Paul Finch considers a modest proposal that combines preservation of heritage with the demand for growth
When designers start taking all the blame for social ills with multiple causes, it is time for a reality check, writes Paul Finch
Recently I had a conversation with Will Alsop which generated the germ of an idea to deal with an endemic London condition: heritage enthusiasts warring with architects and developers wanting to demolish things.
Suppose, we wondered, the default planning situation allowed as-of-right development in most circumstances, but prohibited anything but minor demolition? In other words, you would have to keep what exists, but you could add to it substantially, vertically or horizontally. A name emerged for such a strategy: Add-Plan.
For younger readers, I should point out that this is a reference to Non-Plan, ‘an experiment in freedom’ posited in 1969 by the then deputy editor of New Society magazine, Paul Barker, along with planning doyen Peter Hall and the late, great Cedric Price, in whose office Will Alsop worked for several years.
The Non-Plan proposition? Given what the planning system was then producing, no planning at all could not possibly be any worse. It is fair to say that the ripples from this idea were partly responsible for enterprise zones and development corporations.
Add-Plan suggests a different approach, since it would make it impossible to demolish existing buildings in areas identified as suitable for the policy (most of the country), and thus dependent on planning. Total gutting and facade-ism would be banned, too. Imagine what this would do for embodied energy! The other side of the coin is that, doubtless using the smarter sort of structural engineer, owners and developers would have the right to extend upwards or outwards (say to 100 per cent of the existing in height or depth, perhaps more).
Of course the point about such a proposal is to be as provocative as possible, thereby stimulating discussion about the merits or otherwise of such an extreme attitude to history and the contemporary. However, and luckily for us, we have extant examples of Add-Plan which we can cite as evidence that it can work.
John McAslan’s current intervention in West Smithfield retains existing buildings with street frontages, with new accommodation slotted in behind. There is a slightly footling controversy about demolition of an existing building, but of course if Add-Plan principles had been adopted there would have been no argument, but speedier development.
AHMM’s rooftop addition to its own office rests on a mat of former industrial space that has been continually adapted but preserved by Derwent London over years.
Elsewhere in the capital we have a perfect example of the new approach being adopted: the proposal by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios for the Brutalist concrete assemblage on the South Bank between Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre. The design for the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Rooms is impeccably respectful of the existing condition, but adds a foyer from which each can be more easily accessed. As far as one can tell, nothing is being removed.
As for provision of additional space and volume, the architects have simply added two glazed caskets, of heroic dimensions. One sits alongside Waterloo Bridge, the other rests horizontally across the top of the original 1960s buildings. Add-Plan in action, an encouragement to all to think big while keeping the existing.
To be successful this approach requires good design, but what else is new? What I like about the idea is the reversal of that tired criticism of the heritage brigade, that they want old buildings in aspic. Now aspic will be assumed! It is just that there will be some other stuff to look at on the same sites, the Modern joining the Ancient, above and beyond.