For the last ten years I have been involved in grappling with the future of historic and at times ancient buildings. The individual challenge changes but the broader issue is consistent. All of these buildings possess breathtaking beauty or an awe-inspiring atmosphere and they all come with a myriad of practical challenges: heating, lighting, internet, energy efficiency, parking and on and on. In that time I have found a consistent method for dealing with this challenge which ties into broader strategies for any kind of problem-solving.
As one delegate at a recent meeting suggested; “Wouldn’t it be cheaper, and easier to knock it down and sell the site?” Well it would, but fortunately, this way of thinking has been rightly consigned to the 1960’s, a period that eradicated many of our very important Stately Homes, Follies, Churches, Castles and many more. It was pioneer protestors such as Sir John Betjeman and his artist friend John Piper who began the fight to stop this wanton destruction. Thankfully their efforts stemmed the tide and made way for inspired organisations like the Landmark Trust, the Churches Conservation Trust and of course English Heritage all of whom have been an enormous force for good in preserving heritage buildings.
Old buildings give a place its identity. They shape a place’s character and give colour to a place’s personality. If a town was a person, what kind of a person would a ‘new town’ be as opposed to an old city like York for instance? With whom would you like to sit down with a cold beer and enjoy a Sunday afternoon’s banter? Who would relate the richest anecdotes and tell the most intriguing stories?
But of course anything of real antiquity comes at a price because you are paying for the layered histories distilled within it. Its price reflects is inherent value as something that couldn’t be replaced. It therefore becomes priceless and as such, coveted.
Professor Simon Thurley CEO at English Heritage before its restructure in 2015 said
“There are still lots of places with very strong cultural heritage – whether it be museums, or streetscapes, or castles, or churches, or palaces – which have not yet cottoned on to that. We somehow have got to get these places understanding that they have got assets here and not liabilities.” He goes on to make the point that “we should make a more formal recognition that heritage is in fact a production factor in the economy. It’s not just about culture, it’s about economics.”
The notion that heritage buildings have an intrinsic, irreplaceable value is broadly understood but heritage doesn’t mean preserving things in aspic. True heritage conservation is about adapting the building to meet the needs of the present day whilst retaining those intangible qualities that make it valuable in the first place. Particularly if we want people to understand and connect with our past via architecture, we need to not just preserve these buildings, but find a use for them.
But, the understanding value does nothing to make practical issues relating to the redevelopment of old buildings disappear. What does help, is creating a mindset that views the positive values of the building for what they are, and the problems not as insurmountable issues, but opportunities to create something new.
This is something IVE has been working on across multiple projects. For example, we have worked with Thomas Lister Chartered Surveyors, to help with re-purposing the now redundant Calderdale Magistrates Courts. Over the last three years Calderdale Council has made a significant financial investment into other major heritage assets in Halifax such as their unique Piece Hall; recently visited by HRH Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. It, therefore, makes sense to integrate other important heritage building’s futures into this vision. But to do this, a financially viable, creative proposition needs to be found for buildings like the Magistrates Court.
To achieve this, we recently hosted an event in Halifax that convened a number of interested stakeholders from the private, public and third sectors, in a creative conversation about the future of the courts. Initially, we gathered the stakeholders together and discussed some of the potential ideas for reusing the courts. As expected, conversations focused on the problems it presented: the court’s massive footprint, its Grade II Listing, its complex layout (including the cells in the basement!), its limited town-centre car parking and out-dated, inefficient energy management system.
What we then did was have everyone involved engage in some fun simple activities that explained the common ways in which we shut down and limit ideas followed by a series of interactive exercises which prime the brain into a creative mode. Then we took the visitors inside the building and suddenly the conversations tended to be about admiring the beautiful oak panelling, plaster ceiling decoration and stained glass, as well as the magnificent proportion of the windows letting light flood in and the awesome fireplaces with ornate timber mantles and beaten copper hoods. The seemingly insurmountable problems faded away and instead, people opened up to imagining the possibilities of what it could be used for. We had suggestions ranging from a boutique hotel, a creative hub and new flats to an interactive gaming venue, a series of relaxation chambers and a dog hotel!
We’re also engaged in a project to develop the next generation of conservationists, Ignite, part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s “Kick the Dust” initiative. Ignite connects young people with heritage spaces and then uses their natural creativity to reimagine the space, envisaging new uses for it that will preserve that heritage by giving it new life.
In the end, if the investment is made strategically to protect our beautiful old buildings by making sure they serve new communities in relevant and exciting ways, their presence on our streets as characters we know and love will pay dividends. The loss of a building liability is cheap and easy. The creative preservation of heritage assets that represent our sense of place is difficult. But we have to be up for the challenge