Embrace heritage and avoid homogeneity, London told

Wednesday 24 May 2017

London should recognise the importance its rich built heritage and character brings socially, environmentally and financially and avoid lapsing into the ‘homogenisation’ affecting other world cities.

That was one of the key points emerging from a half-day conference on how the capital can retain its character in a period of rapid growth at the NLA.

Keynote speaker Emily Gee, London planning director at Historic England, said her organisation recognised and supported London’s need for growth, but that its special and distinctive character should be a fundamental factor not only for tourism but for wellbeing and sound financial sense. ‘We degrade the historic realm at our peril’, she said, adding that it was a ‘vital ingredient in good growth.’

London’s 33 boroughs have over 19,000 listed buildings, 1,000 conservation areas and four World Heritage Sites and Gee said Historic England is working to a heritage strategy as a ‘golden thread’ that runs through the next iteration of the London Plan. It has commissioned research demonstrating that densification can be achieved in many other ways than building tall and is encouraging local authorities to start with a strong, character-based understanding. But one of the key areas was the protection of Thames-side environments as at Chiswick, where historic England successfully fought the Chiswick Curve proposal. The Walkie Talkie, moreover, spoils many views from the river, Gee added, and the capital remains ‘vulnerable’ to tall buildings. But they can contribute to the vitality of the city if they are well sited and designed, so Historic England is preparing evidence work photographing views with a view to perhaps adding more to protected sightlines in the capital. ‘It’s important to be able to show that heritage is not a rarefied, dusty subject, but an important part of what keeps London special.’

Farrells partner Max Farrell showed schemes like the practice’s Eagle House on the City Road as an example of how heritage can be integrated. But what was fascinating, said Farrell, was how a city with the world’s best architects had so much ‘woeful’ public space. The Farrell review proposed that government should legislate to address VAT on retrofit but was told by Treasury that they could only opt out of some EU legislation – so perhaps it was time to revisit that push so as to stop incentivising demolition of heritage schemes.

Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners director Louise Mansfield said that conservation areas were in fact some of the densest areas in London. Her practice is working on characterisation studies in Croydon and Barking & Dagenham in a bid to understand what is there, and at an early stage, before masterplans are contemplated. ‘In the understanding of place, it is always very important to talk to the people who live there’, she said.

The conference also heard from Cadogan’s property director Haydn Cooper, who emphasised the long-term view as a boon to retaining historic environments and detailed the next iteration at Duke of York Square, featuring a new restaurant and retail. Donald Insall Associates’ Tanvir Hasan, meanwhile, said that the Great Estates model of an approach to areas rather than just buildings was one we could learn from, while the success of Regent Street over the years was a design code that allowed for flexibility. But during questions a key concern was the loss of expertise in conservation issues across the industry.

The second session looked at particular examples: Battersea Power Station Development Company chief development officer David Twohig said there was a ‘homogenisation of every place we are creating that is making places frankly less engaging’. Developers, he said, therefore needed to be challenged and re-educated to do something different. Other examples included Blossom Street, a project whose architect at AHMM Paul Jones said had ‘been through the wringer’ but which looked to gain diversity by employing a number of different architects. AKT II director Rob Partridge showed several examples of how engineering could help build on heritage, including the US Embassy building at 30 Grosvenor Square, which is one of the best examples of off-site pre-manufacture, or Regent’s Crescent, where reverting to pre-soaked bricks helped on expansion issues. And finally Jane Dann, director at Tibbalds Planning & Urban Design showed how Hackney Wick Central integrated a heritage approach into the masterplanning team to inspire the design process – ‘not as a constraint but as a positive thing’.

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

Part of the NLA Conservation & Retrofit Programme

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