As the presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs since 1999, Kevin McCloud needs little introduction, as WMF Britain Ambassador, last night he was in conversation with Dr Jonathan Foyle, CEO of the World Monuments Fund Britain.
As we sat down, my husband struck up a conversation with his neighbour, she asked what his interest was, “I’m a property developer”,was his answer. She flinched, “Uugh, I don’t like you already, but at least you are here, that counts for something”. My husband’s response was that we all need somewhere to live. The exchange is a small reflection of the wider tension between conservation and building. Architecture and monuments were all developments in their day.
Jonathan Foyle’s first question, was, “What is heritage?” As soon as something is built it becomes heritage, it is of its time, but that moment is immediately passed and past. So what should be conserved? And how? Heritage is more than the sum of the bricks and mortar of a building, it is also about the narrative context, of time and location. The fusion of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. If McCloud voiced a criticism of our approach to heritage in the UK, it was that the focus on the building sometimes blurs the importance of landscape or location. For example, later he was describing the campaign to save a 1920s building in the Georgian city of Bath. The building itself was not remarkable, but its location in Georgian Bath, and the place the building has in the history of Bath’s architecture has meaning.
And yet, buildings need to accommodate us as we live today. With reference to the English Heritage’s Conservation Principles and their role in guiding how historic buildings can adapt, Kevin McCloud used Astley Castle, winner of the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize, as an illustration of a sensitive scheme that created a new house inside a 12th century fortified manor. McCloud noted that the architects of Astley Castle, Witherford Watson Mann Architects, echoed the 1960s restoration of Castelvecchio Museum in Verona by Carlo Scarpa, an Italian architect, with its juxtaposition of old and new materials, combining rigorous craftsmanship with respect for the history of the building. The success of both buildings, McCloud noted, was provided by the honesty of showing new and old together and the exceptional craftsmanship. The new buildings are not pastiches of the old, but stand confidently presenting a clear, and honest narrative of the building’s whole story.
Confidence was a keen theme of the evening. Where does that come from? My understanding of McCloud’s argument was that it comes from making places, not just building houses, “good architecture has intimate connection with place”, people and its locality. For his own housing development, McCloud took traditional railway cottages in Swindon as a reference point, but updated them technologically and stylistically to our time. To elevate the development from houses to homes and foster a sense of community the scheme encouraged collective gardening, shared spaces and transport.
In another locality, different materials and architecture would be appropriate. Reflecting on a favourite Grand Design, the cruck-framed woodland house made by Ben Law in series 2 of Grand Designs (pictured), the house was of its environment, all the materials (except the glass) were local, and crafted with great attention to detail. Craftsmanship brings authenticity. Using our hands is intrinsically human, it is the ingenuity that sets us apart from other species. Speaking from personal experience, McCloud emphasised the importance of the making process. Making by hand gives you an appreciation and understanding of, and respect for, the materials you are working with. It also adds great value to the materials. It is the alchemy of taking natural clay, horse-hair, and milk to create a flooring material.
The broad arc of discussion over the City of London’s skyline and wind turbines in rural areas reiterated the importance of appropriate scale, remaining responsive to context, as well as pragmatic in response to change. We live in a finite world, and we have to manage our resources, and our buildings in a way that is responsible to future generations. McCloud calls for a confident, considered, contextual response to that challenge.