Memory, Heritage and the City
This week, conservation architects Donald Insall Associates hosted a panel at its London office with three experts on heritage architecture, listings and regeneration. They were Tanvir Hasan head of the practice’s London office, Simon Thurley former Chief Executive of English Heritage and architectural historian Otto Saumarez-Smith, chaired by Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote who has worked for English Heritage. The theme was “Memory, Heritage and The City”.
On the hottest day in London in over forty years, it took a while for the panel to respond to their chair’s first question about buildings, routes and places that have been particularly memorable to them as individuals. The heat had overwhelmed even the speakers! Nonetheless, stories of early years of childhood emerged together with the realisation of how much has changed in our cities. There was a sense that perhaps too much has been lost unnecessarily because buildings, streets and even whole areas of cities have been neither conserved with care nor sensitively restored. And, it is not just the visual aspects of cities that involve memory, but its sounds and even its smells, too.
The discussion turned to post-war architecture with Simon Thurley and Otto Saumarez-Smith regretting how poor the listing system is in terms of protecting buildings that are currently often unloved despite the “design set’s” recently adopted love of all things Brutal. Saying that, Saumarez-Smith interjected amusingly, “I don’t need to get everyone in the room to say I love concrete”. On a more serious note, Thurley emphasised the need for impartiality in the listing process. It is not, he said, a matter of personal taste.
Moving further afield, the discussion focused on the restoration and recreation of significant international sites and monuments damaged in political conflict or through sheer neglect. Tanvir Hasan asked, “How far do you go to recreate something? Where do you stop? Do you recreate it?” These are important questions for conservation architects especially if what little that remains of a damaged or neglected building ends up as a soulless replica or hollow pastiche of the original. Hasan asked why we hang on to small remnants even when these are not meaningful. She stressed the need to put in perspective “the difference between romance and conservation”.
Audience participation was animated. There were questions concerning re-modelling and re-purposing buildings like prisons and asylums with compromising and negative pasts. “Do buildings have memories?” asked Donald Insall who founded the practice 59 years ago. On this note, Edwin Heathcote concluded the discussion which led to everyone swapping stories about how their city is changing for better and for worse, although as Simon Thurley had noted earlier, “London can take a lot of aggression” building-wise . . . and that perhaps is the beauty of it.
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