Until some point soon after lunchtime on Friday, 10 July 2009, No. 76 Dean Street probably looked, to the thousands of people who rushed or ambled past it daily, much like any other Soho building. A few, perhaps, would have glanced up and seen it for what it was — a townhouse of some quality, built c. 1740, and thereafter subject to the usual vicissitudes, serving variously as residence for the seventh Earl of Abercorn, a workhouse, premises for a firm of leather-cutters and, most recently, offices for a financial services company. A brief look into one of those tall ground-floor windows might, if correctly timed, have revealed an elegant deal-and-oak staircase curving up towards the right of the front door. Sometimes, indeed, passing by after dark, it was possible to gaze upwards, usually more by accident than design, and to be astonished once again at what the chance illumination revealed inside that front first-floor room — elaborate cornices, surfaces painted with scenes of various sorts — a fleeting impression of gilt, brightness and even grandeur reclaimed from the slushing tides of ambient, could-be-anywhere ordinariness lapping about our city.
Soon after lunchtime last Friday, however, a fire seems to have started somewhere within the air-conditioning system of No. 76 Dean Street. By the time dusk fell, the roof had collapsed. Much of the building was, it turned out, badly damaged. How many fire crew were present when the blaze was at its zenith — 60, 100? Accounts variy. Meanwhile evacuated office-workers stood outside in the afternoon sunshine, half-pleased at the unexpected holiday, conversing amidst wafts of acrid smoke. As for the local residents, we looked anxiously to our own roofs and consoled ourselves that no one had been killed. Some of the younger children, I think, rather enjoyed seeing all the fire engines.
By Saturday, the smoke was gone, although the air still smelled of burning. Out for a walk, we stopped to chat with a neighbour. He’s that rare thing, a Soho resident who was actually born in the parish — a man who has spent virtually all his entire life here. He was, he said, very sad at the loss of No. 76 Dean Street. The conversation wasn’t a long one. Perhaps it was for that reason that the two points he made stood out so clearly. First, he reminded us that, having grown up in Soho, he’d known that building all his life. Secondly, he insisted that No. 76 Dean Street should be rebuilt exactly as it was before. Our neighbour, I should add, is by no means some sort of crazed reactionary — one of those is, surely, enough for any single short street — nor is he, as far as I know, prone to architectural fundamentalism more generally. And yet he knew exactly what should happen next — literal restoration of a fire-damaged building. This distressing tear in the fabric of his everyday life must, it seemed, be mended both swiftly and invisibly, leaving us free to get on with the task of forgetting that things ever, for whatever reason, had been otherwise.
I was reminded of this earlier today, upon discovering that HRH The Prince of Wales had resigned as patron of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), in protest at the SPAB’s refusal to publish an introductory essay that the Prince had written for one of their publications, the Old House Handbook by Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr.
That, anyway, is how the story has been reported. Was there, in fact, more to it than that? The SPAB, after all, have retained their founder William Morris’ powerful antipathy to restoration since 1877 or thereabouts, while the Prince of Wales’ horror of ugly modern architecture is hardly a well-kept secret. And while these two positions need not conflict in most cases — the SPAB, after all, has often worked hard for the protection, conservation and sensitive redevelopment of old buildings, while the Prince of Wales has a warm regard for the sort of traditional skills and building practices without which much of the SPAB’s work would be impossible — there is, self-evidently, a point at which the two approaches potentially come into conflict.
Perhaps surprisingly, I have a degree of sympathy for both sides here. The SPAB grew out of particular historical circumstances in which, across much of Europe but particularly in Britain, old structures with complex histories were having much of their extant fabric ripped out, centuries of development excised along with anything that didn’t fit the prevailing notion of ‘correct’ medieval building. All too often, the result was a parallel loss of romantic charm and accurate historical understanding. Obviously, when it comes to parish churches, I much prefer the most repulsive yet still functioning Victorian rebuilding to a deconsecrated ruin — yet is there any heart that does not sink a bit when encountering that bleak little phrase, ‘much restored’, in the relevant volume of Pevsner — or, conversely, any Anglican who can’t see what’s wonderful about the sort of church that contains not only an Easter Sepulchre and angel-headed roof bosses, but also a tester pulpit, Georgian box-pews and some good late nineteenth or early twentieth century memorials?
This suggests what the SPAB was up against, at least at the start, and what it was meant to do by way of reaction. Today, with a degree of irony, it sometimes fights to retain the faux-medieval ‘restorations’ that comprise yet another chapter of Britain’s ecclesiastical and architectural history, or at any rate struggles to prevent their replacement with unsympathetic contemporary substitutes. It speaks up for half-derelict old piles that will otherwise fall victim to very convenient conflagration, followed by re-development as unremarkable housing estates. It protests against bad double-glazing, impermeable finishes, the sort of government environmental policies that mean death for any house built before 1920. Armed with a set of reasonably clear-cut principles, it does, in fact, achieve much good, and prevent even more harm. I’ve been a member of the SPAB for about a decade now. It’s not necessary to agree with its every working doctrine in order to be glad that it exists.
