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June 03 2011

English Heritage deals blow to £340m UBS office

Watchdog backs listing of Broadgate buildings, where the Swiss bank wants to demolish its existing HQ and build a new one

British Land's plans to build a new £340m headquarters for Swiss bank UBS at Broadgate in the City of London have been thrown into doubt after English Heritage recommended the listing of the site on Friday yesterday.

The watchdog said Broadgate Square, designed by Peter Foggo, then of Arup, in the 1980s, is "one of the most important and successful developments of its period and type, possessing special architectural and historic interest, and therefore should be listed at Grade II*".

It added: "Rare for commercial developments, people enjoy Broadgate Square – in this sense, it is a triumph of urbanism, a special place in the financial heart of the capital."

British Land and its private equity partner Blackstone want to knock down 4 and 6 Broadgate and replace them with a new European headquarters for UBS. It has argued strongly against a listing of the two buildings, which are less than 30 years old, saying they were not of high quality and did not possess sufficient special interest to warrant their listing.

The developer also pointed out that the Broadgate arena and octagon had been extensively altered in the last few years and that the arena, which houses an ice rink in the winter, sculptures and open spaces would be retained.

The decision is now in the hands of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and is expected in about two months, after submissions from British Land, the local authority and other interested parties. Ministers accept the majority of English Heritage's recommendations, although last week they refused to endorse its advice to list the 1970s Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead, and in March overruled it on ABK's 1970s Redcar library.

The City of London Corporation had approved British Land's 700,000 sq ft scheme, and building was to start this summer, with UBS planning to move in by 2014. The corporation's policy chairman, Stuart Fraser, acknowledged that Broadgate Square "embodied the newfound dynamism of the Square Mile post-Big Bang," but went on to warn that listing the estate "would damage the City's reputation as a leading global financial centre".

British Land said: "A decision to list would block the £850m investment in Broadgate, raise the question of where to locate 7,000 permanent banking jobs and put at risk more than 5,000 construction jobs, which would be created over the next three to five years, along with the associated economic activity and growth it would generate.

"It would send out a message to the world that London is not 'open for business', undermining the City of London's status as a global business centre."


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May 07 2011

TERRA 607: Students Saving the Ocean

STUDENTS SAVING THE OCEAN tells the story of the how the conservation community in the Bay Area comes together to improve the health and environment of the California coasts. ;Students lead the charge to explain how everyday decisions have a big impact on our oceans.
TERRA 607: Students Saving the Ocean

STUDENTS SAVING THE OCEAN tells the story of the how the conservation community in the Bay Area comes together to improve the health and environment of the California coasts. ;Students lead the charge to explain how everyday decisions have a big impact on our oceans.

March 29 2011

TERRA 605: Crossroads

An icon of the West, the sage-grouse has been reduced from tens of millions to about 200,000, a casualty of our progress. ; With federal Endangered Species protection officially warranted but unsupported, the fate of this bird in the face of new energy development is unknown.
TERRA 605: Crossroads

An icon of the West, the sage-grouse has been reduced from tens of millions to about 200,000, a casualty of our progress. ; With federal Endangered Species protection officially warranted but unsupported, the fate of this bird in the face of new energy development is unknown.

February 17 2011

TERRA 604: Tricky Winds

Each year, wind farms kill thousands of bats. This short, animated film describes how researchers are trying to develop new technologies to protect bats from getting injured or killed by wind mills.
TERRA 604: Tricky Winds

Each year, wind farms kill thousands of bats. This short, animated film describes how researchers are trying to develop new technologies to protect bats from getting injured or killed by wind mills.

January 29 2011

TERRA 602: Cotton-Top

The Cotton-Top Tamarin is endemic to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast and is critically endangered. ; Thanks to “Proyecto Titi’s” conservation efforts, the Cotton-Top and the people from the region have an opportunity to succeed.
TERRA 602: Cotton-Top

The Cotton-Top Tamarin is endemic to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast and is critically endangered. ; Thanks to “Proyecto Titi’s” conservation efforts, the Cotton-Top and the people from the region have an opportunity to succeed.

