The Value of Heritage

val_heritHeritage is an awkward word. It suggests dead baggage. Struggling to escape the word though, is something vital and exciting – our culture and identity. As ideas grow and meander from one life to the next, they leave a ladder of writings, images and structures. These accumulating ideas reassure and inspire each next step. Heritage is about a thought process which is alive and changing; though the word itself may have come to sound like stagnant water.

It is the accumulation of lives and ideas which turn our cities and landscapes into such interesting places – the stories which make somewhere special, the memories which make it ours. In Remembering Babylon, David Malouf described the difficulties of the first settlers in Australia:
‘It was the fearful loneliness of the place that most affected her – the absence of ghosts. Till they arrived no other lives had been lived there. It made the air that much thinner, harder to breathe. She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with breath – a threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years, and the names even further; most of all the names on headstones which were their names, under which lay the bones that had made their bones and given them breath. They would be the first dead here. It made death that much lonelier, and life lonelier too.’

New towns have a hard time – not so much for the bare landscape or economic immaturity, but for the lack of former lives and memories. It takes a bit of history to make somewhere home. Like a new pair of shoes, a settlement has to be worn in to reflect the regular patterns of movement and rest which make for comfort.

As culture and ideas move on does there come a point where the past becomes irrelevant or holds things back? As Britain becomes more culturally and ethnically diverse, does an essentially Anglo-Saxon and Christian heritage lose its resonance? Should the architecture and environment make a break with the past and reflect the cultures of those who have come to live in the island more recently? Or would that wipe away the diversity which makes the country so interesting? The story of the place can provide a continuity which allows all the changes to relate to one another as accumulating and communicating layers. David Malouf¹s character was not actually the first to have lived in Australia. The aborigines were already there. Australia is now facing the consequences of denying that history. Even in England pre-Christian culture plays an important part in the national character and consciousness. The Druids are as much a part of the iconography as Queen Victoria. Stonehenge is probably more cherished than Buckingham Palace.

To understand the delicate and complex nature of these lives and stories, you have to talk to the people who have lived them. The idea of a place survives as much in people’s minds as it does in the physical fabric. Sue Clifford of Common Ground grasped the significance of local produce in making a place special. She coined the phrase ‘local identity’ and pioneered the revival of local apple types as a way of restoring the sense of a continuous relationship between the people and the land. There is an inextricable connection between a plant – bred over the centuries for a specific soil and climate – and the generations which have been tending it. The taste of the apple is particular to the district and becomes a part of the local palate and way of life. The same kind of link between people and land survives even more strongly in the wine-growing regions of France and Italy.

In evoking the memory of place, there is something special about physical contact with the past: touching the pages of Scott of the Antarctic’s diary; smelling Newton’s apple tree; hearing Wordsworth’s water; watching the movement of Harrison’s clock. The immediacy of matter manages to transcend time. Reliquaries somehow keep a humming potency. This is not nostalgia or sentimentality. It reaches some deeper hunger for continuity when the future may appear cavernously unpredictable.

A sense of continuity does not have to stop new ideas – just the opposite. The deeper the root, the greater the range of nutrients. When it comes to regenerating cities, the history and character of a place can make a big difference to the long term appeal. Redevelopments which are inspired by the identity of an area can capture a uniqueness which draws people long after the fizz of new buildings has passed. The polished granite and glass of eighties and nineties developments have a bland sameness throughout the world – a lack of personality – which limit their commercial attraction. They go out of fashion. Whereas the cities which have regenerated with some special flair or eccentricity stand out as places where people continue to choose to visit or invest. The canal areas of Manchester and Leeds have managed to stimulate new development which is fresh and original and links straight into the character and stories of each place.

London is well poised to do the same. Clerkenwell has a new vigour which taps into rather than eradicates its scale and character. The Borough at London Bridge is regenerating powerfully around the ancient market and cathedral. Brentford is at a cross-roads. The grand visions of the 1970s have left the town bleak and unloved. The widening of the High Street turned the place into a traffic through-route, with no special focus or architectural character. Ironically, if the town had been left ‘unimproved’ thirty years ago and the mediaeval and eighteenth-century shop fronts had not been removed to the Museum of London, Brentford would now be in the forefront of the current economic boom in West London. The quandry today is how to regenerate the town where so little is left of its former character. Predictable multiplex cinema developments might bring immediate investment, but how long would it last? Brentford could become indistinguishable from Brent Cross. The extraordinary waterfronts and thriving boat building community which still survive in Brentford though, could be enough to inspire a development of real character and sustainability. Sustainable in terms of local community, local economy and long-term attraction, as well as capturing the essence of a place with a special history and character.

So what should heritage bodies be doing? The conservation of national treasures is clear and relatively uncontroversial. Even the Soviet Union took good care of its Tsars’ palaces. The understanding and perpetuation of local character is newer territory. It is complicated and time consuming to uncover local identity and work with people’s memories and ideas. Ultimately though, this is where heritage lies. In the minds and customs of those who are alive today.

The concept eluding the word ‘heritage’ is an attitude to place, a respect for memory and an ease with the long history of forms and flows which can make design resonate. We need to revive a thought process which loves to understand how we got here and uses it as a spring board for the next inspiration.

Kim Wilkie iii.00