Conservation in Planning and Architecture

This was the title of the talk given by Dr. Peter Larkham, reader in Conservation and Planning at the University of Central England, writer and editor of the Journal of the International Planning History Society to members on Thursday 30th April at Lichfield Library. It was an enjoyable, thought provoking and informative occasion which merited far more than the disappointingly poor attendance. Ironically the small company promoted a sense of informality very much in tune with Dr. Larkham's style of presentation and a lively question and answer session.

The evening was a kaleidoscope of slides of buildings, street scenes, maps and cartoons - difficult to convey in words - illustrating the various approaches to conservation and design in and around town centres in this country in recent decades. It was a catalogue of the good and the awful. It was a reminder of the changes which have been apparent. In the years after the war conservation and respect for traditional historic townscapes were subordinated to the pursuit of wholesale comprehensive development with old street patterns and buildings being swept away. The experience on the continent was often very different. The approach to the rebuilding of Plymouth and Coventry was a far cry from that of the war damaged centre of Warsaw which was based on the faithful reproductions of what had been there before. This phase has now passed to be replaced by one which places more emphasis on small scale development within existing townscapes.

Paradoxically as this movement from the large to the small scale has taken place it has been fuelled by national interests such as corporate developers with their own brand images e.g. MacDonalds and by substantial architectural practices, often City based, replacing the influence of the local architect and developer who might be expected to be more sensitive to and respectful of the prevailing environment. This has resulted in a uniformity of design reflecting the transitory nature of contemporary fashion and ideas.

What have been some of these fashions and ideas? Firstly there has been the deliberate use of contrast in planning new buildings in the street scene, often on the dubious pretext of giving greater prominence to adjoining buildings. Sainsbury's modern largely glazed extension to an existing church in Wolverhampton is an example of this. Secondly there has been an attempt to reflect local vernacular styles of building with brickwork, pitched roofs, gables etc. the T.J. Hughes store being a case in point.

Thirdly there was what Peter Larkham termed 'disguise', notably in subdividing vertically the frontage of single buildings to reflect historic plot widths and also in retaining facades and demolishing what is behind them. Fourthly there has been the use of revival architectural styles especially in housing. The 1970's saw the 'Georgian' boom; the 1980's looked to the 'Tudor' period for inspiration. All these architectural expressions and devices can be readily seen around us. They seem to represent a confusion of ideas and uncertainties and a lack of consensus of how we should deal with change in historic areas. Perhaps such a consensus is not necessary. It might even be harmful leading to further uniformity and lack of innovation.

What is more important, as Peter Larkham stressed, is that whatever we do it should have one characteristic - high quality. That was one characteristic which was not lacking from his talk.

Mike Tole
April 1998