Archangel Architects wholeheartedly applauds Cambridge City Councillors for approving PV panels on the roof of Kings College Chapel. Cambridge is indeed ’sending a message to the world’.
Historic England is surely right to draw attention to the outstanding significance of Kings College Chapel as a work of architecture and one that has come to symbolise Cambridge. But that does not mean the proposals to mount solar panels on its roof are harmful. Rather, it was a reason this proposal should be approved.
The job of Historic England, and the conservation system as a whole, is not to prevent change, but to manage change in order to safeguard the significance of historic buildings. While change can be harmful, change should never be equated with harm. In the case of this iconic building, no-one could claim the lead roof itself is a major part of its architectural significance. Yes, there are points from which the proposed panels will be visible, but mostly through the perforated screen of the stone parapet. The proposed panels have a matt finish to limit reflections, and are entirely dark in colour. And the panels have been sized to match the rythmic bay size of the roof. Once installed, very few people will notice them, and the change would, of course, be entirely reversible.
Historic England’s and SPAB’s comments also ignore the other side of the significance equation. Climate change is an issue of existential significance for us all; it is the defining crisis of our times, and Kings College deserves nothing but praise for wishing to respond in this way. Those involved in the ecclesiastical permissions processs such as the Church Buildings Council have looked more closely at this than most, and are supportive of the principle. Precisely because of the Chapel’s prominence, this installation would show that the College, Cambridge, and indeed the UK are serious about the climate crisis.
But even if one ignores the climate crisis, these proposals are good for this remarkable example of our built heritage. Historic buildings are not museum pieces, but rather living things that have changed through their lives to date and that continue to change. It is by changing well that they endure, by remaining relevant within a changing culture, and thus used, and thus cared for. To prevent appropriate change – such as this proposed addition – is to do them violence, because change is in their nature. It is such good news that this application was approved, because it is good for the building, for Cambridge and for the environment – both natural AND historic.