Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Is it time to dismantle Chatsworth House?

A proposal by two architecture students would see the iconic stately home turned into a hub for climate activism, while also exploring its links with empire and colonialism.

West Elevation Ph2 2

Jin and Shruti say their proposal "appropriates Chatsworth into a hub for climate activism".

Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish.

Chatsworth is the jewel in Derbyshire's tourism trade. Around 600,000 people visited the house and gardens in 2022, and the estate is a top draw for overseas tourists to the area. It is also a building that is intractably linked with colonialism, aristocratic privilege, and the destructive way humans have impacted the natural world around them for centuries.

The estate is now the subject of a new speculative project by two University of Sheffield masters students which we saw at this year’s School of Architecture show. The playfully-titled Dismantling Chatsworth House by Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish imagines a possible future for this iconic stately home – one in which it’s repurposed as a hub for climate activism.

This is intended as a direct response to the 19th century practice of ‘engineering’ nature to create artificially pretty estates like Chatsworth, and aims to inform the public about these aspects of the building’s history while also reversing the lasting legacy of ecological damage.

Phase 1 Construction

How construction on phase one of Dismantling Chatsworth House could look.

Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish.

"The coming-together of Dismantling Chatsworth House took quite some time with parallel research into art, literature, colonialism and planning policy," Jin and Shruti told Now Then. "We started the project with the rest of our studio Building with Nature, looking into the Peak District and the extractivist processes and attitudes within the design and construction industry.

"We were particularly interested in the significant influence of the Crown, aristocracy, and landed gentry, spanning from medieval times when approximately half the Peak District was set aside as large hunting forests to the 17th century when common land was parcelled into private land after enclosure.

“Today, 90% of the Peak District is privately owned and the current extent of Chatsworth estate is not made publicly clear. We began to appreciate the wider picture of land ownership and later, land use policies in the UK and how they hold back ecological restoration."

The process of enclosure, which took place over hundreds of years between the 12th and 20th centuries, saw millions of acres of common land seized by powerful landowners through a variety of methods, including by force. The designers of Dismantling Chatsworth House see this as intrinsically linked to British colonialism overseas. In their presentation for the project, they quote the writers Ellen Miles and Heedayah Lockman:

Enclosure foreshadowed colonialism; it is like we practiced seizing land and exploiting labour on our own soil before we exported to other nations.

As well as through enclosure, Chatsworth has more direct links with colonialism. The tenth Duke of Devonshire, the ancient family that owns the house, held the title of Secretary of State for the Colonies in Winston Churchill’s government. The family themselves say that they “have embarked on an in-depth exploration into our historic links with the transatlantic slave trade, the British Empire and colonialism,” but have not yet published any findings.

Jin and Shruti's proposed intervention at the estate is divided into two phases. The first would see the house surrounded by a scaffold-like spiral walkway, built from lightweight and sustainably sourced materials. Intended as a protest, this structure would allow ordinary people – who would previously have been overshadowed by the building's sheer size – to physically surround it, and see it up close.

Ground Plan 1 200 A2 Proposed compressed pdf

The ground-plan of Dismantling Chatsworth House, showing the ramp around the outside of the building.

Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish.

According to Shruti and Jin this "portrays accessibility as an object" (in both a physical and political sense) and makes possible the second phase of the project: "a complete public occupation" of the house. This would involve improving the thermal performance of the existing listed building and creating new spaces for a citizen’s assembly, a multimedia library, temporary offices and workshops.

The ramp from the first phase would be converted into an outdoor exhibition, which the designers say would be “curated to present visitors side-by-side the view of the old glamour of Chatsworth and the harsh reality – slavery and climate change – masked behind the beauty of the building."

The overall idea is inspired as much by Black feminist and anti-colonialist writings as it is by the movement for climate justice and ecological restoration. The title is adapted from author and activist Audre Lorde’s book The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, which argues that the tools created by patriarchy will be insufficient in challenging and overcoming it.

Untitled Artwork 96
Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish.

“This reflects our feminist methodology and the ambition to challenge the power dynamics and other ‘master’s tools’, such as planning policies, regarding listed buildings when designing for the age of the climate emergency and dealing with buildings with problematic histories,” say Jin and Shruti.

Their proposal is part of a growing movement in the UK to explore the colonial histories of heritage sites that have long been valued solely for their aesthetic beauty. Recently the National Trust, Britain’s biggest conservation charity, have done work to expose hidden aspects of colonialism in the properties they look after, as well as foregrounding and celebrating people of colour and LGBTQ+ people with connections to their sites. This has led to a substantial right-wing backlash, especially from those who would rather not think about the intrinsic link between exploitation and the beauty of a house like Chatsworth.

But for Shruti and Jin, a National Trust report on links between its properties and slavery was a starting point to ask whether the Derbyshire estate (which is not owned by the Trust) could be “a dynamic testing ground for dealing with current and urgent issues, such as the climate crisis and colonialism.”

South Window And Ramp
Jin Ivy Yan and Shruti Satish.

The proposal to appropriate Chatsworth as a climate activist hub – specifically a regional headquarters for Extinction Rebellion – is intended to be as provocative and playful as it is thought-provoking. But it also asks serious questions about how we approach a built legacy of white patriarchy, aristocratic wealth and extreme inequality that goes back centuries.

“This is only one of the many ways this project could have evolved to be within the timeframe we had,” Shruti and Jin told Now Then.

“For us, the process has been most valuable. It’s been a great year learning about architecture, but also exploring where we stand in terms of the climate emergency and decolonising discourses.”

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

More Democracy & Activism

More Democracy & Activism