Project Brief – Abstract

Old Battersea House is a Grade II* listed building, and one of Battersea’s oldest properties (approximately built in 1699) (English Heritage, 2013, p. 47). The house caught the attention of this project because of its interesting historical background and evolution of the domestic spaces within the property through time, both in terms of use and structure. The building, in fact, has seen very diverse tenants who clearly perceived their domestic life in a very different way. From the analysis of the house, two were the tenants who had a major impact on the development of the property. On the one hand, Wilhelmina Stirling, a writer of an eccentric personality who took the house on a nominal rent for life to save it from being demolished by Battersea Council in 1931. She used the building until her death (1965) to display the art collections by her sister, Evelyn De Morgan, and her brother in law, William De Morgan, transforming the property into “an artistic centre for that neighbourhood, an asset and a joy to Battersea for ever” (English Heritage, 2013, p. 54). Indeed, as Claire Longworth, curator at the De Morgan Centre, stated in the interview conducted by Joe Miller for BBC (2013), the house was much more than a private property: “it was a living museum […] It was continually full of friends and family who joined her for afternoon tea, or the visitors who regularly knocked on the door hoping for a tour of the house and collection”. On the other hand, the tenant who followed Mrs Striling was the American millionaire publisher Malcom Forbes. It is at this time, in 1971, after years of laying derelict, that the house faced a very big change in terms of use and impact on the community. Despite the fact that the house was populated with one of the biggest Victorian art’s collections, which included very expensive paintings hanged in every corner of the two-floor house, statues, furniture and much more (a collection which was sold in the 2011’s auction by Forbes’s sons when they decided to sell the property), with the arrival of Forbes, the house became a purely private property.

And today? Today, in spite of its fascinating history, the property is now on sale in a solely private market for £12.000.000.

The analysis of this case study shows how listed private properties often carry a meaningful and abundant history, contain concealed mysteries, or were simply once occupied by interesting tenants who added a special value to the house. Nonetheless, like in the case of Old Battersea House, these historic gems and their intrinsic values remain hidden from the community and public at large, closed-up with merely private functions. In these terms, it appears that the property has lost its identity and character, slowly becoming a ‘private gadget home’ rather than a ‘home for the community’: it went from being a private residency with the aim of welcoming inside any member of the community to share history, art and way of living to be a hidden and secret place behind a brick wall. Then, it is in a scenery like that one of Battersea, which is currently seeing its history disappearing to give always more space to private housing, that this scheme makes its entrance (English Heritage, 2013, p. 1). This “house is not an object” (Holl, 2007, p. 6). This house is “home to many things” and should not be experienced as only a physical space delineated by four walls and a roof (Busch, 1999, inside cover), but as a “lived space” (Pallasmaa, 2005, p. 64).

By undertaking Old Battersea House as a potential National Trust case – which would allow the rescue of a significant building for the benefit of the community – the goal of this study is, therefore, to restore the historic values of Old Battersea House by revealing an architectural experience of its original use to be relived by the public, posing the question:

 How can this study intervene to allow the greater community to relive, enjoy and learn from the property’s rich historical layers?

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