Head of Design, Alasdair Travers, discusses traditional architecture, and the importance of hand-drawn illustrations to understand and respond to historic environments.

We all react differently to historic buildings. These reactions, of course, also change as time passes: perceptions of the buildings that surround us shift, and our collective memories evolve. What we may see as traditional architecture today, from thatched cottages to cathedrals, is simply part of a continuum extending far back into history. Whether we like it or not, when creating new buildings, we’re drawing on elements of the past.

Much traditional architecture is embedded in place: buildings were crafted from materials readily to hand (whether clay, stone or timber) while working directly on site. In contrast wealthier patrons who could afford imported materials and skilled craftsmen demonstrated their taste, refinement and position in the world through their buildings, referring to codified style treatises sketched out with precise attention to detail.

At Purcell, whatever aspect of traditional architecture we are working with, we start with a profound understanding of place. We work on buildings, locations and sites which are hugely valuable, whether they are palaces, museums, churches or prisons: these are buildings which matter. A holistic view of the scope of traditional architecture enables us to address the building and its context, to understand its ‘tone of voice’ and capacity for change. Understanding the building’s language is particularly important when adding a new voice into that conversation. We ask ourselves: is it the right time to say something different? Should our building introduce a new character or is it better to step back?

Drawing plays a vital role in answering these questions. We draw both to create new designs and to get under the skin of the character of places. Burderop Park is an excellent example of this dual function. An 18th-century mansion house within an evolved 18th-century landscape, a 1970s office development dramatically altered the experience of the parkland and the setting of the house. Tasked with designing a residential development within these grounds, our ambition throughout the project was to develop and learn from a thorough understanding of the park’s language, materials, shapes, and forms. This explicit consciousness about the parkland’s range of styles ensured that the mansion house remained the focus of the site.

Part of this challenge was creating the impression that the new houses sat comfortably, as if they had evolved naturally within the landscape. At the start of the project, architect Chris Cotton produced a series of pencil drawings of houses from the surrounding villages. These drawings gave us insight into the grain of the site and set a benchmark for the design of the new houses we subsequently sketched out. The design of the individual houses needed to feel right, but their arrangement also needed the correct balance of formality and variation to evoke a group of buildings within a country estate, distinct from a village or farm. Multiple hand sketches enabled us to test and re-test such arrangements, with rough forms outlined and shifted until the feel was right.

Design insights may come from multiple sources. At Burderop Park we were lucky to also glimpse the life and feel of the estate at the end of the 19th-century through the writing of Richard Jefferies in Round About a Great Estate (1880). Reading his work brings a powerful sense of the changes to the park’s landscape over time, and it enabled us to engage sensitively with its architectural heritage, alongside its literary and social heritage. The life sketched out in this book delivered new insights about the intensely local nature of place, to which we had to respond.

Whether it's a house or a hotel, our clients come to us with clear ideas of the feel of their building and the imagery they want to evoke. Our job is to take their vision and respond sensitively to the historic context through a deep understanding of its architecture and influences. We work with our clients in a similar way whether the language of the envisaged building is traditional or contemporary. A measure of our success is for our buildings to be socially and culturally acceptable, dropping seamlessly into the continuum and engendering positive reactions in those who interact with them. Many of these conversations start, and continue, with a sketch.