Urban preservation need not mean stagnation, visitors to the fifth National Conservation Conference were told Northern European cities have always wanted to emulate their southern cousins, so Edinburgh boasted the sobriquet 'Athens of the North' and Amsterdam claimed to compete with Venice. Now Barcelona is the holy grail, with Bilbao claiming to have put itself in the running with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum. The latest contender is Birmingham, with RIBA president elect George Ferguson saying: 'I would like to think that people will talk about Birmingham the way that they do about Barcelona.'
Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, would not agree, having given the city a hard time when he presented the RIBA Awards there earlier this month, and there certainly is some way to go.
But Ferguson was making a serious point. He was speaking in Bristol at the Fifth National Conservation Conference, where a case study on Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter was one of the key presentations. Peter Beacham, head of urban strategies and listing at English Heritage, said: 'We believe that the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter was one of the great starter projects for us.'
It is essential, he said, 'to give designation - listing, scheduling or registration - its proper role as mechanisms for managing change not stopping it, within the context of management strategies that embrace regeneration.'
He believes: 'We are at one of those moments in our history where we can do something special. We must move outside the heritage niche and make sure we connect ourselves with urban issues.' This was at the heart of the conference, with its title, 'Regeneration through conservation'. Mike Taylor, responsible for policy making, funding and urban regeneration in Birmingham city centre, outlined the way this was achieved in the Jewellery Quarter.
The 100ha area, home to a concentration of artisans since the 18th century, had declined with competition from the Far East.At one stage, 30 per cent of all accommodation was vacant. The council levered in funding, including City Challenge money, and set about regeneration.
Taylor said when the council wanted to demolish a number of listed buildings, the Birmingham Conservation Trust had put together a 'funding cocktail' to refurbish buildings and give them new uses.
Now the area is booming, but there have been some interesting lessons.
One is that the original plans, which used a zoning approach, were not feasible - they were not what the market wanted. The end result is far more mixed use - in fact like the original mix in the area. Having successfully brought in a residential element, the council faced pressure to keep increasing this. And almost none of the 2,000 new dwellings fits in the 'affordable' category. In other words, having opened the Pandora's box of regeneration, it is very difficult to control the direction it takes.
And even the degree of balance that has been achieved is only because the council owns 30 per cent of the property in the area and therefore can exert a moderating influence.
Ferguson outlined some of the initiatives with which he had been involved in the conference's host city.
At times this took the form of a kind of guerrilla conservation - forming a company to buy up the dock cranes when the city looked poised to destroy them, then later, having won the argument, selling them back to the city and using the money to create a ferry service. Or, buying a building threatened with demolition and opening a cafe in it that subsidises Ferguson's architectural work.
He regretted that no new developments would be able to recreate the density of the old city. 'There is no way you can build that tight unless you break some rules, ' he said, adding, 'I am all for breaking some rules.'
He also believes that 'while it is sometimes worth being pragmatic, sometimes it is worth pushing the boat out further than you dare'.
Another of his tips was 'not to be afraid of the temporary in order to get the permanent right'. A temporary construction can provide thinking time, while people become accustomed to change.
But sometimes it pays to be punctilious. Charles Wilson, a consultant architect and town planner, offered practical advice on urban regeneration. He said a study by English Heritage has shown 60 per cent of all applications in heritage areas are rejected because of a lack of information. With a growing shortage of local authority conservation staff, he recommended: 'Do as much of their job as you can.'
The conference moved into even more practical areas with the discussion of projects to find new uses for redundant churches. In London, Levitt Bernstein is turning St Luke's Church into an education and rehearsal space for the London Symphony Orchestra, while in Bristol Richard Griffiths Architects has an equally radical proposal for Temple Church.
These buildings share architectural merit, a colourful history and the lack of a roof at the time work began.
St Luke's was one of the last of the 12 churches built under the over-ambitious Fifty New Churches Act in 1711. Part of the work on the church, which has a dramatic obelisk spire, can be attributed to Hawksmoor.
What is more certain is that corners were cut in the specification and construction and, having been consecrated in 1733, the church underwent its first repairs in 1734. It has been underpinned three times in its history, most recently in 1951, but in the dry summer of 1959 it suffered calamitous subsidence.
Although the building was listed Grade A (the equivalent of Grade I today) the extraordinary decision was taken to remove the roof and, apart from some emergency repairs, nothing more happened until the late 1990s. Then, with grants from the Arts and Heritage lottery funds, a new use was found for the building.
Its large volume enables a choir and symphony orchestra to rehearse comfortably.
Engineer Arup found good ground remarkably close to the footings, and was able to underpin the building and also dig out new space beneath the crypt. The church has a new heavy roof to provide the necessary acoustic insulation, supported on an independent steel structure.
And even the roughness of the walls is an advantage, as it prevents undesirable reflections of sound.
Looking back on the building's chequered history and the fact that a solution did not seem possible until the advent of the National Lottery, Levitt Bernstein's Axel Burrough said: 'The motto is 'never despair'.'
This is a motto that Richard Griffiths has taken to heart. Temple Church has a fantastic pedigree but an unhappy history. Built on the site of a 12th-century circular Templar church, the existing building is 14th century, with a 15th-century tower.
It survived the bombing raids of World War Two, but lost its roof. The then Ministry of Works put in concrete strainer arches and the thin brick walls started to decay from both sides.
'At the moment, ' said Griffiths, 'it is a memorial to the war and it is using a lot of English Heritage money to maintain.' He wants to reroof it and allow it to make a contribution to the Temple area of Bristol.
Technical issues are challenging but usually soluble - in this case engineer Buro Happold has suggested the use of a lamella timber roof which would be light, stiff and effective and, says Griffiths, 'be parallel in richness to the compartmentation of the original roof '.
The trickier issue is finding a use.
After a study with business planning consultant Prometheus, Griffiths is recommending that the building becomes the Bristol Glass Centre, run by Bristol Blue Glass. A furnace at the centre could recreate the original circle of the Knights Templar's church, there would be commissions for coloured glass in the north windows and live glass making.
If it proves successful the project will be an exemplary demonstration of Beacham's argument that the listing of a building should not be a brake on development, but a spur to finding excellent solutions.
Next year's National Conservation Conference will be held in Birmingham