January 06 2011

Prefabs out

The Excalibur prefab estate in south London may be scruffy, but it's a precious chapter in the nation's story worth preserving

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan. But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition.

If this was Camden or Kensington or Islington such demolition would be unthinkable. Conservationist armies would rally round this eccentric enclave of 187 houses, complete with dig-for-victory outhouses and a curious tin-roofed church. But then if there were prefabs in those boroughs, they would have been demolished years ago. So is their surviving anywhere into the 21st century a vice or a virtue?

Prefabs were a blind alley of postwar rehousing. Churchill thought it a bright idea to use Spitfire factories to make components for mass-produced houses for people bombed out of their homes. They were bungalows of four rooms around a central service core, put down wherever a site was free, including if necessary a graveyard.

The project was a typical Whitehall cock-up. Five ministries were involved, delays mounted and costs soared. Originally priced at £500 each, which was already more than suburban semis had cost before the war, the prefabs cost £1,300. This meant they rented at 13 shillings, against a local council house at five shillings. Private and civic builders – who in France, Germany and Poland were busily restoring old homes – in Britain were starved of permits and resources, while Londoners squatted in ruins and slept in the underground.

Only 156,000 prefabs were eventually built, but they proved remarkably popular. They were not flats but "a home of our own". And they lasted. Though most were barely insulated wood frames, occupants were able to maintain them and keep them standing long after their official 10-year lives. Excalibur is the largest complete estate to survive, built by PoWs of Rommel's Afrika Korps before they returned to Germany.

This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication. Gardens are crammed with gnomes and some have smart cars parked in front. The estate's champion, Jim Blackender, whose website is a model of community action, has bedecked his home as if expecting the England football team to arrive.

The whole enclave is an anarchic contrast to the anonymity of the system-built deck-access slabs that usually supplanted the prefabs, now being demolished as uninhabitable and impossible to maintain. The tenants of the vast Aylesbury estate across south London scream, "Get us out of here", but their salvation is expensive and endlessly postponed. Yet no ideologues are so dyed-in-the-wool as Britain's public housing officials, who have long regarded the chaotic individualism manifest in the prefab as intolerably antisocial and to be "designed out".

Lewisham council wants Excalibur gone. Residents were recently offered Hobson's choice, of agreeing to demolition and rehousing or the estate being sold to a private developer – and demolished. Even under such pressure only 56% opted for the first choice. The government has meekly listed six of the 187 for preservation, but none is worth preserving on its own. It would be like listing six houses in Belgrave Square. English Heritage has also refused to introduce conservation area control, on the strange grounds that "this would be imposing our view from above". Surely that is its job.

What to preserve is always a balance. This week a more celebrated prefab was in the news, Captain Scott's hut in the Antarctic. The appeal to preserve it in situ has raised more than £3m. Hardly anyone can ever see it. It could have been lifted, lock, stock and barrel, to the Science Museum. But it must be right to protect it where history and circumstance put it, a memorial to an extraordinary moment in world exploration.

So why not Catford? Conservation is enveloped in class. Labour housing ministers such as Yvette Cooper spent millions on consultants trying to demolish 19th-century streets in Merseyside and elsewhere, on the patronising grounds that old buildings were too good for working-class northerners. Much of London's housing was likewise declared unfit for human habitation after the war. From Chelsea through Camden and Shoreditch to the docks, there are terraces, mews and warehouses saved in the nick of time from the bulldozer, offering acceptable homes for rich and poor. Every property, even a prefab, has its price, as those who bought houses in Excalibur attest. Lewisham, like Cooper, is using a bulldozer where a chisel and screwdriver would do.

All historic buildings might be moved to museums to make way for something more profitable, or merely new. We could move old theatres, pubs, council chambers, even Shakespeare's birthplace. The whole of historic Britain could be dumped in a museum. Prefabs have already been moved to the Chiltern Open Air Museum and Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, where they look most odd.

