Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Buildings: Practicality vs. Preservation?

This posting was stimulated by a few things I read and heard about. One was a column in 'The Guardian' not this time by the self-centred idiot Simon Hoggart, but the usually more rational Ian Jack. In the 27th June 2009 edition he wittered on about how that even when areas in the UK get the status Conservation Areas and there are apparently 9,300 of these in England alone, that people ignore this and put stone cladding or satellite dishes on their houses or, what seems to be to Jack a worse offence, PVC double glazing. Also appearing in the same edition of the newspaper was an article about locations that have been given World Heritage status by UNESCO. Apparently the German city of Dresden has had this status removed because of a new bridge across the River Elbe which is deemed to have spoiled the view. There are 176 sites 'at risk' of having the status removed, some due to wars, which seems pretty harsh assuming the location's residents probably never wanted war. A friend of mine told me about a woman from Orkney who had told him that around the Stones of Stenness, some Stone Age site that has the World Heritage status, there was a big battle as people wanted to put up a wind farm and others feared it would lose them their status. Ultimately the wind farm was rejected; Hoggart would have been delighted, he loathes wind farms far more than the smokiest or most radioactive power station.

As it is, over the centuries some stones have fallen down and some re-erected wrongly and then moved again. So what is the 'authentic' view of the site? Often it is as imaginary as any other. An interesting parallel is at Hampton Court, where they have taken the gardens back from the 19th century model I knew in my youth to the 18th century one. Why not back to the 17th or 16th century plans? We tend to have some sense of what things should look like that is often detached from the history of the location. Twenty years ago it was probably at some date in the 1880s, editing out memories of the smoke, that was seen as a 'golden age' setting and the style people would aim for. With the Jane Austen fad, it has gone back to the 1820s and in fact referencing the 1780s, especially for the desire of editing out industry from the mix. People forget there has been industry in Britain for millenia, you only have to look at flint and bronze mines or the fact the Yorkshire Dales have few trees to see the impact that humans even in pre-history had on their landscape. Why not move back to 1485 and re-forest large chunks of England? These perceptions about the 'authentic' appearance are more about our current tastes than any accuracy about the past.

These stories to me showed the tensions and some of the stupidity of these considerations. If a Stone Age site has Bronze Age or even Medieval structures nearby do we believe that the site has been 'ruined'? Generally not. Yet at the time the disruption to the location and the impact on the skyline was as severe as from many modern structures. Dresden has always been a large, industrial city. Ironically you can see far more of its buildings and its sights than you would have done in the 19th century when many of them were being built as air pollution is far less especially in terms of smoke. Yet something 'modern' apparently outweighs everything else. Interestingly, this year the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in Wales, built of cast iron in 1805, has been nominated for World Heritage status. Yet, of course, 200 years ago it would have been considered an eyesore, an element of the burgeoning industrial age impinging on rural Wales.

Coming back to the conservation areas. Having lived in Oxford for two years, I know what it is like to live in a city which is considered by the tourists to be like some kind of version of a theme park. I have seen what has happened in Weimar, Germany's equivalent of Stratford-upon-Avon, where you see women working at computers dressed in 18th century garb, the dirndl and impossible to move in full skirts. It was surreal. I found I could not take these office workers seriously when speaking to them. I know that they are supposed to look as if they had stepped from the works of Goethe, but I am about 21st century business. Keep it for a festival, if you have to, but not for everyday wear. Again, imagine the reaction of Goethe in Weimar in 1780 if he went to his bank or to a merchant's and found the workers dressed in medieval constume. He would have rained ridicule on them. As for conservation areas. Many of them seem to covered terraced streets which were built at the time quickly to get accommodation for numerous workers and clerks. Very few of them had some grand architectural design attached to them. If residents have to maintain them as they were before, does this not mean that we have to move the toilet into the back yard, have bathing facilities restricted to a tin bath in the living room on Sundays, water fetched from a pump at the end of the street along with the cholera, families of four in each of the bedrooms? Where do you stop in your search for authenticity? It always has been and always will be a sanitised, edited authentic feel.

The preservation policy also clashes with other policies. Without power in the Orkneys depopulation accelerates. Perhaps that is what is desired by Historic Scotland, so they can turn the islands into a theme park with residents commuting from the mainland. The wind farm provides non-polluting energy for the islands in an area with good wind supply. Surely this is better than more coal, oil or nuclear power stations damaging the environment. A wind farm can always be dismantled, there is no need for all the decontamination of the residue that other power stations leave behind. Unless we move to de-industrialising Britain and reducing its population severely, then we have to face up to the demands that population makes and try to address them with as little impact as possible, but sometimes that will mean 'spoiling the view'.

Every city and even most rural landscapes have been constantly changing. The movie 'Enigma' ( 2001) is a fascinating example of just one element of rural change. It is set during the Second World War (1931-45). so there are no modern cars or tractors or wind turbines or power stations or plastic sheeting in view, but everywhere the hero (acted by Dougray Scott) and heroine (played by Kate Winslet) drive there are the bright yellow fields of rape seed, a crop only introduced on any scale to Britain in the 1980s, yes, the 1980s, not the 1880s or 1780s. The view looks wonderfully rural, but of course it is wrong, because even a photo from the 1970s would not show England as the yellow-and-pleasant land it is today. Should we ban rape seed in rural areas because it ruins the mid-20th century let alone late-18th century view? Given that it is impossible to preserve even rural locations as they were 30 years ago let alone 220 or 4000 years ago, why should we expect it to be possible with urban areas?

The key element that conservation areas neglect is that people actually live in these places and they want to be consumers and residents of the 21st century not play-acting the late 19th century. They want draught-free, waterproof windows, they want to watch the television channels and have the cars that we are always told we should have. Have open air museums and preserved villages, but forcing it on 9,300 areas in English towns and villages is excessive. According to the BBC, 727 areas are 'at risk'. What English Heritage sees as a 'risk' is interesting. They say 83% have plastic windows and doors - what should they have, the rotting wooden frames they replaced? How does that square with energy conservation? 31% have 'unsympathetic' extensions, again no-one wants to live in an actual 19th century house, why should they be compelled to have extra space just as cramped and draughty? 34% have alterations to roofs, fronts and chimnies, again a lot of this is about safety and maintenance. Is English Heritage going to compel people to have crumbling brickwork and unsafe roofs and chimnies? The complaint about 'poor roads and pavements' in 60% is clearly an issue for the council and has nothing to do with whether the area is a conservation area or not. These things should be maintained wherever and conservation areas should not be privileged.

The complaint that angers me is that 36% have traffic calming measures seen by English Heritage as inappropriate. Of course we should have no need for traffic calming, but given how recklessly so many drivers drive in residential areas it is a necessity in keeping people alive. English Heritage would be complicit in murder if they compel traffic calming measures to be removed and so leading to the deaths of any person in those streets. We cannot live in a museum. The traffic passing our houses is not what it was in 1890 let alone 1780, so the roads have to be adjusted appropriately. Focusing on the residents is wrong. You cannot have tiny time capsules in which people have to live with the unhealthy houses of previous decades and face the hazards of 21st century traffic because the calming measures have been removed. It is wonderful to try to preserve the past but there are limits especially when it comes to where people live. There is a shortage of housing in the UK as it is, so to insist on houses being cramped and unpleasant is just madness. Development more open air museums, move more houses into them, do not try to freeze history. It has never been frozen as the developer of a Bronze Age barrow right next to a Stone Age henge site would have told you.

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