The Constructive Comment Column


Paul S. Jenkins

Number Two

In Keeping

Britain is a land with a magnificent and ancient heritage. Our cities, towns and villages are steeped in history. Many Britons are justly proud of that history, even if some of it is less than reputable.

Whatever its merits, our history is not something to be lightly dismissed, but preserved, or at the very least remembered. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," wrote the American philosopher George Santayana.

There exists in Britain a series of government and non-government organisations that, for want of a better description, I shall call the heritage industry. This collective strives to preserve and perpetuate the heritage of Britain, of which so many Britons are, as I have said, justly proud.

This is all well and good, but often (and more often than not, it seems) the heritage industry becomes obsessively blinkered in its single-minded endeavour: to preserve the history of our land in the face of those who would change it.

Preservation of history is laudable, but far too often the heritage industry sees its enemy as change, pure and simple. Prevention of change is prevention of progress. Without progress, we have stagnation.

The force to preserve, at all costs, can permeate into the most mundane of projects. A year or two ago, I was involved in the design of a small extension to a school in Hampshire. The existing building was a single-story structure, flat-roofed with asphalt on wood-wool decking. The wood-wool was supported on stained timber joists that were exposed inside the building. Frankly, it looked horrible -- dismal and dust-gathering. There was an opportunity, within the small budget for the proposed extension, to incorporate a smooth, light-reflecting ceiling.

The client, however, stated categorically that he wanted the wood-wool and exposed timber joists to carry through to the new room, despite the practical disadvantages. As it happened, I was not present when he made this request; if I had been, I would have challenged it. I simply learned later that he expressed the wish that when someone came into the additional classroom they should be unaware that it had not been built at the same time as the original building.

This attitude, philosophy, point of view -- call it what you will -- is so pervasive that it hardly ever is challenged. But I would have, given the chance. The building, after all, had no special historic or architectural merit. There was no imperative to preserve, other than inertia.

My own inclination would have been to emphasise the extension -- declare it as something new, something extra -- Look! See where the money has gone! See what we have now, that we didn't have before!

George Santayana was born in Madrid, and lived in various places including Britain, but he was educated in America -- where you'd think they'd be obsessive about preserving the past, given how little of it they have. But that's not the case.

For example, the Adler Planetarium, perched on a Chicago promontory on the edge of Lake Michigan, is faced in glistening marble. It's a solid and traditional piece of high quality architecture. It has also been extended -- not with more of the same, not with additional planes of polished stone, fashioned to look exactly like the original. No, the extension is a polygonal angular prism, wrapped around the original building in a 180 degree extrusion, facing the water. The white tubular steel structure is enclosed entirely in the sheerest glass, with the finest, almost invisible, gasketed joints. It looks spectacular, and it fits.

Try something like that in Britain. Even if your client believes in it and supports you, there's an obstacle course of committees and historical societies to overcome. And that's not counting the hurdle of the Development Control system.

In the end, we have to ask the question: if the purpose of the heritage industry is to preserve history, for whom is history to be preserved?

The answer is that it's being preserved for the future: our children and our children's children, and so on. We want them -- the people who will ultimately inherit our legacy -- to live not in a land pickled in aspic, but in a thriving, progressive, innovative place. A place conscious of its past, content in its present and confident of its future.

Copyright 2001 Paul S. Jenkins