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities. I suppose the back alleys of Mayfair and the City of London, its churches, parks and squares, all get in the way of development. They serve no profitable purpose that cannot be supplied by a gherkin, a shard or a piazza. Yet we preserve them because we know they enrich the life of the city. They relieve its monotony and protect qualities of surprise and repose that modern design can no longer supply. There are no curved alleys or intimate lanes in today's architecture.

Excalibur is scruffy and working class. It probably offends a Niagara of government regulations. It costs someone's money to maintain and can, I am sure, evoke a pundit to say it is a reminder of a bad past. These arguments were used in the 1970s to fill in Southwark's Grand Surrey Canal with rubble, wiping out a slice of its people's history and an invaluable future amenity. The people of north London apparently merited a canal, but that was too dangerous for south Londoners.

We still find it hard to move forward without snapping the chains of the past. The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised. They had lost the castles of their dreams, and now found them again. To walk around Excalibur today is to know this is still true. Like Scott's hut, it is a passing moment made permanent. It should not be demolished.


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Letters: Prefabs, Fabs and mass demolition

The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage are barking up the wrong tree in trying to "save" the prefab Excalibur estate in Lewisham (Anger over plans to demolish historic prefab estate, 3 January). The Excalibur residents' long struggle is a lesson about how people want to live together. It is not about preserving the fabric of damp, decaying homes well past their habitable lifetimes.

It is not a miracle that these homes have survived for so long. It is almost wholly due to hard work by the tenants and their management organisation. Stability and a supportive community at Excalibur grew from a feeling of "being in control", living in homes which are compact and easy to run, providing dignity and independence at an affordable rent.

Sadly, the pressures on housing in inner London don't encourage building detached bungalows. This has been taken on board by Excalibur residents, who for years have been developing plans to translate their ideals into achievable new homes, fit and decent, as they deserve.

Yes, let's study and respect the prefab history. A few examples to demonstrate one short-term solution, fitted to its time in the immediate devastation of war, would be better placed in a museum.

Caroline Mayow

London

• The campaign to save 9 Madryn Street is as much about stopping the council erasing an entire neighbourhood as about preserving Ringo Starr's birthplace (Comment, 4 January). The Ringo connection is important, and useful – as it grabs headlines – but the real story is the battle to stop a deluded council pursuing a regressive policy of mass demolition.

William Palin

Secretary, Save Britain's Heritage


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October 12 2010

Letter: Janet Gnosspelius obituary

Lionel Burman writes: To be guided round Woolton Hall, Liverpool, by Janet Gnosspelius (Other lives, 11 October) was an enthralling experience. Her massive report on it is a model of architectural and historical analysis, and her dramatic appearances at the Liverpool Planning Department's heritage bureau were met with admiration and delight by all present.


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October 08 2010

TERRA 540: Feeding the Problem

Feeding the problem explores the historical and ecological impacts of the century-old artificial feeding program for elk in Western Wyoming. What began in 1912 as a gracious effort to save the Jackson Hole elk herd from harsh winters, shrinking habitat, and dwindling forage, has morphed into the largest wildlife feeding program in the United States. This biological experiment has created a petri dish for wildlife disease and is now one of the most contentious, fiercely debated issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
TERRA 540: Feeding the Problem

Feeding the problem explores the historical and ecological impacts of the century-old artificial feeding program for elk in Western Wyoming. What began in 1912 as a gracious effort to save the Jackson Hole elk herd from harsh winters, shrinking habitat, and dwindling forage, has morphed into the largest wildlife feeding program in the United States. This biological experiment has created a petri dish for wildlife disease and is now one of the most contentious, fiercely debated issues in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

September 01 2010

Protector of the Giants photographic exhibition

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust presents an exhibition of pictures taken by three of the world's most celebrated wildlife photographers – Joachim Schmeisser, Michael Nichols and Robert Carr-Hartley



June 17 2010

Swallow your sneering, ArtWatch

Keeping a close eye on art conservators and museums is one thing; picking on the children of art critics is asking for a fight

The pressure group ArtWatch UK keeps a vigilant, some would say obsessive, eye on what it sees as the crimes of art conservators and museums. According to ArtWatch, custodians of art such as the Louvre are packed with mad egotistic restorers determined to repaint the works of the great masters in their own image. All restoration is a con – they appear to think – and all museum directors are criminal fools.