Taken to an extreme, of course, some of its policies start to look like madness. Take, for instance, this:
New work should express modern needs in a modern language. These are the only terms in which new can relate to old in a way which is positive and responsive at the same time.
Why, though? Take, for example, a rotten floorboard in an early Georgian house. The obvious, sane response to this problem is to get a jobbing carpenter round to cut a similar-sized floorboard out of the same sort of wood, nail it down, and forget about it. This is, as far as I can see, what people in early Georgian houses have been doing with their rotten or damaged floorboards since, oh, a few months after the houses were built. Part of the problem, here, is that many of the functions performed by houses, or indeed churches, are not so much either ‘old’ or ‘modern’ as they are eternal and unchanging — and of course many traditional solutions to these needs, such as wooden floors, continue to work very well, whilst at the same time requiring periodic repair or even replacement. One of the minor fascinations of living in an Oxbridge college was discovering the near-perpetual fussing-about that’s necessary in order to keep old stone buildings standing — the exchange of new, sound stone for its decrepit and crumbling equivalent very much included. Done carefully, with abundant respect for proper materials and continuing craft traditions, what on earth is wrong with treating old structures in exactly the way their creators would have hoped and expected? Why put everything in some ‘modern language’, when older forms of grammar may well be perfectly intelligible, and far more resonant?
For this is what is, ultimately, most sinister about the lines I have quoted above — the implication that Modernism is the only legitimate architectural mode of practice these days, with every other style or tradition reduced to mere pastiche, historicist conservatism, something somehow less than ‘honest’. I’ve written about this rather a lot, lately — here and here, for instance — so I won’t belabour the point. Suffice to say that the dogmatic assertion that there is but one architectural idiom, and Mies van der Rohe is its prophet, is starting to get on my nerves a bit. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Modernism, but ultimately, it’s a style like any other — good at some things, bad at others, appropriate in some instances but certainly not in all of them — with historic or traditional environments not always a very good choice as a setting for Modernist structures. There is more, after all, to a happy and satisfying built environment than the imperatives of architectural self-advertisement. And there is, dare I say it, more to contemporary building than the Modernist idiom alone.
All of which brings us to our marvellous Prince of Wales. What his critics cannot stand about him — what drives them to mad little temper-tantrums like this one, which would have been unbecoming in an over-tired four-year old screaming ‘it’s not fair’ in the wake of too much fun, chocolate and so forth, but which was frankly inexcusable coming from a fully sentient adult, much-decorated professional and indeed peer of the realm — is less that the Prince somehow abuses his notional constitutional ‘power’ (for heaven’s sake, there is no one more effectively hamstrung in terms of his constitutional ability to do or say anything than the heir to the throne) than the Prince’s unfailing willingness to speak up against smug, patronising and painfully arrogant elites. Did anyone ever manage to locate a single Chelsea resident, worker or frequent habitué who had anything good to say about Lord Roger’s plan for the Chelsea Barracks development? Or, in contrast, are people in general not a bit fed up with having lazy, badly thought out and wholly unsympathetic structures inserted into their communities, on the basis that to do anything else would somehow push against the prevailing currents of architectural history?
Lord Rogers‘ ‘argument’, such as it was, holds that the Prince should not be allowed to comment on architecture — or, indeed, music, art and medicine. This is, apparently, in part because ‘the Prince will not debate’. Yet what have his various publications on the subject, his speeches and acts of patronage been, if not ‘debate’ of a markedly robust and serious sort? Meanwhile, in attempting to silence the Prince — since sneering at him, patronising him and ignoring him haven’t really worked either — Lord Rogers exposes the weakness of his own case, his lack of compelling counter-arguments. And by failing to publish an introduction which they had, themselves, commission, from a public figure whose architectural views are extremely well-known, the SPAB leadership seem to me to be doing something rather similar. All of which is quite sad, for while Lord Rogers has at least the excuse of gross professional self-interest, the SPAB might conceivably have entertained a conversation on such important topics with someone who is, so clearly, in sympathy with them on so many serious issues.
Let me be clear about this. For a membership organisation to lose a royal patron amidst circumstances of acrimony is, quite clearly, a disaster. The situation should never have been allowed to get to this point. It is for that reason that the organisation’s secretary Philip Venning should apologise for his mis-handling of this affair, and then resign with immediate effect. And SPAB members, while keeping in mind the good work that SPAB has done and continues to do, should consider whether they wish to continue their involvement.
