Campaigns to save Preston Bus Station and the skate park at London’s Southbank show the ‘the rise of people power’ in heritage, according to Loyd Grossman
Giving a talk on heritage activism in his role as chairman of the Heritage Alliance, Grossman said: ‘We are witnessing the death of the expert [in heritage]. Instead of one expert opinion, there are tens of thousands of opinions, and public opinion is proving more powerful than the established ways of getting things done.’
The television presenter highlighted the campaign to save the 1969 Preston Bus Station as an example of how popular campaigns could influence planning decisions.
He said: ‘Preston City Council had no idea what extraordinary love Prestonians had for their building.’
Grossman added: ‘Brutalism was seen as very much antithetical to what people wanted from architecture. But Preston Bus Station showed that Brutalism was loved. The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage tried to save the building, but what really worked was public protest… a very un-English example of people power.’
Grossman also described the campaign against the Geffrye Museum’s plans, drawn up by David Chipperfield, to demolish a disused Victorian pub as another success for people power, calling it ‘undoubtedly the worst ever PR story for the Geffrye Museum’ (see AJ 15.04.14).
He went onto outline how the battle to save the skatepark below the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank from redevelopment had led to almost 30,000 individual objections, making it the ‘most unpopular planning application in British history’ (see AJ 29.05.14).
‘The task for those involved in heritage is how we engage with this new assertion of people power,’ said Grossman. ‘But I welcome the rise of public opinion in the debate over heritage.’
Grossman, who was speaking at an event organised by Archiboo as part of the London Festival of Architecture, also spoke of the increased importance of the social value of buildings in deciding whether or not a building should be saved.
‘Cultural value is being decided by people themselves – not academics or experts – who are able to broadcast their views through social media,’ said Grossman.
‘Before, architectural historians formally judged the merits of a building, but now social considerations are becoming as important as formal architectural considerations. The social value of a building is now something that all amenity groups will have to take into account.’
However, Grossman also discussed potential problems caused by increased popular participation in debates over heritage, where social media had given ‘disproportionate power to single issue fanatics’.
If more civilians and less architects had supported Robin Hood Gardens, it may have been saved
‘The challenge to heritage groups is how do we get people interested in similar buildings and projects across the country?’ he said.
Public opinion can also favour demolishing buildings rather than preserving them, as in the case of Robin Hood Gardens in south London, where a campaign to save the buildings was met with much popular opposition.
‘Public opinion is a double-edged sword,’ conceded Grossman, adding: ‘The old formal process gave the – sometimes spurious – idea that long-term values were being taken into consideration… What should or should not be preserved must not just be a popularity contest.’
He added: ‘Maybe if more civilians and less architects had supported Robin Hood Gardens, it may have been saved.’