Donald Insall

Doctor of Laws

18 February 2004 - Orator: Dr Mark Horton

Mr Vice-Chancellor this afternoon we have before us one of the leading Conservation Architects of his generation, who against the tide of thoughtless modern development,  has so greatly contributed to the preservation of our nations’ buildings and historical places. Donald Insall is still very active today, working for a large practice of architects that bears his name, with branches in six of our historic cities. He still arrives every day to work at their head office on a 750cc BMW motorbike, dodging the London traffic and having handed on to his son, his ancient Rolls-Royce. 

Donald Insall was born in Bristol in 1926 into a family of leather, trunk and ‘portmanteau’ manufacturers. The first record of a John Insall in Bristol was in 1796, and soon their shop was a well-known landmark on St Augustine’s Parade, facing onto the harbour. Their wares included finely crafted cases, still to be found in the furthest reaches of the former British Empire. Donald grew up in Redland. As a boy he attended  Bristol Grammar School, but it was the chance of his father commissioning for the family a new house in Henleaze that may have kindled his first interest in architecture. He was able to secure a place at the Royal West of England Academy School of Architecture, later absorbed within the University, and began his studies in 1942 in the midst of the blitz. Sheltering from Hitler’s bombs, for a time in the upper galleries of the City Museum, he witnessed the destruction of the ancient buildings and churches of Bristol; and this must have made a lasting impression on him.  But the war had another consequence on Donald’s university career, as he had to enlist in 1944 into the Coldstream Guards. He chose to stay a foot soldier – and by his own admission a bad one – so he could remain posted in London, and get out to night school in the evenings to continue to study architecture.

Demobbed in 1948, he returned to Bristol to complete his architectural qualifications, and then moved to London to study civic design at the Royal Academy and later to the School of Planning. This unusual move for an architect gave Donald an appreciation of the wider thinking that was so important in his later work. Another key influence was his Lethaby Scholarship of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which on a tiny stipend, enabled him to work for six months with specialists and traditional craftsmen such as thatchers and stonemasons. The next 18 months was spent measuring Winchester College for the medieval historian, John Harvey. One of the techniques he used to record fabric was photography, and helped by his father he was one of the early pioneers of photogrammetry. Design, planning and craftsmanship were to be the keystones of his professional life.

Donald went to work with the London architects, Phillimore and Jenkins. It was a good time to be in conservation, as the Government had just decided to give state aid for the repair of historic buildings, and work flowed in. Donald, with co-Lethaby scholar Peter Locke, decided to set up their own practice in 1958, initially working from the kitchen table. It was very much a family business, with at first Donald’s father and later his wife Libby giving huge help.  Soon their projects included some of the great buildings of Britain; like Kedleston, ‘The Vyne’, Knebworth, Raby Castle, Battle Abbey, Petworth, Speke Hall, Croft Castle and Chevening; and the practice developed a strong relationship in particular with the National Trust.

However, the one place that Donald is most associated with is not a historic house but the ancient city of Chester. The early 1960’s were a grim time for our historic cities. The old was being ripped out and replaced by concrete jungles; inner ring roads destroyed the topography of medieval lanes and passages. The system of protecting single buildings was clearly failing, and a new approach was needed. Chester was to be a case study of how we think about our historic environment, and Donald had the skills both as an architect and planner to work out what to do. The study of Chester, published in 1966, is an international landmark for urban conservation. The team spent several years understanding the historic fabric of the city, visiting over 400 buildings and assessing the importance and quality of each. Their approach is that urban space is dynamic, and has evolved through time, so what is best from the past should be conserved and retained, but positive changes also encouraged, as urban decay is a downward cycle. So regeneration can spread from a single building, to a street and neighbourhood. We owe the survival of Chester to this pioneering work, but also the spread of this approach to other towns and cities. As more money flowed, Conservation Areas were created, and conservation officers appointed by local councils. Historic Britain, as we know it today, owes its survival to this inspirational work. In 1999, he was recognised back in Chester with the award of the City’s honorary freedom.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, the work of a Conservation Architect is always a balancing act between restoration and renewal. When, we may ask, is material so old and decayed it needs replacing? Or when should we keep it, because it is ancient and historically important? In some cases, the architect should leave his work completely un-noticed, as in restoration work at the House of Lords. Here, one of the roof bosses fell onto the bench where  centenarian Lord Shinwell sat. Fortunately the noble Lord had already gone to bed – it was near midnight – but Donald’s practice was called in to repair the great wooden ceiling. They worked out how the roof was put together, and devised cunning solutions to secure it, consolidating the fabric but displaying no visible trace.

Other buildings suffer greater catastrophes, and possibly the most famous took place in the annus horribilis, 1992. The fire that ripped through Windsor Castle left the Staterooms in ruins and many questions were asked – should it be restored as it was, or should we have new buildings? A large team was assembled of architects, craftsmen, builders, even archaeologists, and Donald’s practice acted as the co-ordinating architects for this great project. There were two committees – one chaired by Prince Charles, concerned with the aesthetic and design aspects, and a second, chaired by Prince Philip, to ensure that the work came in within budget.  The work of the architects was a hugely complex and responsible one: but the fact that the restored apartments were greeted with universal critical acclaim, and on schedule and budget, was largely due to the genius of Donald’s team to keep all the participants working together with their tact, charm and diplomacy.

In the midst of a by-now large and growing practice, Donald still found time to educate the next generation of architects – through lecturing and conferences in Britain, continental Europe, America, even in India, promoting the importance of conservation worldwide. He taught on our own University’s diploma of Architectural conservation. He has acted on numerous committees, the most important being probably the Historic Buildings Council and Ancient Monuments Board, that led up to the creation of English Heritage in 1984, on which he then served as a Commissioner. He has helped numerous local societies and amenity groups, and has acted as patron of several. Awards are almost too numerous to mention; the practice has now accumulated over 100, while Donald was awarded the OBE in 1981, and the CBE in 1995, a number of medals, including most recently, Europa Nostra’s Medal of Honour.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, when Donald Insall was working for the College of Arms, they offered him a Coat of Arms. He chose the motto ‘Bring forth the Best’, and this perhaps best sums up his achievements in architecture. Old buildings are not to be pickled in aspic, but need to be brought back to life by finding the best that is within them. Every building is rather like a patient – and the architect, the doctor – and with care and understanding, a full recovery can be made. And like a doctor, he must work in a team with his fellow architects, with the builders, with the craftsmen. It is fair to say that Donald’s work has done much to establish Britain at the forefront of historic conservation worldwide, and his great achievement lies almost unseen in the rich heritage of great houses, cities and buildings of our land. I present Donald William Insall, Commander of the British Empire, as eminently worthy of the Degree of Doctor of Laws. 

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