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October 31 2011

Heritage prize for the north's only finalist in Lloyd Webber's glitzy new heritage awards

Unpaid workers who have rescued a Leeds church for community use - shifting three full skips of mummified pigeons and their droppings in the process - star in London bash

It's six weeks since the Northerner lamented the lack of finalists from our three regions in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'English Heritage Angel' awards which celebrate local people's work in protecting historic, interesting or beautiful buildings or landscape.

The fanfare is just that; it doesn't come with funding or the chance to perform in one of the Lord's stage productions, like Connie Fisher who triumphed in How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

But it draws attention to the project as well as the work of those responsible for the transformation, and that encourages others with money or help in kind to pitch in. And the good news is that our solitary representative among the 16 finalists has...WON!

Yay! Well done the 120 volunteers who are returning the abandoned church of St Margaret of Antioch in Leeds to communal and imaginative use. We ran their prospectus back in September and you can read it here. Better still, get down there and see why they won earlier funding of £700,000 from English Heritage. Maybe you will be volunteer number 121.

The context of these awards is an alarming total of 5,828 buildings on English Heritage's At Risk Register. They include such wonders as Temple Mill in Leeds, which the Northerner also highlighted recently. Places such these simply cannot be lost.

English Heritage goes on to warn that:


Nationally, 3% of grade I and II* listed buildings are at risk

284 listed places of worship are among them

16.9% of England's 19,748 scheduled monuments are also at risk

The number of registered parks and gardens at risk increased from 99 (6.2%) in 2010 to 104 (6.4%) this year

Four of the six registered battlefields at risk are in Yorkshire and the Humber

Of the 7,481 conservation areas that have been surveyed, 516 (6.6%) are at risk.

St Margaret's team got their gong for the best restoration of a place of worship at a ceremony in London this morning, Monday 31 October, featuring the Lord and assorted celebs - Clare Balding, Graham Norton, Michael Winner and Danielle Hope. The other five winners are::
 

The Smythe Barn at Westenhanger, Hythe, Kent for the best craftsmanship on a heritage rescue
 
Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol, and St Stephen's, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London, jointly for the best rescue of any other entry from the Heritage at Risk register.

Pleasley Colliery, Mansfield, Derbyshire (nearly northern...) for the best rescue of an industrial building or site
 
Tyntesfield Orangery in Somerset for the favourite award voted for by English Heritage members and readers of the Daily Telegraph, the awards' media partner.

Lloyd Webber signalled his future support at the award ceremony, saying:

All 16 shortlisted groups were exceptional and the judges had a hard time deciding between them. But in the end the winners stood out for their passion, perseverance and imagination, for the scale of the challenges they had taken on and for the legacy they leave behind – a secure future for beautiful historic buildings which without them could so easily have simply disappeared. I look forward to many others joining their ranks in the years to come.


 
Another of the judges, the classicist and TV presenter Bettany Hughes says:

The real joy of these awards is that we are recognising the value of the human spirit; our Angels are all men and women who have battled against the odds and who with flair, tenacity, sympathy, and sometimes wild inspiration have never taken 'no' for an answer and have instead laboured to make the world around them richer and better. If I wore hats, I would be in a perpetual state of taking my hat off to them all. We owe them much.

You can watch highlights from the awards ceremony on BBC 2's Culture Show at 6pm this coming Saturday 5 November.
 


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January 11 2011

Haiti: rocked to its foundations

How can Haiti justify repairing its architectural gems when 1.5 million people are living in tents? Steve Rose reports from the country a year after the quake

I am sitting on the verandah of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, sipping coffee and looking out over its tranquil gardens. So idyllic is the scene, you could easily imagine that nothing much has changed here for a century – or at least not since the 1960s, when this white-painted landmark was known as "the Greenwich Village of the tropics" and hosted the likes of Truman Capote, Mick Jagger and Graham Greene. The Oloffson even inspired the hotel that appears in Greene's 1966 novel The Comedians. "With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house," wrote Greene, referring to the cartoonist who gave rise to the Addams Family, "but in the sunlight or when the lights went on among the palms, it seemed fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy-tales."

