Readers of my blog may recognise the attached. It has been ingeniously stitched together from my recent blogs. The twittersphere is rightly full of outrage:-
I have been trying to digest the decision by Robert Jenrick to allow the conversion of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a hotel. It feels like one of those moments in the history of planning law which is symbolic above and beyond the specifics of the case.
Two issues stand out. The first is that Robert Jenrick helpfully intervened when Tower Hamlets gave permission. This government presents itself as patriots – all this stuff about schools being required to raise the flag every morning, every Minister being photographed with a Union Jack in their living room, the absurdity of the monstrously tacky press room in Downing Street, covered in flags, which was abandoned as fast as it had been created by Russian contractors. But, of course, it is play-acting, a superficial veneer over rather brutal capitalists, who are happy to use British history for their own purposes, but when a decision comes about protection and preservation of a living monument of the past, instead support one of their friends, who is no doubt a party donor, an American vulture capitalist. A hotel for foreign tourists is more important than a bit of living history. You can feel the mood in the City, where so little is left of the historic City, but instead it is more like Hong Kong.
The second issue relates to Historic England. Maybe they can rebrand themselves as Ex-Historic England: a public body which gives paid advice to property developers to encourage them to get through the existing planning systems, during the time that so much of the planning controls are themselves being dismantled. I hope that the Commissioners of Historic England, who have so conspicuously failed in their public duty, might consider what went wrong: why they did nothing; why they have allowed this to happen in such a conspicuously supine way.
I have been thinking of the role of Historic England in terms of its total failure to recognise the historic importance of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and protect it. Last year it received £87.1 million from H.M. Treasury via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ‘protect, champion and save the places that define who we are’. Yet, it has sat on its hands and allowed England’s oldest place of manufacture to be butchered and turned into a hotel. Not one single one of its 884 staff has lifted a finger to protect the Foundry, but instead they have worked in league with the developer, accepting payment for their advice. So, could we maybe ask whether or not it is fulfilling its role ?
As a way of recording and recollecting what has been lost, I am re-posting the blog I wrote on 25 February 2017, the first and only time I ever saw the inside of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry when it was still in operation. It was an extraordinary survival, still preserving what were essentially late medieval systems of production.
I don’t know anywhere which was equivalently powerful or demonstrated so clearly such traditional systems of hand-made production.
I can scarcely bear it.
After four years of fighting and campaigning and sometimes weekly meetings fund-raising, the Secretary of State has made his decision. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry will be turned into a hotel. Four and a half centuries of bell-making in Whitechapel has gone to pot and another bit of British history will be turned into an ersatz coffee bar – what Historic England, in their wisdom, responsible for the preservation of the historic fabric of England, calls ‘adaptive re-use’, a totally weaselly term, which allows the Commissioners to celebrate the plundering of the past for the purposes of private enrichment, perhaps not surprising now that all trustees are going to have to take an oath of loyalty to the Prime Minister.
Before I sign off on this topic for the 76th. time, I would like to thank and celebrate the work of Re:Form and Factum Arte which put forward such cogent and well-considered plans to protect the Bell Foundry and re-instate it. And also to thank all those people who contributed large and small sums to the appeal, many of them my friends and blog-followers. Your support – and the support of all those hundreds and thousands of people who have written and campaigned to save the Bell Foundry – has been really appreciated.
For those of you who did not see it, I attach the excellent article in the Guardian a couple of days ago (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/may/11/whitechapel-bell-foundry-battle-save-britains-oldest-factory). And a mournful picture from 1919 as bell making moves to China:-
I went for a haircut – the first at my usual barber for many moons – which allowed for a spot of exploration of West London, including my first visit to Sally Clarke’s new shop at the corner of Westbourne Grove and Portobello Road, one of the few good things that has emerged from COVID. Such a pleasure to see the rows of macaroons !
And I walked through the Hallfield Estate, a surprisingly intact post-war development, designed by Berthold Lubetkin, its construction overseen by Denys Lasdun and still preserving a nearly perfect atmosphere of Eastern Europeanism:-
Over the last few months, I have become both a subscriber – it’s free – and a devotee of a blog called A Daily Dose of Architectural Books, which pops into one’s inbox every day in the late afternoon with a recondite recommendation from the huge range of recent architectural publications, which are otherwise hard to keep track of. Today, he has been generous enough to feature my book. It exemplifies his approach – careful, scrupulous, and giving a very good indication of what to expect. It’s pretty impressive that he can do a new book in such detail every day.
I have just read that the Marram Grass is closing, at least for the time being. It’s our local restaurant in Anglesey. I used to go for breakfast to use their wifi and then discovered that it was in the Good Food Guide: a wonderful place, originally serving the local campsite and then gradually turning itself into a foodie haven, but keeping the campsite ambience, a remarkable achievement.
The Rector of St. Paul’s, Deptford mentioned that there used to be Rectory to the south of the church, also designed by Thomas Archer, but not any more. I looked it up. It was the most astonishing building – more mannered and idiosyncratic in its design than the church itself, its grand entrance flanked by octagonal rooms and with a curiously elaborate look-out on the roof. It was demolished in the 1880s:-
St. Paul, Deptford was closed again, but at least the churchyard was open, so we were able to enjoy its Roman stone-carving at close quarters – vigorous and less mannered than Hawksmoor:-