Tasting changes in how we look at preserving buildings should make us wary, says David Winpenny
Which buildings should we preserve? What should we allow to be demolished or changed? Should we be allowed to change everything – or nothing? What does preservation mean?
These questions have exercised architects and lovers of old buildings, planners and local authorities, for at least 200 years. Since the antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries began to look at buildings not so much as utilitarian structures but as works of art and of ‘heritage’ (though they would not have recognised the world in its modern sense) there has been a dilemma.
Before, say, 1600 the dilemma would hardly have existed. A building was constructed to serve a purpose. If it stopped being useful it was either altered or demolished and replaced. The style that was chosen was the style of the time – not pastiche or pretend ‘ancient’. Only occasionally, in the most prestigious buildings, did some historical and aesthetic considerations come into play; in 1375 the master-mason Henry Yevele (there were no architects as such then) was asked to complete the nave of Westminster Abbey. The eastern part had been built in the 13th century. When Yevele arrived its style was desperately old fashioned. Yet he and the Abbot of Westminster of the late 14th century decided to continue the 13th-century style, very slightly tweaked so that it’s possible to tell where their work began if you look hard.
Such sensitivity was very rare. It was only in the early 18th century that things began to change. In 1709 Sir John Vanbrugh tried to persuade the Duchess of Marlborough to preserve the old Woodstock manor house at Blenheim both for its historical associations and for its picturesque setting. His request fell on deaf ears, but as the century progressed such ideas became central to the thoughts of educated gentlemen.
If you happened to have a real ruined abbey, like Fountains or Rievaulx, as the climax of your garden you were a happy man. If not, you could build artificial ruins. We have only to go as far as Hackfall to see several of them. By the end of the 18th century, though, this was considered rather frivolous. Stern antiquarianism came to the fore, and buildings were considered in a new light. Preservation was the order of the day.
Preservation has always meant different things at different times. In the late 18th century the architect James Wyatt – he who designed Ripon Town Hall – earned two opposing reputations. To many cathedral Deans and Chapters he was the man to call in to make their great historic buildings watertight and bring them up to modern standards. To others he was ‘the arch destroyer’ who swept away the historical fabric of these miraculous medieval buildings, refacing them with new stone and throwing out all the best carvings. He was followed by architects like Blore, who restored Ripon Minster in the early 19th century with papier-maché vaults.
Only 20 or so years later taste had changed again, and the serious Gothic Revival architects, spearheaded by Pugin and including men like Gilbert Scott, were hard at work trying to get back to what the creators of the medieval cathedrals had intended. They ‘restored’ original features, sometimes on the flimsiest evidence. Ripon Cathedral (as it now was) escaped relatively lightly; in some places Scott was much more invasive. Yet, like Wyatt before him, he was working within the spirit of the age.
Again the pendulum was swinging. In 1877 William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, partly as a protest against what Scott and his fellow restorers were up to. Morris said of such buildings ‘We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all generations of mankind who are to follow us.’ Gradually legislation came in to protect, first, ancient monuments and, then, listed buildings.
Yet still protection was only partial. In the ‘white heat of technology’ fuelling the 1960s and 70s, there was a great deal of destruction of lesser, though important buildings, especially in city centres – Ripon was not immune. Sometimes this worked in favour of buildings. Some country houses survived because their owners were permitted to demolish grandiose and now-decaying Victorian additions to 18th-century houses.
The argument here was to take them back to their original state. There have been some notable successes – such as Chiswick House and Asgill House, both in west London – though even here compromises have inevitably been made, and their architects might not quite recognise their original concepts.
Is the pendulum now at its furthest swing? It would be almost impossible today to have such demolition of 19th-century work permitted. In listed buildings – certainly of Grade II* and Grade I – even moving a wall or unblocking a window is hardly ever permitted. No wonder owners sometimes abandon attempts to bring buildings back to life.
This is surely self-defeating. Any decision must have a certain amount of pragmatic common sense, as at Hellifield Peel, west of Skipton, where English Heritage permitted changes and reconstruction to make it a modern, liveable house.
That is why it makes sense, for example, to allow the demolition of the rear parts of the Abbott’s building on North Street in Ripon to allow the construction of a cinema. We may regret some loss of 19th-century fabric. But we may gain something more useful than an abandoned building. It is not a precedent for general destruction – it is a recognition of practicality.
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