Well, well, the hearing of the planning application for the development of the Bell Foundry which was due to take place on 30th. July in a fortnight’s time has been postponed. Let’s hope this is good news: that Tower Hamlets has realised that a catastrophe has been due to take place and the historic fabric of the Foundry changed beyond recognition. Now, there is at least an opportunity for some negotiation to take place whereby ownership of the Bell Foundry is sold or transferred to United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust and it becomes a proper working foundry once again, retaining the skills, as well as the fabric of the building, which would otherwise be lost.
I am learning from the amazing amount of traffic on my twitter account how much the Whitechapel Bell Foundry means to people: not just as a set of historic buildings, but because it represents such a strong sense of historic continuity, which has now been ruptured. Much the most popular tweet came from someone who goes under the soubriquet of Boiled beans (@Fulmedames) and I reproduce it here as a record of some of the feelings which the closure of the Foundry has generated:-
Those bells spoke to the people in a time when there was no other way to reach so many at once. They tolled the time, peeled the weddings, told who had died, sent out warnings, opened & closed markets.
Now we silence the makers for profit.
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 ?
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.
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.
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:-
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 Rushanara Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.