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Alan Berman, Berman Guedes Stretton, on heritage - 'New buildings will be the slums of tomorrow'

The future for historic buildings? They’re in fair shape. For as long as bankers want the cachet of old-time elegance and much of the world loves something old, however shabby, the profession will come up trumps with exciting designs

Carlo Scarpa demonstrated how it can be done and now many designers display great skill with interventions and modernisations of the highest quality.

David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin is but one example of many, large and small. No fear here then – although for other buildings, such as empty churches, the future is not so bright. But all evidence shows that architects will meet the difficult demands with imagination and delight when it is required.

So, too, for swathes of buildings not quite ‘historic’ – Edwardian and pre-Edwardian terraces, and much pre-war housing. They will gradually be made sprightly again with spare-part surgery and energy efficiency medicine. We have lost much, but a good stock remains for those lucky enough to be able to afford and improve them. No problem there then – they get adequate love from the public and the suits in Whitehall.

The problem is that what we are designing today will become old tomorrow. It’s terrifying to consider the future of both expensive high-end design, and today’s equivalent of 19th-century mass housing. The goops and blobs, super-flush surfaces, sharp-edged panels and shards of glass – how will they fare after generations of occupants bend and reshape them to changing human need? I cannot foresee how many of today’s applauded buildings will look after being subjected to what we have learned so well to do to our own old buildings – an extra door here, a window there, more rooms pushed out, or another storey. How will the saw, chisel, bolster and hammer cut and carve today’s buildings? I suspect many contemporary design obsessions will mean that even the most expert historic building architects of the future will have trouble avoiding modifications – that look like mutilations – requiring tin shears and glass cutters.

Equally for general housing: since land and planning permission became get-rich-quick tradeable assets and political pawns, new buildings are built so cheaply that they will be tomorrow’s slums. However honed the architect’s skills, ill fares the future for work on all those buildings made of mean and low quality. Perhaps we’ve reached what some 1960s thinkers aspired to: disposable buildings for a disposable society – buildings like plastic razors; use and replace. But we learn that there will soon be nothing available with which to replace them – we are running out of plastic, out of everything.

Can this be spun more positively? No. Not while there’s irresponsible short term extravagance in some parts of our built environment and poverty of investment in others. In the absence of any political or socio-economic light I see little future for old buildings and their architects.

But, wait, is that a faint glow? Is it students getting angry and trying to shape their own future?

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