Monday, 30 May 2011

'Living history' - not just for progressives

To Apsley House last week, for the launch of English Heritage's corporate plan for the next few years - not as exciting as a Cup Final, but more thought-provoking than one might have expected, with cogent speeches from EH Chair Baroness Andrews, heritage minister John Penrose, and Chief Exec Simon Thurley - all putting a brave face on the fact that the Government has cut EH's budget by about a third, with consequent job losses on a large scale. 

One interesting question from the audience came from Tory MP Peter Bottomley - as is common on such occasions, it was more of a proposition than a question - who suggested that senior EH staff should be taken regularly to Eltham Palace for an awayday, with a view to reflecting on whether a wealthy businessman would be allowed today, as happened there in the 1930s, to revive the remains of an important but decaying medieval palace by grafting on to it an enormous art deco mansion.  

The resulting ensemble is now an EH property, which is well worth a visit.  The EH website draws you in with talk of '1930s Art Deco decadence' before mentioning the older stuff; whereas the South London Pevsner, from 1983, majors on the medieval parts, and clearly doesn't fully approve of the Art Deco addition, which is by Seely and Paget - evidence of changing tastes, and / or the difference between scholarly and popular interests in the past.

Bottomley's question referred to a view of EH's mindset that many architects who try to do interesting things with old buildings - plenty of whom were there at Apsley House - would subscribe to.  EH would, I imagine, protest against the the lazy, cartoon-like dichotomy between tweedy, elbow-patched conservationists who would list anything pre-Beatles, and black polo-necked progressives who would bulldoze the lot.  But imaginative responses to what Lewis Mumford called the 'usable past' are still considerably less likely to find favour than safe solutions that frighten no horses, but could never be used in a few decades to bring the visitors in. 

Budget cuts at EH may well reduce the chances of an enlightened approach if everything is reduced to a tick box exercise, as is usually the way in the public sector.  A better outcome would be for EH to let well alone in cases where projects are in competent hands, and concentrate on things that are actually falling down.

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