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heritage saviour

Marcus Binney, founder of SAVE Britain's Heritage, has fought to protect numerous buildings, including Farnborough's MoD airbase. Now that architecture has shed its straitjacket he is just as enthusiastic about the new by deborah singmaster

Marcus Binney's reputation as a tireless champion of buildings in distress conjures up an image of a medieval knight. His writing and conversation bristle with words such as 'quest', 'battle' and 'gauntlet'. And there is all that journeying.

In 1987, Binney left London with his young family and moved to Jersey, rather than sell the beautiful garden his mother had created during her lifetime. This means that just about every campaign he embarks on involves long journeys across sea and land. As architecture correspondent for The Times, founder and president of SAVE Britain's Heritage and guiding spirit of several other heritage bodies, he flies to London at least once a week.

He has campaigned on behalf of all building types, from stately homes to factories, and when possible he likes to combine holidays with work. This summer found him in Martinique, hunting down steam-driven distilleries - some still working, others overgrown by jungle 'in a rather romantic and extraordinary state'.He has written and co-authored numerous books. Again, the subject range is vast and varied and includes French chateaux, railway architecture, churches and Portuguese country manors.

In 1975, Binney curated the now legendary 'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum with John Harris. The V&A press office sent lists of demolished houses to every newspaper in the country, and generated enormous interest 'not just in big provincial dailies but also in little remote weeklies'.

At the time, Binney was struggling to find case studies for a conservation page he had started in Country Life. 'Existing societies were geared up to writing letters to local authorities but not really thinking about what might be of interest to the press.

So there seemed to be an opening for a new conservation group which would be aimed at bringing the attention of the threat to heritage to a much wider public.'

To fill this gap, Binney got together with a group of concerned architects, historians and journalists and founded SAVE Britain's Heritage. 'The idea was, and still is, that SAVE should be an additional, highly flexible rapid reaction force to the conservation movement as a whole.We wouldn't be tied down to one period or endlessly vetting applications to alter buildings but able to concentrate where we felt the real dangers were.'

From country houses, SAVE widened its embrace to encompass endangered churches, railways, textile mills, military buildings and factories. Saving a building frequently meant finding a new use for it, rather than preserving it in its original state.

Battles were lost and won. One victory was clinched by the purchase of Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire, for £1, saving it from demolition by owner Wedgwood and the Coal Mining Board.

Peninsular Barracks in Winchester was another. At the opening of 'Deserted Bastions', an exhibition on historic naval and military buildings held at the RIBA Heinz Gallery in 1993, Winchester architect Huw Thomas told Binney that although his office was only yards from the buildings, he had never been inside the barracks. 'The very next day we met there, got ourselves in and started the campaign, ' Binney recalls.

'The politics were extremely difficult because the city council had given permission to demolish half the barracks.

Huw was brilliant at drawing up plans, showing how they could be practically and sensitively brought back to life. We got planning permission, a developer turned up eventually and it all happened.'

Binney regrets the loss of Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, but points out that SAVE's efforts were not entirely wasted.

Although the house was sold and the Rothschild collection auctioned off, the campaign raised issues that led to the formation of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

When The Architects' Journal published SAVE's first report in 1975 (17/24.12.75), the editorial chastised SAVE for its 'condemnation of the new'. Today, Binney's 'fascination for all types of architecture and building' certainly includes 'new' architecture. 'Architecture has got out of its straitjacket, there's much more personality and individuality. One of the problems before was the sheer soullessness and anonymity of much that was being built.'

SAVE is battling to retain what remains of the old MoD aircraft base in Farnborough (see pages 32-41) within a new business park.

Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) contacted Binney in 1999, 'in a rather desperate state of concern'. Binney wrote an impassioned article in The Times. But the fate of the buildings remains uncertain.

Binney points to Frank Gehry's conversion of a Los Angeles police garage into the Temporary Contemporary Art Gallery - 'a classic example of something by the world's most fashionable architect being made out of what most people wouldn't have taken a second look at'.

He believes Farnborough offers a similar opportunity for developer Slough Estates:

'Farnborough and aviation is something that could be a great asset. All these firms want to have big events and product launches. It is a most remarkable site and the wind tunnels there are very remarkable objects.'

Binney quotes precedents where conservation has been successfully integrated into commercial development - the Art Deco hangars at Speke Airport, Liverpool, retention of old railway buildings at Swindon alongside retail outlets and ExCeL's conversion of old warehouses at its Docklands venue near Canary Wharf.

The developer's argument that the buildings are not pretty is one Binney has heard throughout his campaigning life.

'They always say: 'Dirty, derelict, grubby old buildings - they're an eyesore, they ought to be demolished.' That's what they said most famously about St Katherine's Docks - that they were dinosaurs and nobody would live in them. Unfortunately, this resulted in their demolition, unlike Albert Docks in Liverpool which are preserved and universally admired. There's nothing like ridicule as a weapon in the hand of developers.' It would take a lot more than ridicule to make Binney waver.

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