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Just say no to demolition

Hugh Pearman

It’s easy – and irresponsible – to say demolish and rebuild but environmental urgency requires refurbishable buildings to be reused

The City of Derby makes Bombardier trains, Rolls-Royce aero engines and Toyota cars, among much else. It’s an engineering centre of excellence. It is also a place that Melvyn Bragg described in 2015 as having ‘a level of cultural emptiness’.  His point was that unlike similar European manufacturing cities, once you leave the factory gates and head into town there isn’t much to keep you.

That observation caused a fuss of course, but there was truth in it. I know Derby well. It has, as you’d hope, a fine collection of paintings by Enlightenment painter Joseph Wright  (‘Wright of Derby’) in its museum and art gallery.  It has its theatre, rather sadly buried inside an Intu shopping centre. It has its architecturally uncertain but usefully programmed Quad arthouse cinema by FCB Studios, plus mainstream cinemas in Intu. 

Further out is a newish FaulknerBrowns velodrome that doubles as an arena-sized performance venue. Near the centre its cathedral – largely a 1725 rebuild by James Gibbs – was recently internally restored. Religion aside, it’s a good place for classical concerts and classical interior design, and has a supremely accomplished and delicate full-width rood screen by master ironsmith Robert Bakewell. And I’m looking forward to the reopening of the refitted Silk Mill industrial museum this autumn. 

We are at a moment now when to demolish a perfectly good and refurbishable large building is highly irresponsible

But I know what Melvyn meant. Derby is a city that tragically imposed on itself a brutal ring road far too close to the centre in the 1960s, wiping out its Georgian canal system and swathes of old city, and unlike Birmingham has done little to put the damage right. At least – following an architect-led conservation campaign – its fine early district of railway-worker housing and associated buildings by Francis Thompson was saved. But the chief ‘cultural emptiness’ today is a building in the central market place: the Assembly Rooms theatre complex. This is a mid 1970s affair by Casson Conder, on the site most architects know only for the failed James Stirling competition entry. The building is interesting, understated, well made. It has been closed since a rooftop fire in a plant room in 2014, since when various schemes have been proposed for the site – demolition and newbuild, then refurbishment, and now we’re back to demolition and rebuild again. 

We are at a moment now when to demolish a perfectly good and refurbishable large building is highly irresponsible. Re-using and adapting what exists is acknowledged best practice to reduce carbon emissions and is by any standard just less wasteful.  There are arguments about ideal auditorium size for given entertainment types: people are usually over-optimistic on the numbers in my experience. As an important aside, when it comes to housing VAT is still charged on refurbishment and alteration, and not on new-build. That is emphatically not a level playing field, and it damn well should be. 

But when it comes to slightly tricky buildings such as Derby’s Assembly Rooms – an unused asset at the heart of a city – it’s so temptingly easy to say ‘demolish’. Try harder, Derby – and everywhere else. Rule number one: don’t throw good buildings away.