Now they have a new target. The latest issue of their quarterly magazine names and shames … my five-year-old daughter. She's right there, near the front of the mag, singled out for the trenchant criticism of ArtWatch. The column ironically summarises – and significantly misrepresents – a short piece I wrote in the Guardian last year.

It reproduces my confession that, when slightly younger than she is now, she was known to use the Duveen galleries, where the Parthenon marbles are housed at the British Museum, as a "personal racetrack". It's fascinating to be on the receiving end of ArtWatch's vigilant eye, because I can tell you – indeed I can demonstrate to you, simply by the link above to the original piece – what their report omits. The ArtWatch column implies we just like to make a noise in museums for the sake of it. The entire point of my article, however, was that parents should try to share the wonders and treasures of high art and civilisation with their children by visiting museums. My gripe with museum guards who aggressively "shush" kids is that to turn museums into staid, repressed experiences for children is to tell the young, in effect, that culture is boring. I want my child to know it is exciting – and Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK, would eat his sneer if he encountered her passion, nurtured by those visits, for the Greek myths.

ArtWatch have picked a fight here. I will have to point out the truth about them. Their misleading comment on my family life is actually of a piece with a closed-minded and blinkered view of everything else. It is true that restorations can be excessive, or simply unnecessary. But – as in their reporting on my family – these campaigners only tell one side of the story, and tell it relentlessly, without listening to the other side. Knowledge and appreciation of Renaissance art has been enriched by modern conservators: the restoration of the Brancacci chapel in Florence, for example, revealed the full manhood of Adam by removing a fig leaf added in former times to Masaccio's great work. Should they have left it there? Daley's comrade the late James Beck, co-founder of ArtWatch, criticised this restoration – but why? It is clearly better to see Masaccio's masterpiece in its full nudity than dulled as it was by counter-reformation accretions.

I agree with ArtWatch that Louvre restorers must never attempt to clean the Mona Lisa – but I am very glad the museum took scientific images of the painting that enable us to know it more closely. Science is not evil and nor are the attempts by modern museums to use it to study, and when necessary clean and restore, works of art. I know for a fact that museums keep accurate, detailed records of everything done to a work. No one is going around treating pictures like their personal property in the great national museums ArtWatch has it in for.

Does ArtWatch really want to make a difference? If it did it would engage in mutually respectful dialogue with the museums it wants to reform. Its extremism suggests it is really just a nasty cabal whose deepest desire is to get even with everyone who has incurred its wrath – including the children of art critics.


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June 05 2010

Wild Wonders of Europe by Peter Cairns

A spectacular collection of Europe's finest natural history images tells the story of how far-sighted conservation projects have allowed wildlife to flourish over the past two decades

A white-tailed sea eagle soars into the sky, at Flatanger in Norway, with a mackerel clutched in its talons. Sightings of the predator have recently become common in Europe thanks to one of the conservation movement's greatest triumphs. For much of the 20th century, sea eagle numbers plummeted because of persecution by gamekeepers and shepherds who saw the raptor as a threat to their livestock. Accumulation of pesticides in the food chain is also thought to have had an impact.

But Europe's sea eagle population is bouncing back. Reintroduction projects in many countries, including Scotland and Ireland, have seen numbers of Haliaeetus albicilla rise spectacularly. Germany now hosts 530 pairs, for example, Sweden has 600, while Norway possesses a staggering 6,000. Numbers in Scotland and Ireland are also doing well.

