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Griff Rhys Jones: ‘I’m surprised by the antipathy to Victorian architecture’

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Comedian and television presenter Griff Rhys Jones talks to the AJ about architecture and his new role as president of heritage campaign group the Victorian Society

Why did you want to take on this role?
I was approached. I’d been a vice-president for some time. And I’ve helped out with publicity for a few campaigns. It was felt that I could continue to do the same by engaging with the media for the society, rather like what we are doing at this moment.

But I also spent 10 years and more of my life helping to publicise and raise money for the Hackney Empire, a Victorian building itself [Frank Matcham 1901, refurbished by Tim Ronalds Architects 2004] and an interesting one in terms of its early use of pre-stressed concrete. It is a magnificent structure inside – go up to the gods. Actors like Victorian theatres; comedians even more. They say ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘art’. I have often been surprised by the vehemence of antipathy to Victorian architecture.

Façadism can lead to some horrible compromises

I was walking through Albert Dock in Liverpool earlier this week. What a wonderful environment. Thank goodness it was saved and reused. But why don’t they put an old liner in there now?

Griff rhys jones victorian society (3)

Griff rhys jones victorian society (3)

Why is Victorian architecture more important to you than, say, late 20th-century buildings?
It certainly isn’t. That would be an absurd distinction. Good architecture of every era is properly driven by imaginative impulses of the time and should be preserved. Surely no one believes that there is somehow right architecture and wrong architecture by century? But I am also in favour of ‘areas’. We do have many cities that are largely Victorian creations. Their energy comes from that original ’sprawl’ and civic imagination combined. There may be better and worse buildings within an era.

But we can never wholly reproduce the imaginative impulses that created a certain movement. They are our surviving history as much as the countryside and any other arts. Our great, great grandchildren will not thanks us for losing them. The Victorian and early Edwardian periods were ones of relative wealth. Like Rome or 5th-century Athens, Britain went about laying down some impressive bricks. And then we reacted badly – sometimes to that very ethos.

Why do you think Victorian buildings still remain vulnerable to development – is their worth still underappreciated?
The Victorian Society itself has done important work to reverse the stigmatism Victorian buildings once suffered from. But there will always be pressure. Each year the society publishes a list of endangered buildings, and the competition to join that list is unfortunately still strong.

What is the biggest threat to the UK’s historic built environment?
Neglect; VAT and other tax structures; lack of resources; poverty; and sometimes big thinking and emergency ‘solutions’ can all play their part. But I think the saddest element is lack of imagination.

King's Cross

King’s Cross

King’s Cross

I have seen brilliant urban regeneration around King’s Cross and Manchester, bringing the old and the new together in wonderfully stimulating ways. In fact, some of my favourite buildings are places that have rethought existing structures and introduced contemporary design to work alongside Victorian original work.

What could the government do to help protect the nation’s Victorian best buildings?
Abolish incentives to clear the area and start again.

Which is the best retrofit/re-use of a Victorian building you’ve seen in recent years?
I love extreme things like the little Haworth Tompkins-designed Cor-ten steel insert in the Dovecot Studio in Snape. But just walk through St Pancras on your way north and marvel at the virtues of conservation.

What is your favourite building of all time?
Probably St David’s Cathedral. I visit it often. But I love The Crossness Pumping Station [designed by the Metropolitan Board of Works’s chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette and architect Charles Henry Driver] and Abbey Mills too. Generally, Victorian Docks get me going. I love Victorian industrial architecture. Docks, warehouses and so forth.

Crossness Pumping Station

Crossness Pumping Station

Source: Heritage Lottery Fund

Any final thoughts for our readers in your capacity as president of the society?
Perhaps that façadism can lead to some horrible compromises. Also to remember that conservation is not the enemy of new architecture. Over 90 per cent of planning applications go ahead. Conservation is more about the future than the past. 

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