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Architectural Voices: Listening to Old Buildings

by David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis

John Wiley 2007, ISBN 978-0-470-01673-2
240 pages, price £24.99

'If a building could speak, what would it say? '. It could depend on who is was speaking to. Charles Brooking, recently described in The Times as a 'salvage expert who trawls the demolishers' skips for jewels', could be looked on as a saviour of old and neglected buildings. He has an infallible eye that can both look at and listen to the story that a building has to tell and rescues what features he can to the extent that he has an overflowing house and garden.

But do buildings have more to say than pleading for rescue from the demolition gang? Do the people who have inhabited the place in the past leave their mark and their story beyond what the building was used for? Perhaps it is too easy to let the imagination run away with romantic, tragic, sinister or practical structures and weave their stories into something has not does not really existed in that space.

The focus of the book is on buildings that being 'reinvented', a very 21st century pop-word much associated with singers like Madonna, but not so often with buildings. Although last September I took the Shropshire Branch of the Georgian Group to three 18th century Herefordshire properties that had all changed their use over the years: one was divided into flats, another had become a community, the word commune has different connotations, and the third a hotel. In the latter case, the building perhaps admired the mini-Las Vegas-style cabaret and gambling room, so hi-tech compared with the elegant card rooms and chamber music it might have been used to.

In his Preface, Alain de Botton quotes from John Ruskin, a still-much quoted 19th art and architectural writer, and says that he 'remarked that every good building must do two things: firstly it must shelter us. And secondly, it must talk to us, talk of all the things that we think of as most important and that we need to be reminded of on a regular basis'.

Twenty eight buildings are discussed along Ruskinian lines in the book, varying from churches to industrial buildings to a former brothel, about to be reborn as a boutique hotel, whatever that means. In this essay, Saskia Lewis writes, 'And yet inevitably, development strips the narrative away and the voices become very distant, if audible at all', despite the very strong story the building must have to tell of its past and clues it has left behind such as the red heart tacked on a door.

Some of the giants of industrial archaeology are featured here, such as Battersea Power Station. John Collingwood, who worked there for many years from the age of 18, returned to take poignant photographs of the giant building waiting for a new role. He vividly describes the power station and his respect for what he calls its 'elemental strength'.

The historically important Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury is another building awaiting a new use. David Littlefield describes it as a 'building born out of a kind of savagery, not just an entrepreneurial cut and thrust, but a very real, very physical series of incisions'. Near to where we live, it is very much part of the 18th century industrial innovation of the county which led, with its cast iron construction, to the skyscraper. Abandoned for many years, the mill now seeks a new leave of life which it is hoped that English Heritage may be able to give it, but it may not be easy as David Littlefield writes: 'There are mysteries to this building. It is talking to us, but its difficult to know what it's trying to say'.

The religious buildings are perhaps more straightforward, such as St Catherine's Chapel and Almshouses in Exeter, which existed from 1457 until their destruction in an air raid in 1942. The records of people who lived there still exist so it is not hard to hear their voices and to know what the building meant to them. Today an imaginative art installation, in the form of subtly lit cast glass doorways embedding artefacts from the site, help to bring the building to life without being intrusive. By contrast St Barnabas in Hackney, 1909-10, although seemingly abandoned and forgotten, has weekly service held by the parish priest and curate in this consecrated place. David Littlefield thinks that 'if buildings can accumulate a voice, places of worship are probably the most susceptible to this process'. And St Barnabas, with its cobwebs, abandoned cassocks and piles of booklets of The Children's Worship, speak volumes about the past life of this church.

The book is well illustrated in colour throughout with good quality photographs illustrating the buildings written about and the points made. However, the paperback, rather floppy format does not make it a comfortable book to read in bed, which is a shame as it is a book to be dipped into a savoured at relaxed moments.

By a coincidence, Saskia Lewis's Epilogue starts with a quote from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass; the title of our book, Another Eyesight, on multi-sensory design is also from the same publication. Apt perhaps as our work is about making all environments, and especially buildings, more accessible to blind people who cannot see them but who can hear them and their spaces.

Julia Ionides, The Dog Rose Trust

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