Sea eagles form a main focus of Wild Wonders of Europe, a spectacular collection of the continent's finest natural history images. A total of 69 of Europe's best nature photographers spent a year recording creatures for the book. These include animals such as European yellow scorpions, grey wolves, brown bears, Griffon vultures, marsh frogs, alpine marmots, lesser horseshoe bats, sea turtles in the Mediterranean, polar bears in Svalbard, wild bison in Poland and Eleonora's falcons, the very first bird species ever to be protected – thanks to a decree made in 1395 by Queen Eleonora of Arborea in Sardinia.

Today, almost 20% of the European Union's land surface provides protection of some kind for its indigenous species, thanks to a spate of conservation projects that have been launched over the past two decades. Wild Wonders of Europe is, in part, a celebration of the consequences of these far-sighted decisions, though its authors also stress that threats of extinction still hang over many important species on the continent.

Animals that are now categorised as being highly endangered include the Saiga antelope, the Pyrenean brook salamander, the Iberian lynx, the short-snouted seahorse, the dusky grouper and the Arctic fox, whose population in Scandinavia, although protected for the past 75 years, still hovers at the edge of extinction, with only around 200 individuals surviving in the wild today, say scientists.

Nevertheless, the authors – Peter Cairns, Florian Möllers, Staffan Widstrand and Bridget Wijnberg – are adamant that there is cause for some celebration.

"That is not to say that everything is fine," they admit. "We all know it isn't. We certainly need to work hard to put many things right. But the glass is not half empty. It is actually half full. And it is getting fuller."

Wild Wonders of Europe, by Peter Cairns et al, is published by Abrams at £29.99. wild-wonders.com. To buy a copy for £21.99, plus free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847


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January 25 2010

January 24 2010

All things bright and beautiful: What photographer found in one cubic foot

David Liittschwager's amazing images – featured in next month's National Geographic magazine – capture Earth's ecosystems as never before

Just how much life can you find in an ecosystem of one cubic foot? That is the question photographer David L­iittschwager set out to answer when he took a 12-inch metal frame to a range of different environments on land and in water, in tropical climes and temperate regions and began to chart the living organisms.

The answer? An astonishing amount. In each place he visited, the photographer, best known for his large images of rare animals and plants, was amazed at the diversity and abundance of life that passed through such a small area.

In five distinct and contrasting environments, from a tropical forest to a city-centre park, Liittschwager set down his green-edged metal cube, and started watching. Each creature that passed through the cube was counted and charted with the help of his assistant and a team of biologists. Over a three-week period the team photographed each inhabitant that passed through the cube, down to creatures measuring a mere millimetre.

In total, more than a thousand individual organisms were photographed, and the diversity of each environment can be seen on nationalgeographic.com. "It was like finding little gems," Liittschwager said.

The team started out at Central Park in New York – or more specifically, in the Hallet nature sanctuary, a 3.5-acre deciduous woodland area, populated with trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally. There they found the tufted titmouse and eastern grey squirrel, creatures as big as a raccoon and as small as a leopard slug.


In Moorea, in French Polynesia, they discovered a vast array of species (pictured) thought to only be a very small selection of the reef's full diversity. Among their findings were the inch-long file clam, the whitespotted boxfish, sacoglossan sea slug and the frankly terrifying post-larval octopus.

While in the tropical cloud forest of Monteverde, in Costa Rica, most of the animals in the treetop ecosystem were as small as a fingertip, there were hawk moths, sharpshooter leafhoppers and burio tree seeds.

The fine-leaved vegetation of the fynbos of Table Mountain in South Africa, thought to hold one of the richest concentrations of plant diversity in the world, revealed the purple flower of the alice sundew, and no shortage of cape zebra cockroaches. Finally, in the fresh water of Duck River in Tennessee, one of the most biodiverse waterways in the US, swam golden darters and longlear sunfish as well as the bigeyed chub.


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January 11 2010

Walk on the wild side

Wildlife photographer Philippa Scott, honorary director of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, has died aged 91. Here are some of her images



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