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Architecture Lecture 2012

01st September 2012

A keen audience in a compact and refurbished lecture theatre in the University on June 14th was entertained to a riveting analysis of a predicament facing us. The speaker was Dr Nigel Barker, Head of Partnerships, English Heritage (EH), London and EH's nominated representative on the Mayor's London Cultural Strategy Group.

Reminding us that our heritage is a lot more than our buildings and includes undersea wrecks, battlefields and parkland, the speaker took us on a roller-coaster ride through many problems and just a few solutions. All these elements of our environment outlive their creators, and valuing them gives us a real dilemma. This is not a new phenomenon - Nicholas Hawksmoor justified the destruction of heritage when Blenheim Palace was built, and the advent of railways swept away much that might have been saved today

It was in 1889 with William Morris, Ruskin and the creation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) that heritage started to matter, although their romanticised approach exposed weaknesses in the defence of all that pre-existed.

Jane Jacobs "Death and Life of Great American Cities" told us that we need ageing buildings as "homes" for new uses which cannot afford new buildings. Nowadays, the concept of public value is measured by the way citizens are willing to give something up: volunteering and institutional custodianship.

With value comes risk, risk both of loss of visible history and undiscovered potential. Hence we compile registers of Buildings at Risk, which started in London in 1991, went national with Grade 1 and Grade 2* in 1998 and by 2009 include such things as wrecks and battlefields. These registers are a measure of health. 3% of Grade 1 and Grade 2* buildings are at risk and 17% of scheduled monuments are at risk. Some worrying and surprising entries in the South East are the best WW2 airfield (Bicester), Brooklands racetrack, Claremont, Brookwood Cemetery, seven undersea wrecks and the site of the First Battle of Newbury in 1642. Even in Surrey 28 monuments, buildings, conservation areas and parks and gardens are at risk.

As he explained and richly illustrated risk comes from five sources:

First Ownership: Property in the hands of local authorities, such as Gunnersbury Mansion, challenges EH. Harmondsworth Barn, the "Cathedral of Middlesex" lying near Heathrow Airport has been wrested from speculators by the State, and Crossways Farm in Hanwell in the hands of uninterested inheritors and a developer's interesting concrete-built rectory in London have been rescued by Compulsory Purchase Orders.

Secondly Redundancy: Broadmoor Hospital is no longer fit for purpose but may have a new future as a hotel. The architectural 1938 icon of Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre is at risk from the wilful attitude of the local NHS.

Thirdly Ignorance and lack of understanding:  A prime example is the Cold War relic of the air base at Heyford with 86 hardened aircraft shelters proposed for incredibly expensive demolition by Cherwell DC, but with a potential future as secure storage. Other examples arise from proliferation of traffic signs and problematic approaches to the repair of buildings.

Heyford Bunker report on Enquiry:   "This is an extraordinarily important place for understanding the extent of the paranoia during the cold war, and the sheer scale of the investment in combatting it," Nigel Barker, the archaeologist who will give evidence for English Heritage at the inquiry, said.  Guardian 30/9/08

Fourthly Crime (perhaps a surprise entrant to this list):  Nighthawking (indiscriminate metal detectors), aspiring artists, humorous vandalism, unauthorised modifications and metal theft all play their destructive parts.

Fifthly (and the most recent), Ideology:  Rioters' destruction in Croydon being an obvious prime example of the "Politics of Protest. Dr Barker produced a contradictory quote from our PM on the other hand criticising the delays by local government officials which harm commerce, while HMG is wreaking harm by VAT. A shocking example in Twickenham has resulted in unnecessary demolition and reconstruction, solely driven by tax loopholes.

On the plus side are the regeneration of Woolwich Arsenal, the Clapton Portico, Kings Cross Central transit sheds and granary (1851 by Cubitt) - now the University of the Arts, and the creation of ARCH (the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage).

So, what can we do?

Answer: we can get a real heritage champion with teeth, we can lobby and cajole, volunteer and challenge and get our town to join ARCH.

Among a number of interesting questions arose several worrying signposts:-

firstly the issue of England's multicultural diversity - also the need to get teenagers involved if we are not to experience a steady decline in support as this generation progresses through to maturity and a retirement when in the past we might expect involvement - and lastly economic pressures leading down the slope to charges being imposed on the guardians of our heritage.

Posted by: Chris Blow