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'Rip it up and start again...'

‘Rip it up and start again…’

Opinions have been posted over a year to the LinkedIn ‘London Architecture Network‘ group on the discussion: ‘Old buildings. Should we keep them or demolish to give space for the new?’ 

It is interesting to start at the beginning and trace it through. The discussion is broad-ranging and has teased out lively view points. I thought a summary would paint a picture, and maybe encourage you – and me – to add our two-penny’s worth. (In the interests of the group, comments here will remain anonymous).

The statement is cleverly open-ended which has generated odd juxtapositions: concerns over practicality, ‘…the cost of constantly replacing buildings would be impractical…’ sit alongside thoughts that, ‘…we can keep them if it still good or it has very important history,’ (sic).

Some thoughts I agree with and are pleasingly succinct:

‘We need to keep our inheritance not fritter it away’.

‘It is important to keep the historical value of a building to reflect where architecture came from’.

Old buildings should not be considered in isolation but as part of old landscapes as well – including street patterns and water courses.’

The discussion has contributions by many non Brits and highlights possible ingrained cultural values in all of us.  Examples are taken from the modern movement and the International Style to illustrate a (radical) stance of razing and building anew. Arguments include the fact that across Europe re-building after war damage has often seen a complete change of urban landscape that people accept and happily live with.

Modern technology features in the form of digital preservation and whether (crudely) buildings could be demolished once digitally recorded. This proposal was balanced by the alternative view that digital representation can never capture a building’s essence and that they need to be considered in their context of landscape and urban design. I agree with the ‘contextual’ argument which is probably why I find museums of buildings – Weald and Down for instance – a rather dry experience. If buildings are not part of our everyday life they lose some of their value.

Our current challenges over energy use provides a further layer of conscience to wrestle with – to suit our present day lives older buildings are notoriously not energy efficient and are difficult to upgrade effectively. Some suggest this is problematic enough to justify demolition. I tend to put faith in the embodied energy of existing buildings having a high value, however one contributor advises that if the lifetime carbon footprint of a new and existing buildings are compared a new one can be more efficient.

Can we be too sentimental over old buildings?: ‘…maybe we should learn to let things go instead of keeping them alive artificially…’.

Could criteria be collated to determined if a buildings stays or goes?:
Is a black and white concept of ‘fit for purpose’ an appropriate consideration, as proposed by one contributor?
‘…if they cannot be made to fit a practical function then they should go.’ Personally I would look at a number of overlapping issues, rather than simply whether a practical function can be found in the immediacy.

Should aesthetics be the test? One contributor suggests, ‘…old and ugly would be better to not exist…’. Certainly quality of craftsmanship or technology should be considered – and informs the current ‘listing’ system in England and Wales. We should be careful that an ugly duckling is not demolished when it could be renovated into a swan. Experienced professionals and informed clients together can seek to maximise opportunities in existing buildings that may exist and others cannot conceive.

So, if we can get our heads around the possibility of doing away with our old buildings what would they be replaced with?
‘…very sophisticated, intelligent, high tech and sustainable ones…’. Hard to disagree with that – but then how are each of these qualities to be defined?

From a personal perspective regular readers will know I believe our cultural identity as expressed in our buildings is important to recognise, learn from, and reference our lives against as a continuum of society. See also my earlier post ‘Going – Demo – Gone’.

Reading through the varied comments it is clear this is a subject many have strong views on. ‘Old’ should ideally be qualified: perhaps the English Heritage statement, ‘A building has normally to be over 30 years old to be eligible for listing’, is a good starting point.

The key issue that comes to mind is that if criteria are adopted whose would these be – who decides?
Replacement buildings should be an improvement on the previous – yet we know of the Carbuncle Cup, and wide debate on the quality of new-builds.
Does emotion stand in the way of progress? What does the value we place in protecting or saving existing buildings – or not – say about our current lifestyle priorities? Society needs a common purpose or enemy to bind it – and ‘saving’ a building can fulfill a social void. A common purpose that draws people together with similar priorities is part of human nature and buildings are just another form of expression of cultural priorities.

There must be a plethora of other discussion points. I would encourage you visit the debate and leave your thoughts on LinkedIn.

~ Do let me know if you are reading your own quote above and are happy to have your name added – the above shall be edited accordingly.