Peter Clegg calls on our industry to celebrate the history and craftsmanship of existing structures and embrace the challenge of working with them
I think the older I get the more respect I have for the architecture that comprises our built heritage
FCBStudios have been privileged to be able to breathe new life and new opportunities into so many historic buildings. Some, like Bath Abbey, Alexandra Palace, and London’s Southbank are renowned and recognised, and our task has been to preserve their character, adapt them to new standards of energy efficiency but also give them new life in a new contemporary context. In adapting the Abbey for instance, and removing the pews (a nineteenth-century construct) we have not only brought back the medieval grandeur of the space, but we have also made a flexible contemporary performance space; a functional heart of the civic community; a holistic spiritual space.
But the buildings I have enjoyed working on most are those where architecture has taken second place to functional engineering. In 1797 the Shrewsbury Flaxmill broke new ground as the first multi-storey cast-iron building in the world. It was in effect the grandparent of all skyscrapers. The Prince Regent’s riding stables in Brighton was, in 1806, the widest timber frame structure in the country. Temple Works in Leeds, due to become the new British Library of the North, was in 1839 the largest footprint building in the world, an extraordinary work of environmental design based around natural light and ventilation. There is something very powerful about buildings such as these which have pushed the boundaries of structural and environmental engineering long before the methodology for calculating such sophisticated projects was fully understood.
These buildings were of course part of the wider industrial revolution that changed the world irreversibly, and the carbon emissions that resulted from that revolution laid the foundation for our current global warming crisis. The continued impact of the construction and maintenance of our built environment - which is responsible for 40% of global CO2 emissions - is providing us with the biggest challenge architects have ever faced. One way of addressing this is to wherever possible reuse and regenerate existing buildings rather than demolishing and building new, which involves hugely more embodied carbon.
When teaching students at Bath University, where I have now been a professor for more than 25 years, my message is to find motivation, not in the formal gymnastics of fashion superstars, but in the fulfilment of working with existing structures, understanding the value of embodied carbon, and learning to develop skills based on low carbon retrofit. To an extent, it means recognising the value of joint authorship working to reframe someone else’s original vision. But writers have, throughout the centuries, rewritten stories from different sources, and composers have always borrowed and reinterpreted. We need to be developing specific skills of reinvention and refurbishment, using the past heritage to shape our future.
1. Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, Southbank Centre, 2018. c Hufton and Crow
2. Bath Abbey, 2021. c James Newton
3. Senate House, University of Bristol, 2021 c. Rebecca Noakes
4. Queen Elizabeth Hall , Southbank Centre, 2018. c Hufton and Crow
5. The Richmond Building, University of Bristol, 2016
6. Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, 2022 c. Steve Baker / Historic England
7. Brighton Dome and Corn Exchanges, to complete in 2023. c. Carlotta Luke
8. Alexandra Palace, 2018. c Richard Battye / FCBStudios