Don't save buildings - demolish them

These days, we love old buildings as much as we care about pets, and that's saying something
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The Independent Online

If you're an ageing relative, expect your family to shove you in a care home out of sight when you start to crumble around the edges. But when it comes to buildings long past their sell-by date, it's another matter. As a nation we are obsessed to an unhealthy degree with preserving the past. Via the National Trust, the National Heritage Lottery Fund and countless organisations like SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), millions of pounds are channelled every year into propping up structures that simply aren't worth it.

If you're an ageing relative, expect your family to shove you in a care home out of sight when you start to crumble around the edges. But when it comes to buildings long past their sell-by date, it's another matter. As a nation we are obsessed to an unhealthy degree with preserving the past. Via the National Trust, the National Heritage Lottery Fund and countless organisations like SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), millions of pounds are channelled every year into propping up structures that simply aren't worth it.

BBC TV's second Restoration series is in full swing; this week, viewers were asked to vote for three buildings in Wales, a Regency house with a bit of castle attached to it, a Victorian workhouse, and an early 20th-century working men's club, once a cinema. At the end of the episode, only one question was obvious to me - why bother? Is my life going to be enriched because a workhouse is turned into a centre for small businesses, or Cardigan Castle has been tarted up for local arts groups and choirs to sing in?

I realise that to hold these opinions is heresy. These days, we love old buildings as much as we care about pets - and that's saying something. Last night, the Royal Society for the Arts held a debate in London about the whole subject of saving historic buildings, chaired by Griff Rhys Jones, who led the fight to save the Hackney Empire long before he became television's crusader for derelict Britain.

Restoration hijacks Eurovision song contest tactics and applies them ruthlessly to 21 buildings in a state of considerable disrepair. It was the surprise telly hit of last year, when a total of 2.3 million votes were cast, with the winning entry, the Victoria Baths in Manchester, achieving nearly 300,000 votes. Each phone call costs 50p, of which 34p goes into a Restoration fund - a considerable sum. Using the same heart-rending tactics perfected with fundraisers like Comic Relief, we are egged on by two nauseatingly enthusiastic middle-class experts, Ptolemy (an architect) and Marianne (a surveyor) who specialise in conservation.

This season the structures range from a wool mill in Scotland to a playhouse in Derry, a medieval school outside Birmingham and a Regency Castle in Greenwich. At the end of the process, the National Heritage Lottery Fund donates £2.3m towards bringing the winning structure back to life. That's using money that you or I have spent on lottery tickets - and it's a use I thoroughly object to. The Heritage Lottery Fund only gives money to preserve buildings which are listed, or in a conservation area. Also, their new use must benefit the public in some way, hence all the proposed coffee bars, learning centres, educational facilities and music halls that are part and parcel of bringing these redundant properties back into use.

English Heritage decide on which buildings in Britain are listed, and therefore worthy of being saved, and to be fair they have moved to include an increasing number of 20th-century structures, although not enough in my book. Too much of their money is spent saving the Georgian, the Victorian and the cosily ancient.

Take Tyntesfield, a vast and extravagantly decorated listed Victorian gothic mansion outside Bristol, bought by the National Trust for £24m in 2002, the most money the charity had ever paid for one single property. We tax payers contributed £17.4m of that through the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Now the National Trust has asked the Heritage Lottery Fund for another £20m to restore the place.

Quite honestly, I wish the owner of Chelsea Football club or Brad Pitt had purchased Tyntesfield, because to spend nearly £40m of our money restoring one 43-bedroom house is obscene - just think of the schools that could be upgraded, not to mention nurses and teachers who could be adequately recompensed, for the Herculean tasks ahead if they are to deliver New Labour's promises.

This week another critical battle is being played out in the City of London, around the corner from my home, where once again the conservationists are fighting the modernisers. Millions has been spent restoring the fabulous main part of the Smithfield building and bringing it up to EU standards so it can still operate as a wholesale meat market. Now Prince Charles has stepped in to add weight to those who want to stop the empty western end of the building being demolished.

English Heritage have consistently refused to list the three buildings that form an annexe to the main market, because of substantial bomb damage, in spite of being asked four times over a 15 year period. If Lord McIntosh of Haringey announces that the buildings are to be listed this week and cannot be developed, he will be bowing to royal pressure, for the DCMS has only ruled against advice offered by English Heritage in fewer than one in a hundred cases.

These buildings are quite pleasing Victorian structures, but emphatically nothing special. To allow a philistine Prince who has done nothing but harm to the cause of modern architecture to influence a simple planning decision would be nothing short of a scandal. There are plenty of other, more worthy buildings in Clerkenwell for Prince Charles to get exercised about, including a beautiful small chapel around the corner from my house, which could be a play centre, museum or whatever, if he'd like to donate 34p from every pot of Duchy Horseradish sauce sold to a renovation fund.

I'm not a huge fan of Thornhill's proposals, but surely the solution is to hold a competition and build a stylish piece of architecture that can make a bold and important statement on an important site on the edge of the City. First of all, however, it would be good to debate whether a market hall is either needed or relevant, given that sooner or later the meat market will vacate the other end of the building, driven out by declining meat consumption, competition from supermarkets and congestion charges.

Modern architecture gets a pretty rough ride, without Prince Charles lobbing his tiara in the ring every time there's a chance to build something contemporary anywhere near anything ancient. This is the man responsible for the disgusting horror of Poundbury, a Disney-like ghetto of twee stone houses near his estate.

Let's not forget that one of Britain's most highly regarded architects, Zaha Hadid, has yet to build anything in this country, in spite of being awarded to the top architecture prize in the world this spring. Now the knives are out for Will Alsop, whose futuristic Cloud building for Liverpool's waterfront has raised local hackles, and even the hatred of fellow architect Graham Morrison, who called it "a blob".

Griff, Ptolemy and the Restoration team will be spending the next few weeks imploring us to cast votes and "save" one building for Britain. I put it to you that our money would be better spent setting up a rival television series entitled Demolish, in which viewers vote to have ruins removed and gorgeous new iconic buildings erected in their place. It's a win-win situation - the public (who are the lottery fund investors) get modern, purpose-built structures that fulfil local requirements, and Britain's best architects get work here, rather than in Shangai, Milan or Tokyo. This way we're putting together a new Britain that's not a theme park mired in the past.

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