The late 20th Century marked the end of the UK’s industrial golden age. Saving the abandoned mega-structures of yesterday’s innovation is one of the most significant re-use challenges facing the heritage industry. The agenda of the ThinkTime Redundancy event was the discussion of varying approaches, successes and failures; to champion exemplars and identify common pit-falls in order to establish a hopeful strategy for the future safety of these assets. Our industrial heritage is often vastly large, dangerous to inhabit or visit, not considered ‘conventionally beautiful’ (in the same way that a palace or cathedral might be), may be a great distance from human settlement, and usually has a complex bespoke design – all of which contribute to making flexibility and reuse seemingly impossible. The event was kindly hosted by Buro Happold at Camden Mill in Bath, the city’s best example of an industrial building adapted to suit a new use. Built in 1880, it is one of the last surviving city centre buildings to evidence Bath’s agricultural history, and the role its quiet river once played in shaping the economy and industry of the city. To my mind – the survival of that built evidence is the resounding ‘yes’ to counter the inevitable ‘is it worth it?’ that is asked fairly early on in the life of all post-industrial reuse projects.

Public Money and the Ruhr Valley
Miriam Kelly, Senior Architect & Churchill Fellow

Steel and coal production proliferated the Ruhr Valley in North West Germany from the early 19th Century up until the final closures of many plants in the 1980s. The IBA (Internationale Bau Austellung – International Building Exhibition) was established in 1989 – 1999 to administer significant Government funds and commence the regeneration of the valley’s derelict industrial sites. Although it is unfair to so swiftly summarise a decade of ambitious and challenging regeneration objectives, the IBA tested three distinct approaches to the re-use of the various sites within its remit.

  1. Heritage as tourist attraction. Presenting the assets ‘as found’, as authentically as possible. Due to the relative youth of many of these structures, this often affords the chance for visitors to interact with people who worked on the site during its operational life – a fantastic tool for interpreting the stories of the sites that not many historic attractions can boast.
  2. Landscaping the sites. Creating beautiful parkland in and amongst the industrial relics, and allowing them to decline in a managed and safe environment, capturing the picturesque romance of the overgrown ruin.
  3. Putting them back to work. Sacrificing much of the fabric and character to give the sites a fighting chance of economic sustainability – from vast shopping centres to business parks and offices.

The IBA ‘experiment’ has indeed created jobs, begun the slow remediation of large scale industrial contamination, and increased civic pride by providing a new image to champion. The exercise is an exemplar of ‘rebranding’ – creating positive opportunities for prosperity from the negative reminders of decline.

For more writing on Miriam’s Churchill Fellowship, visit the blog she wrote during her travels throughout 2013 – creativeindustrial.wordpress.com

Ruhr Valley 02

Putting UK Heritage Back to work 
Tim Greensmith – Senior Architect leading FCBS regeneration projects

The project which best exemplifies the ‘Back to Work’ commercial ambition is Ditherington Flax Mill – the oldest surviving iron framed building in the World, derelict and decaying since the 1980s following two former lives as a Flax Mill and then a Maltings. Slow burning strategies to revitalise the mill as the centrepiece of an ambitious regeneration masterplan intend to give the 215 year old structure a third incarnation with a mixture of offices and community uses. This ‘third life’ is manifest in the new layer of architectural detailing that honours the historical uses of the structures, but never choses sentimentality over practicality. A great example of this can be seen in the elevation fenestration; the large windows of the original mill flooded the narrow range with natural light to aid the workers during the day. The scars of their infill still appear sore after the transformation into maltings closed off two of every three to create the dark controlled interiors required for germination. This matter-of-fact intervention precedents a similarly bold approach to re-fenestrating the facades, installing smart contemporary windows technologically capable of creating a comfortable office environment within.

Ditherington Flax Mill Glazing

The intended outcome at Ditherington is a careful balance of uses that will be sufficiently commercial to ensure the mill’s survival, and create enough community access to reconnect the people of Shropshire with the amazing industrial legacy that has lain inaccessible for such a long period.  Another project, which has acheived these intended objectives, is the regeneration of Middleport Pottery; uniquely its significance was recognised before the death of its original intended use, following 125 years of continued ceramics production. Fortunately this negated the need to put the Victorian buildings ‘back to work’, and the project focused instead on the continuity – refurbishing historic material and designing new interventions to honour this unbroken endurance. The at-risk heritage has been saved and the working future of the factory secured, equipping the site with the infrastructure to expand and diversify, creating employment and investment for Burslem and the surrounding community.

Equipping communities to save their own Heritage
Harry Wardill – Project Advisor for The Prince’s Regeneration Trust

Above all other types of heritage it is the ex-industrial architecture that typifies areas and cities of economic deprivation – by its very definition the collapse of large scale manufacturing creates large scale unemployment. For charities like the PRT who hope to stimulate regeneration specifically in the disadvantaged communities that need it most, working with the decaying heritage of those industries is a key approach to delivering built investment. The PRT are aware that they cannot themselves administer all of the worthy projects that deserve to be fought for in the UK, so instead they offer the expertise and support to the dedicated communities, harnessing the enthusiasm of the local people to manage their own heritage projects. These successes are then championed as exemplars to further communities elsewhere, evidencing what is achievable and creating a chain-reaction of project conception. (http://www.princes-regeneration.org/blog/building-resources-investment-community-knowledge-brick)

PRT 01

The PRT believe that the increasing potential of Social Entrepreneurship is the key to saving much of the UK’s heritage, and exciting new ways of crowd-sourcing funds for projects could one day render heritage funding bodies obsolete. However until that day comes there is a great need for organisations like these who can galvanise voluntary teams into well-focused action for and on behalf of themselves – Harry concluded his presentation suggesting that the PRT are working towards creating a world where the PRT are no longer required.

Putting ex-industrial buildings back to work is increasingly the most viable solution to ensuring their survival. Not all factory buildings are suitable for conversion to residential, just as not all mill buildings can survive as visitor attractions and cafes; but the unifying characteristic of all ex-industrial buildings is that they were built to work. During the debate that followed the presentations, the question was raised whether regeneration could be better delivered with iconic new buildings in amongst the heritage, as a preference to torturing unsuitable existing buildings into new phases of life? This approach has been tried and tested globally throughout the 1990s and 2000s with mixed success, and whilst it is probably an easier way to deliver regeneration, it is the character of historic districts that will suffer. Re-using the artefacts of a community’s own history to deliver its future brings meaning to the spaces; a clear connection to the thread of a city’s story, and not a strange new tangent spiralling off from the recognisable trajectory.

Perhaps this way of thinking is sensitivity to the point of sentimentality, and is stifling the ability to achieve successful regeneration of derelict historic neighbourhoods – But when the show-piece new builds and re-branding exercises mask the realities of that community and its history, it is the authenticity that is lost.

Ruhr Valley 01

Many thanks to all speakers for their Thinking & their Time

Images courtesy of speakers
Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios


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