Whitechapel Bell Foundry (4)

I have been fascinated by the extraordinary amount of ill feeling which has been generated by the decision of Historic England to throw in its lot with the plans of a New York venture capitalist to turn the Bell Foundry into an ersatz hotel, rather than help and support the plans of the United Kingdom Historic Building Trust to revive it as a working foundry.

Historic England claims that no money has so far passed hands, but it was drawn in at an early stage to give advice on the developer’s proposals and having given advice, it was presumably difficult for them not to support what was planned, however much it butchers what survives.

Let me quote, as it happens, Historic England’s own description of the historic interest of the site: ‘for the national cultural and industrial significance as the mid C18 site of a specialised industry known to have been located elsewhere in Whitechapel since the medieval period, where well-known bells including Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, were cast’.

And on its architectural interest: ‘a distinctive, cohesive complex of domestic and industrial buildings spanning nearly 300 years of occupation including the dignified residence of the foundry owner at nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road, no 2 Fieldgate Street and the industrial ranges to the rear’.

If these were the reasons for listing the property, are they not also the reasons for making efforts to preserve it intact as a working foundry, not demolish half of it and turn the rest into a bogus tourist attraction ?

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Lacaton & Vassal

I went to this year’s Annual Architecture Lecture at the Royal Academy, which was given by Jean-Philippe Vassal, one half of the architectural practice, Lacaton & Vassal. I realised that I am familiar with two of their projects: the Palais de Tokyo, where they did a minimal refurbishment, allowing the existing bones of the original 1937 building to provide open and empty spaces which can then be inhabited and freely adapted by artists; and FRAC in Dunkerque, where they provided a mirror image to the existing grandiose ruin in order to double the available space for purposes of artistic performance. They approach the task of housing design in the same spirit: keep what is available; adapt it; provide as much space as possible for the inhabitants to do their own thing, treating architecture as closer to scenography than design, creating sets for people to inhabit, rather than shrinking space down and controlling how it is used.

Very impressive.

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Whitechapel Bell Foundry (3)

Duncan Wilson, the Chief executive of Historic England, has written a carefully considered response to the Times to the letter which Dan Cruickshank and I wrote on Friday.

For those who don’t have access to the Times, I am re-publishing it here:-

Sir, The proposals for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (letter, Jul 12) have been misrepresented by those arguing for the alternative scheme. The plans of the new owners, Raycliff, are closer to the Whitechapel legacy of bell-making. The Hughes family, who ran the foundry from 1904 until it closed (as it was uneconomic to continue) has supported the Westley Group to continue production of small bells in the Old Foundry, and larger bells elsewhere. These plans, being considered by Tower Hamlets, are creative, sensitive, and respectful of the historic buildings, as well as allowing public access. They have the ingredients of a successful heritage regeneration scheme and secure the future of the listed buildings, which is why Historic England supports them.
Duncan Wilson Chief executive, Historic England

He is, of course, absolutely correct that Raycliff, a New York venture capital company, have secured support from the Hughes, the former owners of the Foundry, for their plans. The Hughes have taken the view that it was impossible to operate a bell foundry successfully on the site, which is why they sold it. The benefit of the alternative plans, which have been drawn up by United Kingdom Historic Preservation Trust and Factum Foundation, is that they keep the historic buildings as a working foundry, do not involve the demolition of the 1970s extension, and by making it into an art foundry allows the existing operation to be re-established. This is surely preferable to it becoming a kitsch hotel.

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Spa Road Terminus

I have gone back to shopping at Spa Road Terminus on Saturday mornings, not the most convenient market from Stepney, but certainly the best. It’s close to the railway line out from London Bridge and has evolved since I last went:-

Today we ate a picnic overlooking fields in North Oxfordshire. I had no idea that flavours could be so intense, even tomatoes, and food so delicious:-

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Whitechapel Bell Foundry (2)

I have been asked by several people if anything can be done to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

The answer is as follows:-

1. The Gentle Author, who writes the blog Spitalfields Life, has established a website, Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which includes all the relevant information about how to object to the planning application from Raycliff Capital.

2. The planning application will be heard by Tower Hamlets Planning Committee on July 30th.

3. The local MP is Rushinara Ali (rushinara.ali.mp@parliament.uk). I don’t know if she has so far been involved.

4. A key point to the planning application is that the Foundry cannot continue purely as a Foundry. But there is an alternative scheme which has been drawn up by the United Kingdom Preservation Trust, which saved Middleport Pottery, to keep the Foundry as a Foundry, run by Factum Foundation which has a profitable Foundry in Madrid. So, how can they say that it can’t continue as a Foundry ?

5. I don’t know any members of the Tower Hamlets Planning Committee. If you do, please encourage them to turn the application down.

6. The other preservation societies SAVE, the Ancient Monuments Society, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings have so far not been very effective or co-ordinated in voicing their objection, hampered by the fact that Historic England, the statutory body, has taken the lead in supporting the application to turn the building into a boutique hotel. If you have any influence in these organisations, please encourage them to get involved. SAVE, in particular, has a good track record of intervening at a late stage.

7. The most likely factor to persuade Tower Hamlets not to grant permission is that it’s not a great idea to have a posh hotel with late night boozing and swimming parties on the roof right next door to the local mosque. The mosque will hate it.

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The Banqueting House

We spent the afternoon in the Banqueting House, Inigo Jones’s undemonstrative masterpiece in which he brought a version of a palazzo in Vicenza into the heart of Whitehall. Begun in 1619, it cost £15,618, replacing a previous banqueting pavilion. I hadn’t realised that in 1638, not long before the Civil War, Inigo Jones drew up grandiose plans for the reconstruction of Whitehall Palace as a whole, all in the style of the Banqueting House: the palace that Charles I dreamed of, but had his head cut off instead:-

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Whitechapel Bell Foundry (1)

There has been an unprecedented amount of traffic on my Twitter account this morning following the publication yesterday of a letter that Dan Cruickshank and I wrote to the Times about the failure of the heritage authorities to work effectively together to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. As readers of this blog will know, Historic England have taken a narrowly legalistic view of its responsibilities and have actually supported the application to turn the Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel. But if they are not going to fight to preserve and protect such an obviously important historic monument – a monument to long-standing and remarkably well preserved historic craft practices – who will ? Will Tower Hamlets have the guts to turn the application down ? Here is the text of our letter:-

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