unfortunately too strong for the material it is applied to and can actually cause a great deal of damage.
What’s the best thing about conserving a building?
When you can leave a building knowing that your intervention has safeguarded the building or object within it for the future, where without this it may have been lost. It’s a great feeling and very good for the soul!
There’s a constant balancing act of conservation and fully replacement, where do you see the line?
The line is not cleanly distinct and constantly changes from project to project. Each repair needs to be considered in the context in which it sits and what the developed philosophy of repair is. Some projects require restoration to allow them to remain functional (for example weathering details need to actually work), others benefit from really being allowed to age with grace and dignity. The line therefore, if there is one, has to be seen as quite a wobbly, blurry one which requires constant reassessment!
Given the constant changes to both London’s skyline and ground level, what do you think is the future for conservation?
Thankfully we hold the heritage of this country in very high regard and respect the cultural significance it plays. Growth and development are important obviously, but we must preserve the rich heritage we are privileged to have in the UK. Once gone, it cannot be replaced.
More and more we are being called upon to look at how we can best preserve buildings from the 1960’s which were built using modern materials and technologies. The science of conservation is ever evolving and so we, like it, must remain adaptable to the way we approach it.
Find out more at www.payeconservation.net