Derek Latham
Concept of significance in the development of our historic cities towns and villages
There was a time when a man could build his folly (or maybe even her folly). He could add a turret here, a dome there, for no other reason than that he felt like it or his missus felt like it. If he were wise, he would have engaged an architect who would choose a style, prepare a drawing and instruct a builder. Most of our city's listed buildings were built like that, yet they have elements juxtaposed with their neighbours, that would not pass the scrutiny of English Heritage or the Conservation Advisory Committee let alone you as the Conser- vation Officer. Perhaps we are fortunate that Barry, Wren, Nash and Adam did not have to go through the same process as the present day applicant and his architect. For if they had, I suspect our heritage would be the poorer, not richer so we need to address our apparent lack of originality.

What of our historic fabric?
Just try to take your mind back further than you can remember. In the 1660s Walpole might have described Blessham. Place (fictional), a fine merchant's house used for meetings of the owner's guild, as:

"A place most uniformly proportioned in all that 1 ever saw. Me thought it a noble pleasant fabrication, very modem passing fine above stairs and something to excess".

The family fortunes varied and additions were made over the years. In 1915 the property was requisitioned by the army and afterwards used as a school. By the 1960s, Blessham Place was annexed to a further education college to be used for: administration, library and seminar rooms,

The conversion proposal might have been described to committee as making the building safe with new concrete stairs, 'Georgian' wired glazed partitions and fire doors, and suspended noncombustible ceilings. The principal rooms of course, will be retained un-partitioned, with improved lighting from sympathetically selected fluorescent fittings" (and all painted in a chocolate brown colour scheme to keep it in fashion).

By the 1990s the property might be the subject of a Heritage Lottery Bid to "recognise its unique role in the visual, physical and economic heritage of the town by reinstating the original interiors, suitably serviced to allow it to become a showpiece, playing an ambassadorial role, a place for wooing inward investors, a place for meetings and entertainment" not so different from the Merchant's Livery Company back in 1660 really. (Yet now the concrete stairs are to be replaced with lightweight suspended steel stairs, lifts added for accessibility, and the Georgian wired glass replaced by self-supporting Pyrostop glass with intumescent joints to improve intervisibility and paint scrapings taken to identify and replicate the original colour scheme).

Such a scenario familiar to all of us teaches us that all buildings were once new and reuse of buildings is almost as old as the buildings themselves; it teaches us to think long life, loose fit, or making sure interventions are reversible, and that as long as they continue to be used, buildings are remarkably robust.

But that (you may say) represents an historic building.

What of our city fabric?
Imagine once more. This time a jumble of shops with rented properties over, fronting the main road at the edge of the town centre in 1865 (the sort of property my generation rented as students from rather shady landlords) (the shops having lost trade since the cheaper trams (or maybe trolley buses remember those? brilliant concept weren't they?) had ceased in the 1950s). Blighted by road widening in the 1960s, such properties were probably purchased cheaply and demolished in the 1970s. The inexorable tide of progress enabled redevelopment in the late 1970s as a multistorey car park to serve the town no doubt out of scale with its 2 or 3 storey predecessors)! By the 1980s the car park is underused due to vandalism so in the 1990s the interior is painted, lighting increased and video cameras installed.

What of the future?
Because the area is now to be designated an urban village, a consultant report is commissioned which creates a vision, a new vision for the millennium. The vision is ... to convert the ground floor of the car park to encourage a cosmopolitan range of small shops and cafes, convert the upper floors into student residences all to be accessible from the new 'super tram' (or perhaps guided bus system) that will run down the main street.

Deja vue?
The life cycles of buildings and cities clearly have similarities. This is why we have to think of repairing, not replacing, our city fabric. The last 50 years has taken us full circle, with millions of pounds invested and, in many cases, wasted. Gradual renewal rather than redevelopment should have been the watchword. This is not to prevent, or eschew the new. far from it, a point I shall return to later. But only by removing the worst of the old and replacing with the best of the new, keeping activities within the grain and scale of the urban townscape and the social and economic structure, will we ensure that our investment truly adds value not just monetary but cultural value in the town's SIGNIFICANCE. But even more than individual buildings, towns are under rapidly changing economic pressures. These are numerous and varied but let me take just two of them:

Retailing and leisure
Anyone with any sense of development history will know that, in the old days, we just had shops, those that weren't knocked down or graduated into arcades which was a tidy way of making a bit of profit out of a bit of back land. Arcades were superseded by malls and then we had centres. While all of this was going on in towns, outside we had suburban markets, supermarkets, hypermarkets, superstores and metrocentres. Now we even have retail townships not just on greenfields but in Bluewater, or just as confusingly on brownfield land in greenbelts. Unless, of course, retail warehouses have got there first.
Retail warehouses - sheds where people buy goods at half the price, spending twice as much as they intended to spend in the first place, because? When it comes to considering the fabric of the face of our towns then surely retail sheds represent the ultimate in building acne.

