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Weekend roundup: Built heritage fails to make the grade

China wharf
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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Historic England snubs Grade II-listed buildings • Outcry over planned San Siro demolition • Norfolk Broads visitor centre runs aground • Museum of London budget soars


An exhibition opening at London’s Imperial War Museum yesterday, What Remains, examines how a country’s cultural heritage is often deliberately targeted in conflict.  

As well as recent destruction by Islamic State and the Taliban, it also documents the Baedeker Raids during the Second World War, when German bombers used travel guides of Britain as a checklist of which buildings to set out to destroy.  

But a latterday foreign aggressor may be saved the effort by the government’s cumulative funding cuts to its heritage protection body, Historic England.  

Adopting an interesting turn of phrase, Historic England says it has ‘raised the bar’ on the type of planning applications for which it will be offering advice. Which in practice seems to mean it won’t be giving assistance to local authorities determining most planning applications affecting Grade II-listed buildings.  

‘We prioritise buildings listed at Grades I and II* on account of their greater significance,’ it said.  

Such a policy certainly reduces the body’s workload since, according to Historic England, 91.7 per cent of all listed buildings are Grade II.  

Last year, to great fanfare, it listed 19 Postmodern buildings, 15 of which were Grade II  (including CZWG’s China Wharf, pictured above) so would fail to reach its raised bar.  

While Historic England says it would offer its services in the case of ‘very far-reaching changes or complete demolition’, that won’t prevent destruction by attrition.  

One thinks of another Postmodern development, Broadgate. Last autumn, Historic England wearily waved through the demolition of 1-2 Broadgate because it felt the overall development had been so diminished by previous interventions.  

Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft acknowledged that Historic England had suffered budget cuts and was ‘hopelessly overstretched’ but made the point that this was happening at the same time that conservation jobs were being axed by local authorities as they struggled to cope with severely reduced funding.  

The result was ‘an acute shortage of unbiased expert advice on how to treat historic buildings,’ she said. ‘Without more government funding at national and local levels, our heritage will be irreparably damaged.’  

Her views were echoed by Peter Stewart, an adviser on the historic environment: ‘Heritage experts within local planning authorities can be overruled by their colleagues,’ he said. ‘Historic England is an independent and national organisation, so it has more authority, and it is harder for officers and decision-makers to ignore.’

From San Siro to San Zero

San siro

San siro

In Italy, meanwhile, they are showing a disregard for built heritage in a less passive manner with a plan to knock down Milan’s iconic San Siro stadium. 

The stadium is shared by the city’s football clubs AC Milan and Internazionale, both of which have agreed to the demolition. The 80,000-seat structure was built in 1925, with its distinctive columns, designed by Ragazzi and Partners, added for the 1990 World Cup. It is set to be replaced by one just east of the current site, seating 60,000. 

Architecture critic and AJ columnist Catherine Slessor was appalled. ‘Italian football is like opera and the San Siro is La Scala,’ she said. ‘It seems a travesty to pull it down.’ 

As well as involving the destruction of an architectural gem, the plan has brought criticism on the sustainability front. ‘Even if the new project applied the best possible practice it would still have a huge carbon footprint compared to any continued use,’ argued Ben Hopkins of Bennetts Associates. 

He added: ‘It will be interesting to see how many practices who have signed up to Architects Declare will consider boycotting the project if it goes to an international competition.’ 

However, Simon Inglis, a writer on architecture and sporting heritage, felt there were significant problems with the existing building, which had become outdated with some parts difficult to access. 

‘From what I understand the two tenant clubs and the city council have investigated every way of modernising the San Siro in its existing form but concluded that in the end, the concrete shell is just too inflexible,’ he said.

Broad ambition stymies Norfolk visitor centre

Norfolk feilden mawson

Norfolk feilden mawson

Hopes were high in May last year when Norfolk’s Broads Authority launched an international competition to design a visitor centre at Acle Bridge. 

The brief asked for ‘outstanding’ conceptual visions to create ’a landmark building’ which used ‘innovative construction techniques’. The only trouble was that the budget for fulfilling this ambitious project was a slender £750,000. 

Despite being an anonymous international competition it was a practice with a Norwich office, Feilden + Mawson, that won the job, with a striking design that seemed to tick all the boxes. 

Alas, it now seems doubtful the scheme will be built. The Broads Authority believes it will cost £1.5 million – double the original budget – and has put the project on hold pending a decision on funding. 

It also says it will instead invest in a series of short-term improvements to the site, such as reopening the toilet block. Somehow the glamour of the scheme seems to dissipated. 

Could it be that some of the practices entering the anonymous concept focused on the brief’s ambitious nature rather than its budgetary constraints? 

Mole Architects was one of the two unsuccessful finalists in the competition. Its director, Meredith Bowles, told the AJ that the participating architects were quite aware that the client’s ambitions could never be delivered on the proposed budget and so ignored it ‘on the basis that an “ordinary” building on a tight budget would be unlikely to win’. 

He suggested that a feasibility study by the authority before it held the contest ’would have brought all these things to light … to produce a better brief’.

Museum of London set to weather soaring costs

Museum of london

Museum of london

Taking busting budgets to a whole different level, however, is the Museum of London, set to move from its Barbican location to a new home within abandoned buildings at Smithfield Market. 

Back in 2016 when the design competition for the scheme was announced, it had an indicative budget of £150 million. By 2017 this had risen to £250 million. This week, the museum said it would now cost £320 million. 

The contest was won by Stanton Williams, Asif Khan and Julian Harrap Architects, and is out for public consultation. The completion date, meanwhile, has shifted from 2021 to 2024. 

Fortunately, it has secured significant funding, including £192 million from the City Corporation, and is only £44 million short of what is required. Pah, chicken feed. 

The museum is attributing the cost hike to an expansion in the project’s scope. Buildings next door to the main 1880s General Market building have become available and been incorporated into the scheme, while an extra 800m² of basement space was discovered in blocked-off tunnels. 

Also this week 

  • Housing secretary James Brokenshire has suggested that planning feescould rise. Currently, local authorities recoup around £500,000 in fees from developers just half the amount they collectively spend on planning services. Brokenshire said councils would have to invest any additional revenue gained from fees in their planning services and demonstrate ‘measurable improvements’ in terms of speed and quality. 
  • Five teams have been shortlisted to design a new university at Milton Keynes, to be called MK:U. The finalists comprise a collaboration between OMA, Carmody Groarke and Nicholas Hare Architects; Hopkins Architects with Prior + Partners and GROSS. MAX; Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands with Architecture 00; Hawkins\Brown with KCAP; and WilkinsonEyre with AECOM and Mecanoo. The teams have each received £30,000 to draw up a masterplan and concept designs for the university’s £188 million first phase. 
  • A network of London architects, the London Practice Forum, is pioneering an employee loan system aimed at helping practices through the peaks and troughs of the business cycle. The forum, set up by Russell Curtis of RCKa, arranges for underused employees to be seconded to practices that require extra resources in the short term. Joe Morris of Morris+Co, a member of the forum, said the arrangement had enabled it to ‘safeguard people’s jobs’.
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Readers' comments (1)

  • More examples of the dismal fallout from the budget cuts that have been stalking the land for the last decade; increasing the threats to listed buildings in England presented as 'raising the bar', and re-opening a toilet block in the Norfolk Broads presented as 'short term improvements'.
    These join the enormous variety of damaging measures to slash public expenditure, often by central government 'dumping' on local government and arms-length public authorities.
    And now there are rumours that George Osborne would like to get back into politics - perhaps no coincidence that his crony Boris could become 'top dog". Be afraid, very afraid.

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