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Creative conservation Architecture Reborn: The Conversion and Reconstruction of Old Buildings. By Kenneth Powell. Lawrence King, 1999. 256pp. £45


This is a handsome book, well written and beautifully illustrated. An introduction charts the recent growth of interest in old buildings and is followed by a splendid collection of 44 case studies from around the world. The general argument is for buildings to accept change, to evolve constantly to meet new needs and new tastes. The examples chosen illustrate this well, with buildings, often quite banal ones, gaining new life and new vigour from skilled interventions.

The case studies are a cause for celebration. So many are so very well done. Our profession's skill at re-inventing existing buildings is something of which we should all be proud. This sort of work requires great confidence and considerable talent on the part of the architect.

In telling the story of the growth of concern for old buildings in England, Kenneth Powell takes us through the conservation battles of the last few decades. It is a good history, but unfortunately he feels obliged to make the Modern Movement the villain of the piece, so we do not have Le Corbusier's conversions for Mme Church or M de Beistegui, for instance, or Wright's interventions in the Rookery Building.

In vilifying the Modern Movement, the author gives his wholehearted support to the conservation movement in this country and regards it as having won the battle. He may be right, but it seems to have escaped his notice that the victorious conservationists would never permit the kinds of intervention shown in this book to occur in any building that they value.

In his introduction Powell states the difference between preserving in aspic and transforming an old building, and he is clearly a proponent of the second approach. But in celebrating the victory of the conservationists he is over-optimistic - it is the preservationists who have won. Across the uk conservation officers have the will, and the power, to stop buildings being transformed. The Picasso Museum in Paris, with its concrete ramps flying through moulded stone openings, would have been out of the question here.

My hope is that local-authority conservation officers will read this book, learn something of the possibilities in the transformation of old buildings, and then encourage adventurous adaptation.

After the 'sweep it clean' mentality of the post-war years it was, perhaps, inevitable that reaction would follow, with a demand to keep everything. So we have a new orthodoxy. If this book can help to open the minds of our conservationist masters, it will have rendered a great service. For me, the conservation movement has gone too far - I would rather see a Ron Herron in Store Street than the present piece of facadism; no wonder it is the inside of the Imagination building that people photograph!

John Winter is an architect in London

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