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Biba Dow: ‘Profession’s failure to embrace retrofits is a macho hangover of Modernism’

Biba dowd
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Dow Jones co-founder Biba Dow on why William Morris was wrong about reusing old buildings and why the profession needs to stop obsessing over macho new builds

I see the buildings and cities around me as connections between one generation and the next; a passing on of one thing to another. They are adapted and redeveloped around us, reflecting current preoccupations as cultural expression. Our surroundings are in perpetual change.

Much of my practice’s work has involved adapting existing buildings, whether born out of a need to save money and resources, or to accommodate interesting and special buildings on the site.

But I have always perceived a condescension within our profession towards practice that engages with existing buildings, which has always struck me as a macho hangover of Modernism, a professional arrogance which prizes entirely new buildings as more valued architectural statements.

Of course, there is a clarity of pure architectural expression that comes from an entirely new building, but not every site and every project offers that opportunity. Witherford Watson Mann’s Stirling Prize for Astley Castle in 2013 felt like the beginning of a wider architectural shift in recognising the value of context – the only Stirling Prize-winning scheme to adapt an existing building (though Fosters’ Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy won the Stirling’s predecessor, RIBA Building of the Year, in 1993).


Witherford Watson Mann’s RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Astley Castle from 2013

Witherford Watson Mann’s RIBA Stirling Prize-winning Astley Castle from 2013

Conversely, architects working with listed buildings face onerous consultation processes by heritage bodies wary of taking any risk. This can be crippling to a project.

I think finding a confidence in how we respond to buildings around us is part of a wider cultural conversation that should be progressive and optimistic rather than couched in terms of harm and detraction.

Architects working with listed buildings face onerous consultation processes that can cripple a project

When William Morris founded the Society For The Protection Of Ancient Buildings in 1877, he charged his colleagues in his opening manifesto with preserving ’our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art … that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying’. He went on to say: ‘If it becomes inconvenient for its present use … raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one’. I couldn’t agree less. I think the relationship we can enjoy with buildings around us is an affirmative cultural connection.

St mary magdalene by dow jones4

Grand Junction at St Mary Magdalene, Paddington by Dow Jones Architects - a retrofit and extension to the Grade I listed Victorian church.

Grand Junction at St Mary Magdalene, Paddington, by Dow Jones Architects – a retrofit and extension to the Grade I–listed Victorian church (1865) by George Edmund Street

I am so happy to support the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign. My only problem is with the name; working with buildings as part of an existing context – physical, economic, environmental, social – is about looking forward.

As the reality of the climate emergency sinks in, we are all absorbing our ethical professional responsibilities to rethink the use of our resources in construction.

Recalibrating VAT on construction projects would be a valuable tool. I would like to sees tax benefits to encourage reuse of existing buildings, while minimising demolition in development through zero-rating work that retains existing structures and re-uses existing materials.

Biba Dow is a guest speaker in a new series of lectures organised by the Victorian Society exploring the imaginative conservation and reuse of historic buildings. Other speakers will include Alison Brooks, Catherine Burd and Buddy Haward, Eric Parry, Clare and Sandy Wright, and Adam Caruso.

RetroFirst Logos 2019 1

RetroFirst Logos 2019 1

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