The working assumption in heritage ideology is that if something is new and you can see it, it is harmful, says Paul Finch
I have spent several days at a public inquiry over the past fortnight in respect of the ‘Chiswick Curve’ residential tower proposal, designed by Studio Egret West. This was refused planning permission by the London Borough of Hounslow, which had nevertheless given some support for the principle of a landmark building on a ghastly derelict urban site. It sits next to both an immensely busy roundabout at the confluence of the North and South Circular roads, and immediately next to the elevated motorway where millions of vehicles head for Heathrow and points west. If ever a site needed a strong landmark, this is it.
Chiswick illustrative peugeot web
Source: AVR London
The problem (at least for some) is that the tower can be seen from various significant ‘heritage assets’ in the form of listed buildings, conservation areas and the Kew Gardens World Heritage Site. The architects have been careful to minimise the effect of their building on the most significant of these views, but there is no doubt that the 109m tower will be a highly visible landmark on a west London skyline, which already hosts a number of visible, though lower buildings. Not for the first time, arguments about the ‘impact’ of towers and the effect this has have occupied days of m’learned friends’ time – including last week a squabble for two hours over the methodology of different visualisation processes, which appeared to have produced remarkably similar results. Is the amount of sky in an image really a planning matter?
If world heritage sites had existed at the time the Eiffel Tower was proposed, would it have been allowed?
In the middle of this, on a flying trip to Paris to present VM Zinc’s biennial design awards, I had the opportunity to not only think about the Eiffel Tower, but to see it in context. Of course Eiffel is in central Paris, whereas the Chiswick Curve is in a suburban location, but on the other hand, it is part of a wide World Heritage Site taking in parts of the Seine including Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and Haussmann squares and boulevards. I started wondering, if world heritage sites had existed at the time the Eiffel Tower was proposed, whether it would have been allowed. It seems highly unlikely, yet there it is as part of a key Parisian heritage site more than a century later.
Flipping back to London, had UNESCO and its heritage ideas existed in the 19th century, would Tower Bridge have been built, given its undoubted impact on the Tower of London? You can imagine the objections: unacceptable visual interference with a building representing more than 800 years of history; a concatenation of architectural styles out of keeping with the severity and rigour of the tower; an unacceptable generator of additional vehicular traffic, and so on.
On a broader front, what about the development of railways and their stations, devastating the lives of many thousands made homeless by the creation of King’s Cross or St Pancras (not something the Victorian Society likes to dwell on). Compared with past generations, we are absolute pussycats, yet in the hothouse of the planning inquiry, you might think that a proposal to provide much-needed housing and workspace was akin to a war crime – an attack on human rights in the form of the ‘outstanding universal value’ that attaches to World Heritage Sites.
The working assumption in heritage ideology is that if something is new and you can see it, it is therefore doing ‘harm’, and the only question is whether the harm is excessive or ‘less than substantial’. Abuse of language is not something I am keen on. Change may be for the better or worse – it all depends. Those of a less paranoid persuasion than many amenity society members call this making a judgment ‘in the round’. Thinking about views shouldn’t blind one to the fact that environments and buildings change; quality of design needs to be our watchword.