We started the day at Tank Shanghai, one of the recent developments on the West Bund, the conversion of the old oil tanks of the Longhua Airport into new gallery spaces, currently showing an exhibition of contemporary Belgian art:-
We arrived a bit early for a meeting at the Fosun Foundation and wandered the streets nearby – a bit of Old Shanghai, which sadly looks scheduled for redevelopment, but as yet survives: small back streets with tiny shops selling shoes, eggs and vegetables; a trace of what the city must have felt like before the Cultural Revolution and Shanghai’s massive reconstruction:-
As we explored further, a gate was open and we walked into a courtyard of a house which was magically unchanged:-
It has become clear to me that I am not the only person who has been very disappointed by Historic England’s refusal to do anything whatsoever to protect and preserve the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which one might have thought was close to their most fundamental duty: to protect the historic built environment where it is at risk of redevelopment. Instead, it has taken two lines: the first is that it is not its duty to protect a building just because of the historic interest of its use, as if historic archaeology is not, and should not be, its concern; and the second is that that turning the Foundry into a posh hotel is a good example of adaptive re-use.
It made its decision just before Roger Bowdler moved over to the private sector to give advice to clients on how to get round the rules of Historic England and it has refused to pay attention to, let alone promote, the virtues of the rival scheme, drawn up by the United Kingdon Historic Building Preservation Trust, a not-for-profit charity.
What hope do we have that the Bell Foundry can be preserved if Historic England claims that it is none of its concern ?
We went to see the new West Bund Museum, designed by David Chipperfield who won a competition to design it when its use was as yet unspecified. The Centre Pompidou took it on as an outpost for them to show exhibitions and changing displays from their permanent collection two or so years ago and so have adapted it to their use – closing off the top lighting in the upstairs galleries, enhancing the requirements for environmental controls, and introducing an extra floor to the central atrium, closing off the basement. It will be opened next week by President Macron.
The building occupies a fine site on the Huangpu River:-
This is the river entrance:-
There is a separate entrance to the basement which has a fine auditorium:-
For obvious reasons, I was discouraged from taking photographs ahead of its opening next week, but this is a view from the entrance of the central public atrium:-
Upstairs, are three huge gallery spaces, Gallery 1 showing new media, Galleries 2 and 3 showing 100 works of art from the Pompidou’s permanent collection.
On the long flight to Shanghai, I read Alison Light’s sad and occasionally tortured, but highly evocative and deeply felt memoir A Radical Romance of her relatively brief marriage to Raphael Samuel, the social and labour historian who she joined to live in cheerful, but sometimes claustrophobic chaos in his house in Elder Street, recalling a time when Spitalfields was still dominated by its market and before the invasion of a later generation of middle-class conservationists. She well conveys his personality, always late, hectic, fascinated by people and their lives, acquisitive of records and things, working away in the British Library and Bishopsgate Institute until his premature death from cancer and burial in Highgate Cemetery.
I have been pondering the decision of the Survey of London not to get involved in the controversy surrounding the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but, instead, to maintain a position of scholarly and academic neutrality. Its draft entry, due to be published in a two-volume publication in 2021, stops with its sale, not covering any of the recent controversy, in spite of it being so obviously relevant to current conservation politics.
There is a particular irony in this in that the Survey of London was set up 125 years ago by C.R. Ashbee to provide a better knowledge of historic buildings in order to save them. It was a campaigning organisation. It would be good if it can at the very least document the controversy for the historical record.
I have gone quiet of late about the now long-ish saga of the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. To recap. It was sold by its long-standing owners, the Hughes family, to an east London property developer who flipped it at once at a handsome profit to a New York venture capitalist called Bippy Segal who runs a company called Raycliff Capital. They drew up plans to turn the site into a hotel, keeping only a small part at the front as a shrine to bell making. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust drew up plans to preserve the building as a whole as a Foundry, keeping its character and as much as possible of its historic fabric and original use fully intact. Historic England under advice of now departed official, Roger Bowdler, chose to support the Raycliff scheme, apparently ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the alternative scheme. They told their Commissioners that it was a fait accompli.
Tower Hamlets makes a decision as to whether or not it will allow change of use on November 14th. It should not allow the development to happen, for the very simple legal reason that there is a viable alternative scheme which retains its original use in a way which is economically viable and will secure the character of one of the great surviving buildings of East London.
We went to see the Antony Gormley exhibition again, in order to be able to absorb and digest its mixture of a fascination with line drawing and invention and, at the same time, the physical materiality of the body, particularly obvious in the pleasure with which he explores the form of physical shapes in the room with two cases of notebooks and drawings:-
I strongly recommend this remarkable obituary of a clearly remarkable person, Nathalie Brooke née Benckendorff, who I knew only as the wheelchair-bound widow of Humphrey Brooke, the former Sectetary of the Royal Academy, who was forced to retire in murky circumstances in 1968. She would appear sometimes at exhibitions, but I had no idea, to my shame that a) she had lived so long and b) had had such an intellectually and socially formidable career, not least with the Centre for Policy Studies in its heyday, when conservatism was expected to have some intellectual content beyond coarseness, hectoring and bullying.