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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

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Sir Neil Cossons on our imperial industrial heritage

Sir Neil Cossons, launching the millennial meeting of the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH 2000), said it was 'a shock to have to reiterate to journalists an argument I thought was done and dusted in the 1970s', concerning the value of industrial monuments. His talk was designed to 'plot points on the route towards appreciation and understanding'. 'We're a long, long way, ' he said, 'from having a widespread understanding of why these places are of value.'

Addressing a predominantly north-west European audience, Sir Neil's concentration on the story of the British industrial legacy excited a muttered accusation of 'Britannia Rules the Waves' at his conclusion. Indeed, he seemed unwilling to acknowledge the awkward historico-political dimensions of the debate. It was, after all, Britannia's domination of the seas, manifested in the slave trade, colonialism and asset-stripping, that provided the foundations for the industrial revolution, while industrialisation itself enabled that global domination to be sustained. Industrial heritage is hardly a straightforward tale of triumphant invention and wealth generation; and it is not that surprising if, to use Sir Neil's example, the people of Spanish Town, Jamaica, do not feel willing to pay for the restoration of a colonial wroughtiron bridge. Furthermore, the industrial revolution brought irreversible environmental pollution with it.

Sir Neil acknowledges, but overrides, the line of thinking that condemns industrialisation as a tale of capitalist exploitation and reminds us that the 'new phenomena appearing in the landscape', such as the flames and smoke issuing from blast furnaces, were 'seen as sublime' and attracted the admiration of visitors. Certainly, much of the new industrial architecture had great beauty as well as surpassing technical expertise, and represents a pinnacle of human cultural achievement. But even here, preservation presents some crucial problems.As Sir Neil pointed out: 'The Industrial Revolution involved the creation of new forms of [building] envelope, ' - but 'does it mean anything when translated into another use?'

This question, which he did not answer, is the fundamental problem of conservation, especially when historic structures are subjected to alteration beyond recognition in all but the most superficial aspects, because their authentic state is deemed embarrassingly old and scruffy by the developer.

Sir Neil suggests there should be more focus on conserving landscapes, rather than individual buildings, and is enthusiastic about the current government's proposals to designate World Heritage sites of industrial significance. The committee, he says, needs to enter into the debate identifying the great world sites, among which his own favourite would be the 120-mile stretch of railway between Bristol and Paddington.

Sir Neil Cossons was speaking on 'Perspectives, Prospects', at the Royal Geographical Society to mark the launch of TICCIH 2000

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