Architecture: A new York, but not a better one: One of England's great cathedral cities remains preserved, but Rowan Moore finds that 'improvements' blur the real thing

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The Independent Culture
YORK is a city remarkably free of eyesores. No grandiose traffic schemes carve up its centre and no stubby tower blocks mar its skyline. A quarter of a century ago, the centre of York became Britain's first conservation area, and as a result much of its medieval structure is intact.

Yet, while its fabric has been preserved, its nature and character have changed utterly. Under pressure from tourism and retailing, the city centre increasingly resembles a shopping mall. If this can happen to York, what hope is there for less historic cities?

The most obvious change is the city council's recently completed, five-

year pedestrianisation programme, which has excluded cars from most of York's central streets. Most people would agree that this is a worthy project, although, since cars are part of everyday life, their total exclusion creates a sense of unreality.

The design detail of the pedestrianisation is, however, far more questionable. Stone paving has been used in some places, but most of it is in different forms of whitish concrete block. Apart from the fact that the concrete appears to immortalise stains, it creates a too-bright surround that disrupts the gradation of tone (common to most cities) from dark paving through to light skies. The white concrete also has the effect of making old buildings look like cut-outs.

Brightly artificial paving is particularly out of place in the city that gave its name to the most dignified of paving materials. The council's reason for not using York stone is expense, but had it left the carriageways of the streets in tarmac (a perfectly innocuous material) it might have been able to afford stone pavements. Instead, the streets are lined from side to side with new concrete blocks.

Although the council is happy to use conspicuously modern paving materials, it is diffident about litter bins, street lights and bollards, most of which are in sub-Victorian style. Why place fake Victoriana in a predominantly medieval and Georgian city? Presumably, the designers were seeking a generalised 'old' look. This also accounts for some Tuscan-columned toilets-cum-phone-booths, excruciatingly combining plastic, tile, simulated stone and brick. Dispiritingly, their design resulted from an architectural competition.

The council encourages simulated antiquity in the private sector, too - the dressing of flat-roofed office hulks with add-on Georgiana, and of shops with spuriously variegated, faintly Victorian fronts. Fake antique is reflected in the goods in the shops, particularly in the area around York Minster, which has for some time been pedestrianised. This part of the city resembles a giant National Trust shop, thickly pungent with pot-pourris and speciality soaps.

As well as the city council and private enterprise, the other major force shaping modern perceptions of York is the York Archaeological Trust. Its most famous work is the Jorvik Viking Centre, a Viking settlement re- created underneath a shopping centre, which visitors tour in little dodgem-like vehicles called 'time cars'. Apart from all the time cars going down the Viking high street, the odd Fire Exit sign and the recorded voice of Magnus Magnusson whispering in your ear, this re-creation of the past is impressively complete: 10th-century sounds and smells as well as sights are simulated.

Since it opened nine years ago, the Jorvik Viking Centre has been a roaring success, attracting up to 900,000 visitors a year and helping to fund the trust's other projects. Encouraged by this, the trust has opened, close to the Minster, 'Thomas Gents Coffee House', where 'you can step into the year 1770 . . . and discover a past age when coffee houses were a whole way of life'. Wigs and a pistols are scattered about the candlelit interior and costumed wenches serve you cakes made to 18th-century recipes.

Next door to the coffee house is a further trust project, Barley Hall, a medieval house that will be returned to its imagined state of 1483. Amid replica furniture, people dressed in period clothes will speak in contemporary dialects. This has yet to happen; at present a large glass wall displays the interior to passers-by.

The building's restoration has caused controversy among those who think that the result is more a rebuilding than a restoration. English Heritage seems to be of this opinion: when the trust's architect drew the derelict, overlooked hall to its attention, it listed the building Grade II*; when the results of the restoration were seen, it was demoted to Grade II (without the star).

The York Archaeological Trust is, like the city council, a well-intentioned body. It is impressively resourceful and energetic, and has doubtless succeeded in making lay people interested in archaeology (although a certain amount of academic sniffiness has been directed at this populist approach). What is less certain is whether the trust's efforts reveal the past or fabricate it. Is it, in fact, historical to invent an 18th-century coffee house that never existed?

Inevitably, even the most literal reconstructions require invention and compromises with accuracy; if nothing else, the modern leisurewear of the customers will always destroy the illusion. Given, too, that knowledge of Viking and medieval life is incomplete, it is misleading to present such rounded simulacra, implying that every detail is based on fact. Despite the best efforts of archaeologists, the past is still a mystery that no number of resurrected cake recipes can or should dispel.

On their own, these projects could be accepted as harmless - and, in the case of the Jorvik Centre, highly entertaining - diversions. Problems arise when they are combined with Tuscan toilets, car-less streets, endless fudge shops and 'cast-iron' bollards that (like some in York) turn out to be made of lightweight polycarbonate. With so much blurring of fact and fiction, the genuinely old and beautiful becomes devalued; is that a real cathedral, you begin to think, or a fibre-

glass copy?

Treated in this way, a historic city becomes a set of stimulations and simulations in a highly controlled, pedestrianised environment - or, in short, a shopping mall. It is no accident that York is now like this: a major motive for the pedestrianisation was to allow the city centre to compete with out-of-town supermarkets. In a distinctly Faustian pact, part of the money for repaving came from the sale of a council-owned suburban site to Tesco, on which just such a supermarket (and a peculiarly hideous one) has been built.

Such a fate might seem preferable to tower blocks and dual carriageways, but it is equally destructive of a city's identity. What is depressing is the apparent absence of a middle path. The main moral might be that, unless they have a really good idea of what to do, councils should leave city centres alone.

(Photograph omitted)