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Fighting the preservationists

Paul Finch

Everything was new once – so why be frightened of the future? asks Paul Finch

The Grade I listing of Sandy Wilson’s British Library brought back memories of visiting the building with the great man before it opened in 1995. He told me a story about the library’s design, partly against himself, as a wry warning about believing what apparently authoritative people tell you.

The original site for the new library was, quite appropriately, opposite the British Museum. It meant demolishing a series of terraced streets, but at the time of the commission there seemed no great reason to worry about that. However, the conservationist tide was turning and, after a huge public controversy, the decision was made to switch sites and to build the library on the Euston Road next to St Pancras Station.

Sandy’s question to government was how they thought he should respond to the magnificent but empty St Pancras Chambers, George Gilbert Scott’s full-frontal addition to the station. ‘Don’t worry about that old chap, it’s been empty for 20 years, British Rail has no use for it and it is going to be demolished,’ came the advice. He believed what he was told, but wanted to acknowledge the building in his design. He did this by using bricks from the same Midlands clay pit that Scott had used on St Pancras Chambers. I was told subsequently that this was very expensive, because the pit had to be re-opened. But, in the overall context of the project cost, it may not have mattered much.

What did matter was the decision to save St Pancras Chambers, making the brick homage unnecessary. We will never know how much the appearance of the building might have changed if Sandy had known that demolition would not take place. In any event what was completed is a fine building in the round, even if it is not to everyone’s taste.

Prince Charles’s dismissal of the building makes its listing all the more piquant, but the main thing is deserved recognition of a major work by a major architect, with a magnificent interior built to standards one can only wonder at in the world of PFI procurement. It is certainly a building influenced by Aalto and what Professor Wilson described as the ‘alternative tradition’ in the Modern movement, the antithesis of the crudely diluted International Style, which had discredited Modernism in the eyes of the public at the time.

One might have thought that, after a long intervening period, yesteryear’s arguments about the evils of new versus old might have become more sophisticated. Unfortunately this is by no means the case, as the story of the Blossom Street development, by an assortment of good architects, demonstrates. Here, on the fringe of the City of London, a very sympathetic set of designs have been proposed for retrofitting and adding a mix of uses to some mainly modest existing commercial buildings from another century. Despite the support of Historic England, Cabe and the local authority planners, the committee turned down the proposal after vigorous local protest, in what looks like a clear breach of its responsibilities.

If I were one of the councillors who voted the scheme down, I would be hoping that the developer decides against applying for me to be surcharged and disqualified from holding office. This would only happen if there were a successful appeal, of course, and using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, or group of nuts, rarely looks that good. But I doubt if we have heard the end of this story.

Nor the one about Tracey Emin’s intriguing house addition by David Chipperfield, now getting preservationist darts aimed at it. It is time for a fight-back.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I suppose it's all a matter of taste - I wonder if the brick choice for the new British Library really would have been different if Sandy Wilson had known for sure that St Pancras Chambers would survive? - architects are surely often in the habit of trying to 'fit in' with prominent neighbours (as described in the main feature in the brick magazine recently distributed with the AJ).
    I wonder if, in the case of the Blossom Street proposals, 'good architects' were seemingly unable to achieve the impossible, given the commercial pressures on their clients?
    The contrast of new juxtaposed with old in the last three images heading the architects' joint letter to the AJ today says it all.
    As for Tracy Emin's house - it's the artist who's intriguing; her proposed house is definitely not.

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  • As long as architects fall over themselves to fawn over developers and other speculators intent on profits at the expense of all other social, cultural and wellbeing considerations, the more style du jour junk we will see polluting our cities.

    Architects are supposed to exercise a duty of care over the public interest and that of their clients'. Ask any wildlife biologist what makes for a successful species and they will tell you all the time "habitat". Yet we continue to stand by while bankers, developers and real estate agents treat our habitats as mere real estate commodities to be built on the cheap and sold for the highest price possible. The price the rest of us pay for this is steep and growing.

    Calling people who understand the cultural and economic value of existing habitats "Preservationusts" suggests that architects have no responsibility in this regard. But they do - it's fundamental to the idea of duty of care. Architects are viewed often with great suspicion by the public because too many pay scant attention to social and cultural concerns in the work they do and indeed too many appear disinterested gaining real insights and expertise in these things. If all architects do is pursue self congratulatory design prizes it's no wonder that their work and their claims regarding their designs are viewed rightly with deep concern.

    Phil Allsopp, D.Arch, RIBA, FRSA
    Senior Sustainability Scientist
    Julie-Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability
    Arizona State University
    Tempe, Arizona

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