“…the forces of vandalism and cruelty are ever ready to exploit or destroy what so many generations have painfully laboured to create…”
Dr Herman Finer, 1933
Change itself is the only constant but there are different kinds or degrees of change. Some changes enhance the quality of life, others can diminish it (which is why 'modernisation' - the New Labour creed - is not self-evidently beneficial). Wessex largely 'missed out' on some of the key historical events that transformed other parts of Britain - the Viking settlement, the Industrial Revolution, massive conurbations. Our past is more visible than the past of those areas where subsequent changes have destroyed much of what previous generations wrought, those things that are essential to a sense of being part of a continuing community, stretching far back into antiquity and with a correspondingly rich and diverse set of reference points.
While there are no official statistics for Wessex, it is noteworthy that England’s ‘South West’ has the richest heritage of all the Prescott zones. It has 19% of England’s land area but 24% of its listed buildings and 36% of its scheduled ancient monuments. So how fares this heritage? Not well. English Heritage reports that 140 of the region’s finest listed buildings and monuments are ‘at risk’; the figure for the ‘South East’ is even worse, at 176.
These are matters that money could put right (for about £100 million, if the Lottery were not being looted for London’s benefit). But there is a darker disease that money alone will not cure. The very ethos of conservation is being undermined, by those who are entrusted to be its guardians. We have seen Labour put housebuilding ahead of the environment, present greed above future need. We have seen Natural England, the Government watchdog for nature conservation, landscape quality and countryside access question the value of Green Belts. We have seen Bath & North East Somerset Council bemoan the lack of tower cranes on the skyline of their historic city. It’s tower cranes that bring in the tourists, isn’t it? Why waste time on Georgian gems when you can gaze at Modern masterpieces in the midst of a permanent building site? Bring on the comic outpourings of inflated egos pumped up with money by the crassest of the overclass!
Anti-conservationism (destructionism?) is in full cry in the dying days of New Labour. Not since the 1960’s have we seen such bitter hatred for the past.
Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our insularity. Continental cities do it better, promoting the best of “contemporary design” (whatever that ill-conceived phrase may denote). Well, as it happens, they usually manage conservation much better too. It was continentals who invented conservation. Not the National Trust. The first ancient monuments legislation was introduced in Sweden early in the 17th century. The first listed buildings legislation in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt early in the 19th. The first (and only temporarily) successful conservation campaign was perhaps in Cordoba in 1523, when the council sought to outlaw damage to the city’s incomparable mosque. And the first failure was perhaps the decree of the Roman Emperors Leo and Majorian in 458 against damaging ancient buildings and monuments in the Eternal City.
Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our nation’s neurosis. Anally retentive, no less. Poor old Freud. He’d surely have had a field day with architects and developers eager to obliterate their forefathers’ work so that it’s not around to stand comparison with their own feeble offerings. Yes, the very best architects and developers of today deserve the grand opportunities of previous generations but it is a myth to suggest that such do not exist (and cannot exist without destroying our heritage to make room). Let Foster and Rogers ruin Milton Keynes if they must. But spare the rest of us.
Concern for the past, we are told, is a sign of our inability to live comfortably with 21st century reality. Is it not rather a sign of our immaturity that our aesthetic judgement can be so easily impaired by what the calendar tells us? Architecture that was bad in 1999 will not be any better for being built today. A moment’s reflection will reveal that “contemporary” architecture is any architecture that happens now, which in practice is largely architecture that reflects the taste of the New Labour ruling class. Why should the style of the 21st century be so-called Modernism, a pastiche of the 1960’s, itself a pastiche of the 1920’s? Modernism is passé, long ago ceasing to be modern. And what has such thinking, in its internationalist guise especially, to do with the genius loci, the sense of appropriateness to place? Good architecture is always derivative; it is otherwise empty of cultural content. So the message it sends must always be closely evaluated.
Concern for the past, we are told, is a denial of our dynamic society. We cannot live in a museum. Our cities are living cities that must change to survive in the modern world. But there is a difference between a way of living that sustains the richness of our surroundings – including its time dimension – and one that wilfully destroys it through injudicious development. Every building demolished is a window on the past closed and that is why each decision requires careful reflection. We are being robbed of experiences that should be our birthright simply so that others can show off on a massive scale, can make their mark on history instead of taking their respectful place in it. It’s like carving your name on a mediæval bench-end. In our drive to be good global citizens, we build culture in breadth at the expense of culture in depth. Without roots, we are exposed to the chill winds of market forces taking us wherever they may blow. We have a choice then between ancient wisdom and transient sensation, between living as if we mean to stay and living only for the moments that our grasping anxieties lay before us.
The problem is essentially one of education. The value of the past has been neglected to the point where its very existence is threatened, perhaps as never before. European Architectural Heritage Year 1975, which started so many good trends, is a generation away and much of its momentum has been lost. Even the physical results are wearing thin, as environmental improvements come up for repair and renewal and the philistines move in. All it takes to flatten a building is to mention the money that development can ‘make’ (especially when it’s all in a ‘good cause’). The defenders of charm and beauty must begin again. Cheerfully. Since the price of civilisation is always eternal vigilance.
Wessex is changing fast and not necessarily for the better. It needs to change to improve, because it is not the best it will ever be. But improvement should not mean for better or for worse. Perhaps, in our day as in Alfred’s, things round here are going to have to change if things are going to stay the same.