But, what's all this to do with the town centre? The expensive shopping mall may remain but competing with the out of town offer. There may now be an edge of town centre, festival shopping centre on the harbour front, dockside, canalside but will they last once the novelty has worn off? Ultimate bankruptcy of town centre, malls could yield some prime sites but for what? More museums and art galleries - but they won't be coming into the centre any more!

If all the retailing has been pushed out to the fringes in metrocentres, retail warehouses, superstores and shopping townships, what will we do with the space in the central areas? The big demand is for car parking. Once, a car was a means of taking mum to the seaside at weekends. Now it is at best a shopping basket. It seems no one goes shopping without a car and that's why the value in out of town locations is in the parking space.

At worst, the car has taken the place of a pair of shoes and an overcoat - a guaranteed means of getting from home to the office in your shirtsleeves and without getting your feet wet no matter what the weather. Tenants in my own building in the city centre are moving out, not because they need more office space, but because then want more parking - one per employee!

But if all the space in central areas no longer required for shops (or offices) is used for car parking who would use the car parks? Perhaps it's the second of our two economic generators - leisure. Of course, it's restaurants, bars, night-clubs all those 'non-drinking and driving' uses that require the use of public transport, or, more conveniently, taxis.

But do we really just want to create theme parks of our towns and cities: glorified heritage centres for drinking and eating. I'm all for a bit of theatre but as with coke and ice cream, it isn't the 'Real Thing', and we do need reality as well.

Getting fitter?
Perhaps the answer lies in the health and fitness side of leisure. Surely health and fitness represents reality?

After driving home from work or shopping, our resident climbs back in their car to drive out, yes out, to the edge of town leisure and fitness centre to go inside to run on, or ride on, machines whilst watching video simulations of the outdoors only to return home yet again in their cars. is that real?

No, reality must surely be to recreate our towns, cities and villages as places to live, work, shop and play. To reduce our dependence on the car and increase our opportunity to walk or cycle. For those who live in London this is already becoming familiar but most of the provincial towns and cities still have a culture change to make.

This is already government policy so what is the point I am making? The point is the culture change. It won't happen unless we start treating the fabric of our towns and cities with the same intensity as that of a historic building. As with significant - (that word again) buildings significant townscape needs protecting and conserving but, as with buildings, it is viable economic use that will keep the town alive. The trade off here is SIGNIFICANCE versus VULNERABILITY. I'm not suggesting that we drop our standards; it is quality that wins in environmental attractiveness but not inappropriate quality. Quality used to be symbolised by a fur coat but now even a mink wouldn't wish to be seen dead in one. Perceptions change. Simply preserving what we have, however well it's done, doesn't necessarily add to the quality of life. We need a healthy lively place, that requires variety, the acceptance of a culture of change, we have to learn to identify the long life structural significance of our towns and cities and identify how to accommodate a 'loose fit' of activities as densely as possible: the more activities that can take place in a given area over a longer period the healthier our towns will be.

Re-examining the philosophy
So, now perhaps we can return to reexamine the philosophy of repairing buildings and see just how healthy that is. To do so 1 suggest we look again at the SPAB Manifesto written by William Morris more than a century ago.

"No doubt within the last fifty years a new interest, almost like another sense, has arisen in the conservation of buildings which have become the subject of the most interesting of studies and of an enthusiasm, religious, historical, artistic which is one of the undoubted gains of our time; yet we think that those last fifty years of knowledge and attention have done more for their destruction than all the foregoing centuries of revolution, violence and contempt. From this, arose in men's minds the strange idea of restoration of ancient buildings; a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.

In early times, this kind of forgery was impossible, because the knowledgeable failed the builders, or perhaps because instinct held them back. If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time; a church of the eleventh century might be added to or altered in the twelfth; thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth or even the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deed done midst its fashioning. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no possibility mislead". That manifesto, and I've only quoted part of it, is just as relevant today, though with the passage of time our interpretation of how to implement it may have changed.

A book, recently published by Lawrence King called "Architecture Reborn", deals with the reconstruction and conversion of old buildings. In it Ken Powell. explains the exemplary mixed reuse of the Oxo Tower Wharf building on the south bank of the Thames.

"Three service and access cores were gouged out of the centre and either end of the block. The five floors of apartments were easily accommodated within the existing structure, with access from a central corridor". But then he explains a key factor of reuse:

"The fact that the building was unlisted and undervalued, made the architect's task easier in Britain (he explains to readers in other countries), a rigid and retrograde attitude often prevails towards the reuse of listed buildings".

Because the Oxo Wharf was not listed: "The attachment of steel balconies to the facades, for example, was not contentious. Below the apartments are three floors of working studios, shops and an attractive cafe. The restaurant and brassiere (added into a new top floor under a dynamic new wing shaped roof) has become one of the most modish eating places in London. The Oxo development was a daring move, mixing not only uses but social mores. I understand that the weekly rent of the apartments is around the price of an average lunch for two in the Harvey Nichols restaurant". If only we could emulate that range of mixed use in all parts of our cities.