This is not the image of Haiti we are used to – not since the earthquake that struck a year ago today. But you don't have to wander far from the Oloffson to find ruins, rubble and tented cities. The presidential palace is still a collapsed heap, untouched since it became the defining image of the disaster. There are 230,000 dead to mourn, up to 300,000 buildings damaged, and 1.5 million people still without homes. But Port-au-Prince is at least back on its feet: the port, airport and phone network are working again, the potholed streets are clogged with traffic and lined with vendors, and talk is no longer of emergency relief but of reconstruction – and the conspicuous lack of it.

So perhaps it's not inappropriate to remember the prettiness of Haiti's past. The country has an extraordinary architectural heritage, reflecting its status as the first independent, black-led country in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.

In that respect, Haiti faces a dilemma: on one hand, there is the need to get the country back on its feet quickly; on the other, there's the desire to preserve what links to the past remain. Yes, architecture is about providing shelter, security and functionality, but it is also about culture, memory and history. In a place like today's Haiti, the former values inevitably take precedence, particularly when there are innumerable charities and NGOs advancing well-meaning but uncoordinated reconstruction projects. Churches and other historic structures have already been toppled or razed, their futures uncertain. This country that has lost so much still has more to lose, but who wants to talk about preserving culture and history when there are still 1.5 million people living in tents?

"Why should we make a tabula rasa out of everything when we have such an incredible history – and artefacts that tell that history?" asks Michèle Pierre-Louis, president of Fokal, Haiti's Knowledge and Freedom Foundation. "I've travelled a lot in the world, and been to lots of poor places where there is a strong sense of history and memory. That is extremely important. It's a link, it's part of your identity."

A former prime minister of Haiti, Pierre-Louis is a remarkable woman with a commitment to what she calls the "historically marginalised" of Haiti. She now includes Port-au-Prince's architecture in that definition, in particular its "gingerbread houses" – so called because of their intricate external decoration. The Oloffson is one of the best-preserved examples of this turn-of-the-century vernacular architecture, but there are some 300 more in the same neighbourhood.

These houses aren't just beautiful. In design terms, they are ideally suited to local conditions: their steep roofs, high ceilings, wraparound verandahs, tall doors and windows (with louvred shutters rather than glass) help keep the insides cool; and, thanks to their flexible timber frames, they have withstood a century of not just earthquakes but hurricanes, floods and torrential rain.

"They stand as evidence that the culture of Haiti differs from the other islands of the Caribbean," says US conservation architect Randolph Langenbach. "Although one can find gingerbread detailing on houses elsewhere, I've seen nothing on the same scale outside the US. But because of the climate, and more loosely interpreted academic styles, they take on a light, open and playful quality that makes them uniquely Haitian."

Langenbach was part of a team of experts who surveyed 200 gingerbread houses last year, after they were added to the World Monuments Fund's watch list of endangered architecture. Less than 5% of them were actually destroyed in the quake, against an average of 40% for Port-au-Prince as a whole, leading Langenbach to believe they could be a model for seismic-resistant designs of the future.

The stock was badly damaged, however, and is in a precarious state, compounded by decades of neglect, although a conservation programme is now in motion, thanks to Fokal. The next stage is to turn one damaged house into an educational restoration project, says Pierre-Louis, with a view to teaching Haitian apprentices the skills needed to preserve the others. "I hope all those people living in tents will be able to come and visit these houses when they are restored," she says, "and know that they are theirs also."

It doesn't stop with gingerbread houses: Haiti is dotted with buildings of a similar vintage. There are 18th-century forts built by the French, and even the British. Then there is the beautiful coastal town of Jacmel. Founded by the French in the late-17th century, it boasts streets of architecture not dissimilar to that of New Orleans, which it is said to have influenced. Though it suffered less than the capital 25 miles to its north, Jacmel was also badly damaged by the quake.

And for those who doubt the role architecture can play in forging national identity, there is the Citadelle Laferrière in the north, the largest fortress in the western hemisphere. Built soon after the country's independence in 1804 by Henri Christophe, a Haitian general who then declared himself king, the Citadelle is an impregnable mountaintop structure whose vital statistics underline not just the Haitians' technical expertise but their determination to never again be slaves: its walls are 16ft thick, its ramparts 130ft high, and its cisterns hold a year's worth of water. Below it are the ruins of Sans-Souci, Christophe's palace, an extravagant fusion of European styles.

