The news last week that the BBC is to close Maida Vale Studios and relocate live music to Stratford in East London was received with exactly the kind of enthusiasm long time media watchers have come to expect from this kind of thing – with words like “disgusting” and “misguided”, and pleas for the preservation of our cultural heritage. Hashtag campaigns and requests for listing have been duly launched into the ether.
The responses from musicians and music fans echoed those from TV historians to the partial conversion of the BBC’s Television Centre to private flats over recent years, with occasional outbursts of “I can’t bear to look at it” and “It makes me feel sad when I go past” continuing to this day.
Now I’m not an architect, property developer, TV producer or internationally renowned rock guitarist, sadly; so I can’t speak to whether either of these land deals are particularly good value, or the claims and counter-claims as to the long term viability of the old facilities and their new replacements. Equally, there’s a whole separate argument about the fact that such London buildings are usually converted into high-end oligarch hives that are at best a symptom and at worse a driver of inequalities within our cities and society as a whole.
What I do question, though, is the idea that preserving heritage in our built environment requires continuity of use. There is of course an undeniable buzz for people working in a particular creative industry to occupy the spaces and walk the corridors their predecessors did, to be part of a history. When change must come, there’s also a case for excellent examples of workplaces to be preserved as museums or heritage sites.
But the impulse to freeze a building in its current use, fixing its purpose like the glue-wielding bad guy in The Lego Movie, cuts against the city as a living, evolving place that changes with the requirements of its population and industries.
More than that: it’s through allowing changes of use, by preserving historic facades and putting up plaques but by allowing the buildings to be reshaped to contemporary needs, that history accumulates in the architecture of our older cities.
I live in Exeter, I used to live in London, and, when I was young, my favourite city near to my home town was York. All three cities date back to before Roman times, and are places where the medieval has been partially over-written by the eras that followed, with new development filling the spaces left by fire and war and other disasters. As the commercial areas of a city expand, old domestic dwellings find themselves reshaped into business properties, while further from these commercial centres former places of work become domestic properties. Hospitals become restaurants, old houses become shops, central tenements become office space and, yes, the factories and warehouses and studios of industries that have collapsed or moved on are split into apartments.
At worst these changes of use can feel like a crushing of the imagination. A place of once fervent worship might deserve better than becoming a Wetherspoons. We do not respect the toil and horrors that our historic docks represent by divvying up the buildings into cute riverside apartments with high price tags.
At best, though, there’s a pleasure in coming across a building that has changed use over the centuries and decades; that bears a unique character from having spaces that bear the marks of previous use; that has quirks of layout that you wouldn’t find in a building designed precisely for its current requirements. The change of use can add to the history of a place, rather than diminishing it.
The preservation of old signage, commemorative plaques and clues in street and square names all contribute to the idea that a city has a long, changing history. The fact that new uses are found for old buildings, that we can remake our buildings for a new use rather than just demolishing them and starting over, preserves history in a different way to heritage centres and museums. It weaves the past into the present, creating a sense of historic continuity that is layered and evolving. The separation between the preserved past and the under-construction future is dissolved – and we can see ourselves within a city’s history rather than simply observing it.
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