Powell's indictment is that if the building were listed, such a mix would have been prevented due to bureaucratic cowardice. it would be comforting to think he is wrong. But the fact that out of the 150 world class examples of architectural transformation in his book only six are British and yet ten are by British architects, all goes to support his point of view.

"Saving old buildings is no longer enough" says Powell. The aim is not preservation but transformation. The issue is no longer about new versus old but about the nature of the vital relationship between the two. This, 1 believe, is also the vital message that applies to our towns and cities.

Creative reuse is about process rather than product. It welcomes the message that applies to our towns and cities. It is about process rather than product. It welcomes the dynamic of the future and addresses lessons of the past, i.e. those lessons comprehended by the Conservation Parameters. What would William Morris have thought? If, as Powell says, "Morris saw conservation as linked to the cause of modernity, encouraging creativity rather than the imitation of the past", he would have welcomed the modern art of transformation. After all Morris believed every craftsmen should be an artist and every artist a craftsman. In practising our skills as conservationists, it is too easy just to practise our craft and avoid the need to understand, let alone create, our art.

Powell believes "old buildings can equally become new exhibits in their own right. In the hands of a few great architects, existing structures of great intrinsic interest have been transformed not only functionally but in terms of this imagery, Carlo Scarpa's Castelvecchio at Verona and Stirling's Tate Gallery in Liverpool are prominent examples. Forceful buildings created for a specific, now defunct, use make demands on the architect's imagination that match or exceed those posed by new buildings. Morris would have been proud.

Unfortunately, this debate only occurs on nationally prestigious projects. Yet, it should be the 'meat and drink' of every planning authority, every advisory committee. is it the public (and perhaps by that I mean local media) lack of informed interest, or is it myopic and restrictive planning authorities, or the inability of architects, that has stifled such local debate? 1 don't know. But I do believe the inertia needs to be broken and the art of architecture brought back into modern conservation via 'modern conversation'. Whether you are considering alterations, additions, infill, new development, streetscape or even street furniture, don't always seek or even accept the safe option. The safe option is there only to fall back on when the omens are bad when, say, dealing with a rapacious developer or an inept designer but, when the client is worthy, and the architect creative, take courage and encourage debate.

Seek to inspire
Identify appropriately daring examples from elsewhere, if necessary from abroad and promote them to your committee and to the media (and do try to encourage them to use informed contributors for comments rather than the daily hack). If you can create the climate for debate in your area you may be surprised by what hidden seeds of ideas have been waiting to germinate. And, if they do germinate, recognise and support them by encouraging and promoting sensitive contemporary designs when they push up into view. The first growths will require nurturing if the local cultural climate is still hostile so tread warily and don't trample on them or their architects!

You could also lead by example, engaging talented urban designers to upgrade your streetscape with some daring, as well as tradition, setting the scene for a more contemporary theatre of activity.

So Morris's philosophy for the repair of old buildings really is applicable to the fabric of our towns. Still repair what has been left to us by previous generations, but we devalue it if we ape it too extensively, so visitors will no longer know what is new and what is old.

In conclusion some homilies hopefully summarise my point:

  • Analyse the area identifying the potential for change in order to understand its dynamic;
  • Consider the site in its context: its SIGNIFICANCE, the Conservation Parameters, visual, physical, historic and economic;
  • Think laterally about the uses to which a site or building is to be put in its particular location;
  • Identify solutions that work with the grain of the town and not against' it;
  • Treat the elements of townscape to be preserved as long life elements and consider more carefully those elements of any new proposal that will also become long life elements;
  • Be prepared to treat short life elements within wider parameters (shopfronts for example) very modern high quality can sit happily beside traditional;
  • Repair the townscape by conserving the best of the past but avoiding reproduction except perhaps where a set piece is incomplete;
  • Consider sympathetic material for new additions in two ways: either as an extension of past techniques, or in contrast to them (depending upon the context);
  • Use modern designs and technical solutions to create new landmarks where they are needed; and/or stitch together the backcloth where historic fabric, or precedent is missing. But do recognise the difference between the two;
  • Consider the scope for visual interpretation of the townscape not just it's past but its present and its future so that the town lives; and
  • Most of all, don't believe there is only one answer: yours. Think laterally, retain an open mind and, be prepared to consider a variety of different approaches to provide the owner, developer, investor with some choice, to enable greater flexibility of use, and to create a healthier town. Only thus will we, as good custodians, pass on our cities, towns and villages to our children in a better state than we inherited them from our parents and forefathers.
Derek Latham is the founder of Latham Architects and a member of lHBC. This article is based on his Lecture following the Annual Dinner at the IHBC School in Cardiff in June.
Context 63 September 1999