French military historians visiting the Citadelle recently were stunned by its sophistication, says Monique Rocourt-Martinez, of Haitian heritage group Ispan; but, more importantly, the hilltop colossus represents "the greatest monument to black freedom in the Americas". The Citadelle and Sans-Souci are, for now, at least secure and under restoration: recognising them as "a universal symbol of liberty", Unesco declared the area a World Heritage Site in 1978. "The question of national heritage is of utmost importance," says Rocourt-Martinez. "There is an urgent need for the people of Haiti to consult their heritage and traditions, if it is to reverse course and finally become a nation. A country that loses control of its history loses control of the future."

Bridging the gap between Haiti's inspirational history and its desperate present has always been a challenge. Getting anything done seems to be a challenge. But one reconstruction project gives reason for hope: the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, a handsome 19th-century structure that was one of Haiti's best-loved buildings; its image appears on the country's bank notes. A year ago, it was a twisted, rusted relic. Half of it had burned down in 2008, then the earthquake damaged what was left. It has now been fully restored, and was officially reopened yesterday by Bill Clinton.

The Iron Market was designed and made in Paris around the same time as the Eiffel Tower, and there's a similarly heroic aesthetic to its riveted plates and expressive structure, augmented with neoclassical flourishes. Consisting of two symmetrical halls linked by a pavilion, it was originally bound for Cairo, hence the Islamic-looking minarets, but it somehow found its way to Haiti, where it was assembled like a giant Ikea flatpack in 1891. Today, freshly painted in red and green, the Iron Market stands out a mile, literally – surrounded as it is by the ruins of what used to be downtown Port-au-Prince. Its resurrection doesn't just bring back a piece of heritage architecture, it also reinstates a vital commercial resource that will hopefully anchor downtown regeneration.

"I've never been involved in a project with such drive and determination," says Scottish architect John McAslan, who was appointed to restore and rebuild the market. "There's been a genuine sense of urgency." McAslan became involved with Haiti two years ago, following his firm's voluntary work in Malawi with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the former US president's foundation.

Since the quake, McAslan has taken a wider role in the country's reconstruction. His firm is co-ordinating the only government-approved programme for permanent housing, again with the CGI and other partners. This month, an exhibition will be held showcasing competition entries for a scheme to build, by May, 140 homes and a community centre. Designs had to be locally appropriate: affordable, easy to build (with local resources), fostering community values and utilising solar power and rainwater collection. Some 500 entries were received, including a healthy proportion from Haitian architects.

McAslan has also campaigned for the conservation of Haiti's historic architecture, starting with the Iron Market. "It symbolised so much to me," he says. "It symbolised the struggle of Haiti, its working life, its extraordinary history. Of course, rebuilding hospitals and schools and homes is a priority, but the country needs symbols of hope."

Rebuilding it to its former state was impossible, explains McAslan, but enough ironwork was salvaged from the burned-down north hall to restore the relatively intact south hall. This entailed the laborious straightening and reconditioning of thousands of pieces of iron, all done by hand at the workshop of a local artist. A new north hall was then built from scratch with US steel. Although this new wing lacks the delicate detailing of its 19th-century counterpart, inside it achieves the same light, spacious quality. Such a pragmatic approach underlines the project's urgency, while the half-old, half-new composition feels somehow apt: the shape, one hopes, of things to come.

For the last year, the market's traders have been selling everything from vegetables to stereos to unlabelled pills from makeshift stalls on the filthy streets outside the site, while, on the other side of the hoarding, work raced on. I stood among them as they patiently queued from dawn to register for the new stalls. The atmosphere was almost buoyant. For the first time in a long while, there was something to look forward to.


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December 20 2010

Towering conversion

Britain's Martello towers were built to keep the French navy at bay. Jonathan Glancey reports on how one rotting relic in Suffolk was turned into an extraordinary new home

Martello towers were built, at great cost, along the coasts of Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Originally, there were 103 of these 30ft-high towers, with walls 13ft thick and roof-mounted cannons capable of shooting lead balls a mile out to sea.

