31/44 Architects has defended its proposals for the redevelopment of a historic East End bell foundry after a heritage trust launched a bid to prevent the plans from going ahead
The practice is drawing up a scheme including a 95-bed boutique hotel for the former premises of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which has been based at the Grade II-listed home since 1740 but closed down last year.
Fourth-generation bell-founder Alan Hughes and his wife Kathryn sold the foundry, the birthplace of famous bells such as Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, to US property developer Raycliff after struggling with rising costs and declining demand.
The proposals by 31/44 Architects, based near the foundry on Whitechapel Road, would see £7 million invested in ‘light touch’ restoration work to the foundry, the main alteration being the addition of a new stair ‘core’ to improve access.
Under the plans, an adjacent 1980s building and car park behind the foundry will be redeveloped to provide a 95-bed hotel with a restaurant and bar, which will be connected to the old foundry through a new glazed yard.
Raycliff said its plans would ‘celebrate’ the history of the site and allow the public to see the pit where Big Ben was cast in 1858. There are also plans to work with existing bell-makers to deliver a small on-site bell foundry.
However the project is facing opposition from the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT), an industrial heritage charity founded by Prince Charles, and high-tech art business Factum Foundation which wants to reopen a fully-functioning foundry on the site.
The Trust has proposed alternative plans – outlined in a report titled Saved by the Bell – for a foundry that would specialise in casting bells, but which could also produce ‘special edition artworks in bronze and other materials’.
These rival plans have the backing from heritage groups and leading figures in the art world including sculptor Antony Gormley, chief executive of the Royal Academy Charles Saumarez Smith and architect Nicholas Grimshaw.
The Trust said its proposals include an ‘architectural approach’ delivered pro bono by architects Skene Catling de la Peña and Purcell for the restoration of the foundry’s heritage buildings and a new ’innovative’ nine-storey building.
But 31/44 has pointed out the trust does not own the site and that the rival plans for a new foundry could impact on the ‘already fragile’ UK bell market.
Practice director Will Burges said: ’The [31/44] proposals are fully costed and viable and preserve, maintain and enhance public understanding of this important site in a manner which is authentic to Whitechapel.
’They inevitably reflect the next stage in the evolution of heavy industry in central London. The use of buildings has always evolved over long periods of time, but we hope that with careful work the stories attached to them can be held on to and carefully curated for future generations to understand.’
For their part, the Hughes family, which continues to run the Whitechapel Bell Foundry company from other sites, argues that the Trust is wrong to claim that the foundry will be ‘revitalised’ by their proposals.
’Their plans for a site that they do not own and for a business that they have nothing to do with are nothing more than an aspiration,’ said Kathryn Hughes.
But UKHBPT trustee Stephen Clarke said the Trust had made offers to Raycliff to buy the site and remained ready to ‘enter into commercial negotiations’.
He said: ’This is a business that every Londoner, everyone in this country and beyond, has something to do with. This is one of our most important pieces of heritage. We are not going to abandon it.
’It is a regret that the previous owner did not accept our proposal in March 2017 to acquire the foundry but instead chose to sell with vacant possession and to cease trading from Whitechapel.’
In a statement, Raycliff said: ’The alternative put forward by UKHBPT has significant issues, not the least of which is the prohibitive cost of purchasing land they don’t own, funding vital building maintenance and investment in equipment, as well as providing evidence of a viable ongoing business plan.’
The developer said it intends to submit a planning application in early autumn.