Heritage – a victim of our throwaway society?

old buildingOne of the things that has always concerned me is this notion that because something is old it’s no good any more, it needs replacing with something new and shiny which must of course be better. When I think about the number of times I see perfectly good items, buildings and even ideas consigned to the scrap heap it makes me want to scream. And yes I know, I am truly as bad as everyone else when it comes to this – I replace my phone, my computer and even my motorbike with the latest model fairly regularly, and the number of machines (I was going to call them stereos but not sure anyone uses that term now) we have in our house to play music is preposterous. But what I dislike most is the way we put profit before design, conservation and heritage when it comes to buildings, and we do all too often.

The number of perfectly good buildings that are demolished to make way for cheap, tin-shed style new build is an anathema to me – why waste the time, effort and resource that went into building something to begin with to tear it down because it doesn’t quite fit with what we now need? Don’t we have creative and innovative architects any more, who are capable of remodelling and converting existing buildings to new, modern uses? Too many historic and interesting buildings fall victim to our throwaway society just because they are old and no longer needed for their original purpose. Isn’t it about time we started to take our heritage more seriously, before it’s too late?

If I could look around and see new buildings being created that we could be proud of, and which in 50-100 years time I could imagine still looking good, then maybe my perspective would be different. But really, can you honestly say that much of what has been built in the last 10-15 years or so would hold fond memories in the future and be worthy of saving? We are replacing impressive, well designed, functional and local buildings with off the shelf, corporate designs, that have no connection with the locality in which they are being built.

And it all comes back to how we view these things. If the simplest, quickest and cheapest solution is to knock something down and start again, then that’s what we do, and we argue for it on the grounds that these things can’t be converted, the spaces are all wrong, the design is not amenable, when what we really mean is its more expensive (possibly), it’ll take longer (maybe) and it’s just too difficult (undoubtedly). We take the easy option because we can, but what about the future, what will our towns and cities look like in 30, 40, 50 years time when so many of these interesting buildings are gone, to be replaced by boring standard designed offices, schools and community buildings, when all new housing estates across the country have the same anonymous ‘anywhere’ type design – what kind of legacy is that and what does it say about our planners, designers and architects?

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When I visit cities and towns in the UK and abroad, I am naturally drawn to the old town, where the streets are narrow and around every corner there is another interesting building waiting to surprise you. Being a planner, I am also drawn to the new build to see just what kind of city or town is being created now, I look at the new housing developments to see if they have character, and I look at the new office blocks, schools and community buildings to see if the local character is reflected and I look at the old plans and photos to see what is lost. Only then can we really make a judgement about what we are creating now – is it better or worse?

This whole idea of environmental sustainability and recycling isn’t just about household waste you know, it’s about everything. Demolishing buildings and starting again has got to be one of the biggest wastes we generate on a regular basis – why not use the concept of the waste hierarchy when we think about buildings – reduce, reuse, recycle – do we need to build new, can we convert and reuse an existing space or building, can existing designs, materials be reused and recycled in the final design? Maybe then we wouldn’t be having the debates we seem to have endlessly in places like Bristol where there always seems to be some wonderful buildings under threat of demolition.

Local campaign groups and individuals do an excellent job of raising awareness of these issues, with some successes but sadly many failures, where the economics of new build seems to win through against local passion and history. At the moment in Bristol there are concerns over a couple of buildings I know quite well and I am sure many more that I know nothing about. The council have already granted permission for the demolition of Avondale Road School, because in their view they had little choice as the current building is not appropriate for use as a ‘modern’ school? Ebenezer Chapel in Midland Road is now under threat, because it is no longer in use and it is easier to knock it down and start again than it is to create a scheme that utilises the existing building and maintains the local character. Where once Bedminster was an industrial area with red brick factory buildings dominating our street scene (see picture at head of this blog), most have now been lost forever and replaced by pretty average buildings at a much reduced scale completely changing the character of the area (with one or two notable exceptions, including the Tobacco Factory, saved by George Ferguson).

Soon our industrial and working class heritage will be all but gone – we will have little to remind ourselves of how our communities lived and worked, apart from a handful of very special buildings set in an island of anonymous housing and office blocks. Is that really how we see the future of our cities and towns?

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6 thoughts on “Heritage – a victim of our throwaway society?

  1. But really, can you honestly say that much of what has been built in the last 10-15 years or so would hold fond memories in the future and be worthy of saving?

    I would go further back than 10-15 years where Bristol is concerned.

    Indeed, I would contend that very little built since the end of WW2 has any architectural or aesthetic merit.

    Take Broadmead, it’s an identikit 1960s shopping centre of the kind that mars many a British city. Even its later accretion – Cabot Circus – is little better. It was produced to a design that its owners, Land Securities are replicating across the country.

    Turning to office developments, Bristol has allowed far too many low quality speculative developments. Indeed tTemple Way was described by Jones the Planner as “a six lane urban catastrophe through a dross-scape of crap offices which Basingstoke would be ashamed of“.

    This brings me ultimately to transport. How much heritage has been destroyed to accommodate the private motor car? Trying to increase capacity is a self-defeating, never-ending exercise. I once recall the late Bill Lee, the former Chief Engineer of Avon County Council, remarking that as soon as road capacity was increased, it was immediately taken up with additional traffic.

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    • Yes you’re probably right, the problem is not necessarily just a recent one, but seems to have got worse. Good point about accommodating the car being one of the reasons we have lost so much heritage.

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  2. An interesting article, Tessa. I think the problem with ‘character’ is that it is necessarily subjective – what one person finds to be rich in architectural and cultural significance another might find uninteresting or even ugly. Of course, the same can be said of any ‘art’, but painting, poetry, and plays don’t take up such massive amounts of land nor require the level of on-going maintenance and upkeep as historic buildings. As someone who has spent the majority of his housing career in asset management and maintenance, I’m interested not just in the initial building but in the on-going cost and logistics of maintenance – something that is often overlooked.

    I haven’t been to Bristol recently, but in Birmingham where I am based there are many new – and, personally speaking, exciting – buildings being developed, such as The Cube by the Mailbox, or the new Library of Birmingham. Neither are standard or boring; indeed, both have divided opinion, aesthetically speaking – I really like the look and ‘feel’ of both, but others dislike the Cube’s ‘Tetris-like’ exterior and the Library’s ‘gears-and-cogs’ facade.

    The inside of the new Library, though, is incredible. I was genuinely impressed by the layout and facilities, and would go so far as to say the Library of Birmingham has set a ‘global standard’ of what libraries should aspire to. This is another consideration that came to me when reading your article: it’s not just about what buildings look like on the outside that matters – the interior is just as important, if not more so. After all, if the inside of a building is not serving a purpose the site just becomes a REALLY expensive and land-hungry piece of art, nice to look at or not.

    Looking over what I’ve written, I’m not sure if I’m making any points (or sense!) Still, like The Cube in Birmingham perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you agree with the design or not; perhaps what’s important is that – like this article – it inspires a response, period, regardless of whether supportive or critical.

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    • Many thanks for your comments Neil, agree with much of what you say. We do seem to be missing some of those iconic, well designed new buildings in Bristol – I am struggling to think of any. Agree with the notion of function as well as design, both critical, but maybe we are less creative about how buildings will function and their future adaptability? It does seem to me to be a debate that needs to be had here in Bristol, and elsewhere I am sure, and to some extent has been going on for some time – but, I would argue, with little effect.

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  3. Thought of you this morning as I walked past those horrible flats at Cannons Marsh. How did that disaster happen?

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