As I frequently do late at night when I’m bored, I reached for my iPad and decided to watch something on iPlayer. The only thing which caught my eye (and it must have been a really very slow iPlayer day) was a documentary following the redevelopment of King’s Cross. As it’s a listed building, any alterations to it must be approved with English Heritage, and the programme followed the discussions, arguments and compromises between all the parties involved on how to go forward with the project.
The parties involved were Network Rail, trying to ensure the station would be fit for purpose for the 21st Century, the architects trying to impose their vision, and English Heritage, trying to preserve the historical character of the building.
It’s easy to dismiss the efforts of English Heritage as pointless bureaucracy, forcing developers to jump through hoops to get their projects approved, but a cursory examination of any city in this country will show why they’re necessary. It is in the instincts of architects to build things which they believe are beautiful, and which fit with the prevailing architectural fashions; by and large they have no care for the old.
Because of this, all across this country perfectly good old buildings were torn down and replaced. An example highlighted in the programme is the old Euston Station: it, along with its fabulous grand arch, were torn down and replaced with the 60s monstrosity we see there today. The same wanton architectural vandalism, veiled with the name of progress and modernism, is visible up and down the country. It’s almost impossible to count the number of town and cities where the heart and soul of the place has been torn out, replaced with weather-damaged concrete boxes, decaying in the rain.
I dread to think of the fate that could have befallen King’s Cross if they were allowed to just tear it down entirely. Maybe what they would have replaced it with would be as beautiful as the current Victorian train-shed with its towering brick facade, but there’s no guaranteeing that. There’s certainly an argument for little-c conservatism in the treatment of our built environment, and that’s without consideration for preserving buildings solely as important cultural, architectural, and historical artefacts in themselves. Whatever is done with these buildings could last lifetimes; we have a duty to treat that responsibility with the respect and caution it deserves.
I want to make it clear that I’m not opposed to architectural progress. I’m actually quite a big fan of the modern style of having lots of glass and metal. My only concerns are that we not get so carried away with ourselves that we trample all over our past, and that we have concern for what these buildings are going to be like, 30, 50, 100 years down the road. My favourite way to go is where modern additions are brought into an older building in a way that’s sympathetic with it; like the fantastic new roof over the British Museum.
This was the most satisfying thing about the programme; the architect backed down from his plans to demolish the interior features of the building, and submitted a new design that incorporated them, and merged them with the modern to create a design that worked with a balance of the new and the old. He realised, to only slightly paraphrase his words, that other people could be right. It made me feel altogether rather happy.