Duncan Jackson's Martello tower, rising from behind the seawall at Bawdsey in Suffolk, is a daunting structure, yet it has been reworked to provide a warm and unexpected welcome: warm because the thick walls keep the winter at bay; and unexpected because, inside, industrial designer Jackson has shaped one of the most original and soul-stirring modern homes in Britain – from a neglected fort never designed for comfort.

Until it became redundant in the 1870s, there had been troops at Tower Y, as well as coastguards after Napoleon's defeat. The spartan living quarters, however, had been crammed around the entrance floor, above an arsenal of gunpowder and cannonballs, and below the wind-scythed roof deck. Today, from the battlements, or rather the roof terrace, three other towers can be seen, dotted along the shingle coast.

Jackson first came across the tower in June 2000, when it was rotting away at the edge of a farm. And so began a 10-year affair with 750,000 Suffolk bricks. "I wasn't wholly naive," says Jackson, whose American wife and young daughter are now settling in. "I spent a year in negotiation with the farmer. He put in mains water and electricity, but I did have to face up to the fact that the tower was a Scheduled Monument, that it was on the Buildings at Risk register, and that it's part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Given all this, perhaps I should have cut my losses and walked away."

Instead, Jackson and his architect Stuart Piercy got stuck in. The two had worked together at Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners – architects of the Eden Project – so had experience of taxing commissions requiring the highest standards of detailed design. Making Tower Y a home, though, was never going to be easy. "When we first walked round," says Piercy, "the cellar was five-foot deep in water, while the roof was covered in soil blown across the fields over the years. But the underlying structure was as strong as a battleship."

Jackson adds: "We made friends with the conservation and planning people. We needed them on our side. There are people who say the towers shouldn't become homes because this takes away from their historic role. But if they aren't going to be lived in, what's to happen to them? Those that hadn't been blasted away during target practice by the military have often been left to rot, and then demolished."

It was the undulating new plywood roof, swooping over three-quarters of the battlements, that did most to turn Tower Y into a modern home. This elegant parasol not only provides a dramatic ceiling for the top floor living space, kitchen and dining area, it also allows mesmerising 360-degree views of the Suffolk coast: on one side tractors plough fields; on the other, vast ships plough the last leg of journeys from, say, China to Felixstowe.

Here is a special place to cook, entertain, or just while away the day. Stroll out onto the terrace and you feel as if you've walked from the bridge of a modern liner out on to its deck, where you stand bathed in light and sucking in sea air. Only the two spiral staircases beckoning from the sides suggest that, below decks, there's another dimension: a cavernous, circular brick chamber, with oak floors set around a vast central brick column. Here, lit by windows set into those deep walls, is another ravishing living space.

This circular living room boasts a large fireplace and sitting area, as well as a cloakroom, a storeroom and a lobby leading to the front door – set some 20ft up from the ground and reached by a straight new steel stairway. Directly below that thrilling space, there are cosy bedrooms, the main ones ingeniously lit by lightwells cut through the brick at steep angles. These bring daylight into what would otherwise be dark storerooms better suited to housing cannonballs. A room for children, meanwhile, is being fitted with a camera obscura that will reflect the seascape on to its walls.

These rooms, complete with grotto-like bathrooms, work beautifully down in the basement. "It was the only place for them really," says Piercy. "Otherwise, we'd have been forced to cram them into the big living chamber upstairs. That would have lost us the great sense of space you get up there."

The overall effect is magical: brick fort on the outside, palatial home within. The main space, approached from the entrance lobby, is breathtaking, with the climb up the spiral stairs enjoyably spooky, and the top floor a revelation: all light, space and comfort, with little hint of ostentation. But then you don't need decoration when you have the sea and all its moods just beyond the parapet, with ships hoving in and out of view, and sunlight playing over that lichen-encrusted brickwork throughout the day.

All the lighting, heating and plumbing gubbins have been carefully concealed, but some doors do lack handles; this is simply because, after so many years, Jackson has still to find the right ones. Best of all is the fact that the tower remains very much itself, and very much as it always was, seen either from the coastal path – or from a ship on the waves, through a captain's spyglass.


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