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Stop trying to profit from architectural relics

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Not every derelict building is a commercial opportunity, as Cardross and Battersea show, writes Rory Olcayto

On 11 April 1984, the AJ published two news stories that have had a habit of recurring ever since: ‘Coia seminary faces demolition’ ran the first one, ‘New uses for Battersea Power Station’ ran the other. In this week’s news pages both buildings feature again – but try to stifle that yawn – because the stories have finally changed.

Since 1984, Cardross Seminary, designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, has lain rotting in woodland on the banks of the Clyde, despite its relatively easy-to-access location: just 30 minutes on the half-hourly train from Glasgow, with a ten-minute walk to the gates. Despite the lack of action, how it is perceived culturally has changed. It is now recognised as one of the UK’s finest Modernist buildings, with Grade-A listed status (it was only a ‘B’ in the 1980s). It has even been supported by the Scottish Government, which backed the country’s Venice Biennale show on the building last year.

This change in fortunes has not been without struggle, and a number of development bids have failed, including a spa and housing project
by Urban Splash and Gareth Hoskins Architects. These proved commercially impossible. So today’s news is the most promising in years: new plans by arts organisation NVA, together with Avanti Architects and Erz Landscape Architects, to create an education and public arts centre amid a consolidated ruin.

It’s not a market-driven plan like the Urban Splash proposal. It’s more abstract, less tangible in terms of economics, and plays on the idea of a building, both muse and cultural lodestone, that has inspired a generation of architects and artists in its ruinous state, and seeks to capture some of that entropic energy. This feels like a sea-change.

The area is rich in architectural innovation. Three miles west of Cardross lies Helensburgh and Mackintosh’s Hill House, which overlooks one of the UK’s largest planned grids, and there are a number of Greek Thomson villas in the area. The NVA/Avanti project hits the right note: it has civic ambition, and draws on the notion of a wider cultural eco-system to give it vitality. The earlier, private schemes would have killed any life left in the derelict concrete complex. But if this one fails to win planning and arts-funding support, Cardross should be left to the birds.

Over at Battersea, the story is no longer one of searching for new uses (in 1984, the proposal was for ‘a “Tivoli Gardens” type futuristic leisure centre’, the competition-winning scheme for the Central Electricity Generating Board that was willing to sell the whole site for a mere £1.5 million). Rather, the company set up to deliver the most recent masterplan by Rafael Viñoly could be facing administration.

The future of Battersea is clear. If it is to be developed with profit foremost in mind, then the building should be demolished and started afresh, because leaving it in place with rebuilt chimneys (this would be necessary) makes a profitable scheme quite impossible, not to mention the £200 million contribution to the Northern Line extension required by planning.

But should London dare to think more bravely, it might consider a plan that would not yield a cash profit for years, or ever: buy back the site from the too-obviously named Real Estate Opportunities and create an urban park, a brick-built wilderness right in the heart of the city.

Why the hell not? It’s no more of a dream than the various schemes that have faltered over the past four decades.

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