The unprintable portion of the Prince’s introduction was, apparently (those of delicate sensibilities, look away now) his claim that ‘honesty’ in conservation — using modern design and materials, as mentioned above, when carrying out modern work — had been used too often ‘in order to justify unsatisfactory alterations and ugly additions’, and that old buildings should be restored in their original style.
It is, of course, astonishing that such conventional wisdom should be regarded as unspeakably controversial. Clearly, different points of view exist on these matters, making nuance particularly important. I’d dearly love to know, for instance, whether the Prince actually wrote that old buildings ‘always’ ought to be restored in their original style, or simply ‘in general’? There are plenty of cases where the present-day functionality of old buildings seems to me, at any rate, to have been improved with the addition of explicitly modern additions — one thinks here of the open-ended ‘quad’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the new wing of the Pallant House in Chichester, or the modern refectory attached to Norwich Cathedral. There are also some truly attractive contemporary buildings placed in ‘historic’ settings, such as the Ismaili Centre in London, so much of its own time yet very much in sympathy with the buildings that surround it. But against these successes, it’s possible to set so much laziness, so many monstrosities — and so many cases where Modernism won out, not because it was the best option, but very explicitly, because it was the cheap option, e.g. here. And then there are instances in which old buildings, badly damaged by catastrophe or by time, have been restored to something resembling their original appearance, not as some sort of forgery or subterfuge, but as a respectful evocation of a well-documented, much-loved structure recently lost.
In other words, there’s no single, simple answer that covers all these eventualities, or even one easy set of considerations. Dealing with loss is, here as elsewhere, rarely straightforward. That’s why the conversation regarding different values, different priorities and interests must be allowed to continue, with the views of architects and historic preservation professionals not always given priority over those of local workers and residents, let alone those of princes.
What the SPAB seem to be missing, as far as I can see — and again, it would help if we were actually allowed to see the draft introduction itself — is the possibility that the Prince isn’t so much dismissing their whole approach, as making the modest assertion that the execution of that approach requires care, sensitivity and the rejection of Modernist dogma as an end in itself. If the SPAB can’t sign up to that — or at least countenance it as a valid point of view, worthy of attention and discussion — then something really has gone badly wrong with the SPAB and its governing principles.
All of which brings us back, sadly, to that oyster-coloured plastic sheeting now covering what used to be No. 76 Dean Street, Soho, the road-blocks and tall red cranes. What will happen next? How will Soho’s own restoration drama play out over the coming months and years?
The range of choices is, in fact, quite broad. If the remaining facade proves to be in good enough shape to be retained, the obvious response will be to erect a modern office-block, complete with open-plan spaces and strip lighting, behind that thin skin of early Georgian brickwork. But if the facade isn’t sound, then what? A not-very-good pseudo-Georgian pastiche that doesn’t frighten the horses — or, at any rate, the film- and advertising people who dine at Quo Vadis — fronting up that same, modern, purpose-built office-block? Or some look-at-me declamatory nightmare of architectural self-promotion? Or a new, forward-looking structure that somehow pulls off the hat-trick of looking good whilst also being functional and fitting in smoothly with its recently-acquired Soho family? Or — perhaps in some sense, the most radical option of all, as requested in all innocence by my neighbour — a literal re-building of No. 76 as it stood on the day before it burned, dodgy air-conditioning system obviously excepted?
Or, as far as that goes, why not rebuild No. 76, not as an office building at all, or indeed literally as it was before, but, rather, for the purpose its original builders had intended, adopted to present-day circumstances — which is to say, why not rebuild it as a townhouse? By all means include, if you must, conventional amounts of plumbing, electric lighting and so forth — but rebuild the house itself in brick, wood and tile, using old-fashioned mortar, organic paints and non-synthetic finishes, replacing wooden shutters and casement windows, re-creating those elaborate mouldings by hand with traditional tools, adorning those painted surfaces once again with pigments that smell of eggs and linseed, turpentine and human effort? What, when it comes right down to it, would be so wrong with the inverted radicalism of producing a ‘new’ domestic space constructed on a Georgian scale, using the conventions and techniques which make London’s early Georgian houses such an unceasing source of delight and satisfaction to those lucky enough to live in one?
Modernist dogma is generous in the objections it throws up to such a plan — while the SPAB, at least under its current management, may well turn out to prefer some glass-and-steel box which could just as easily be plopped down in Barcelona or Bucharest, Plovdiv or Palm Springs, those soul-less glimmering surfaces refulgent with ‘honesty’ regarding their makers’ complete lack of interest in local idiom, the integrity of a streetscape, the practicalities of life in central London — let alone the feelings of the local people themselves, my Soho-born neighbour included. For if the Prince of Wales is scarcely allowed to state his point of view to the members of an organisation notionally formed round the need to ‘protect’ our ancient buildings, what hope is there for the rest of us?