A few months ago I was approached to write a short piece for “Context – the magazine of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation” as part of a collected set of items on The Changing Face of Retail. A couple of days ago I was sent the hard copy of the issue and splendid and interesting it is (except for my piece, obviously).
My piece (available for download here) is on the topic of ‘A sense of place’ and essentially argues that the future for Scotland’s towns and retail high streets depends on linking culture, heritage and storytelling to present a distinctive sense of place to residents and visitors alike. It draws on some of the themes and examples from last year’s Scotland Towns Conference in Paisley and also from the recently launched Town Centre Toolkit. You can make up your own minds about the sense of what I am trying to talk about from the article.
Five other pieces comprise the complete set. First, Tim Brennan from Historic England considers the changing face of the high street, mainly by reinforcing and updating some of the themes from the report of the same name done for English Heritage in 2013. He makes the point that historic town centres remain critically important and valuable to a sense of place.
One of the examples mentioned by Tim Brennan is Princesshay in Exeter and in a separate piece Tom Copp (CgMs, RPS Group) examines the demolition of this 1950s development. He points to our valuing of the iconic rather than the quotidian which saw ‘the ambivalence towards Britain’s post-war architectural and planning legacy, coupled with (the) deliberately muted design approach, …..allowed for the demolition of much of the architecture that formed the pioneering Princesshay precinct’ (based on small-scale, coherence, visitors and views).
Colin Hyde (University of Leicester) uses the East Midlands Oral History Archive to hear how Radio Leicester reported on planning and conservation controversies in Leicester in the 1970s. This includes the development of the Haymarket Centre conceived as an in-town response to the new Woolco (whatever happened to them?) at Oadby.
Lindsay Lennie (Historic Shop Conservation: Twitter @historicshops) considers the issue of shop signage and the need to educate owners to have a well-maintained considered approach to shop front design. She bemoans the ‘prevalence of modern, inappropriate signage…..and other features…..(which have) marred our high streets’ and argues for quirky, individual and high quality signs to lift streets visually.
The piece that really caught my eye however was by Nigel Crowe (Canal & River Trust) who considers the Wetherspoon collection – the significant, but unloved historic buildings that JD Wetherspoon has bought, repurposed and brought back to life. With almost 1000 pubs the company can divide opinion but this article celebrates some of the historic buildings the company has reused and has a number of excellent examples and photographs. Not all Wetherspoon’s are like the ones exampled here, but those that are, are indeed interesting and spectacular.
Towns are historic entities and we have too often failed to celebrate and preserve/re-use the valuable buildings and spaces they contain. A sense of place has to have some sense of history, geography and authenticity. Hopefully this collection of pieces reinforces and stimulates the actions underway.