Heritage & heresy

Originality at all costs or fearful pastiche. Bath debates the architectural crossroads.

‘The dream of a uniform society is dead,’ claimed Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West as he opened Rethinking Architecture, at Bath’s Love Architecture Festival event. The debate considered whether the city should look to the future or the past.

Modernism vs traditionalism is an old ­debate. Development in the Unesco World Heritage city always courts controversy, whether neoclassical or contemporary. But recent developments including Grimshaw’s Millennium Spa, Eric Parry’s Holburne extension and Chapman Taylor’s Southgate scheme, have put this question up for open debate.

Hosted by conservation architect Donald Insall Associates (DIA) in association with the RIBA, Rethinking Architecture brought together six speakers: Christophe Egret, Paul Simons, former director of development and tourism in Bath, and Rob Dunton of DIA ­representing the ‘modernists’; and speaking for the ‘traditionalists’ Quinlan Terry of Quinlan and Francis Terry, Ted Nash of Nash Partnership, and Peter Carey, also from DIA. 


Preservation in aspic

Egret opened with a claim that the city is in danger of becoming a museum, arguing that in our multicultural society architecture should celebrate individualism and diversity. He said contemporary design offers freedom beyond style, and said that creating harmony within the public realm is more important than creating individual buildings. Public spaces, a fresh injection of ideas and respect for inevitable change will allow contemporary buildings to succeed whatever the context

This was backed by Paul Simons, Bath’s project leader on the Millennium Spa, who underlined that cities are workshops of social and economic activity, and have a dynamic which cannot be controlled. If we insist on preserving a Georgian city ‘in aspic’ commercialism will eventually overtake us to the detriment of all.

Both Quinlan Terry and Ted Nash put up strong arguments for learning from the past, with Terry warning that if we are ‘rethinking architecture’ then we must not dismiss the past so easily. He cited John Wood and his successor, Brydon, as two of Bath’s great ­architects who picked up on universal aspects of the city with great care, and created buildings which work within this particular landscape. 

One of Terry’s most convincing arguments addressed sustainable design. While new buildings continue to use energy in their construction and use, they survive on average 25 years before demolition. So how can Bath’s stone buildings, which continue to survive if cared for, be out of place in our modern society?

‘Egotistical idiots’ was one of the most memorable phrases of Ted Nash’s presentation. Why should the individual be more ­important than the city? Why not learn from the past – when we don’t know what the future holds but do know what worked for people and places for centuries? He questioned strongly whether it was an architect’s place to impose his creativity above all other concerns.


Lack of confidence

A telling contest developed between Peter Carey and Rob Dunton, both of DIA. While Carey argued that contemporary architecture can sometimes be defined as originality at all costs, Dunton reasoned that the British ­obsession with the past shows a true lack of confidence in the future. Contemporary arch­itecture can show respect without descending to pastiche, and new buildings should show their clarity in being of their time.

At the end of the debate, Caroline Kay of the Bath Preservation Trust, who chaired the evening with great authority, presented the second count of votes, and although the classicists gained, the real winners were those who believed that there was a place for both schools of thought. As one audience member said ­succinctly: ‘If both side work together, surely we can create something quite wonderful.’

Lucy Inder is an architect at DIA