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'Cultural Cities' - report part two

Image: Textus Roffensis, courtesy of Rochester Cathedral

The second part of our 'Cultural Cities' report looks at the power of heritage to regenerate cities and towns, that have suffered through Covid and the economic downturn and how our castles and cathedrals are being re-invented through new tourists and community uses.

Recently, there have been moves in cities such as Venice to charge tourists a city tax on their day-trip, to help with the cost of preserving heritage. Should the next UK government take the decision to do the same? Why are visitor numbers to our English cathedrals growing and is there a recognition that funding should be provided to display medieval texts and treasures - often hidden from view? How can isolated communities use heritage to activate their social spaces, such as markets, and how can culture draw visitors into previously unloved parts of cities?

In part two of this report, we feature the contributions of the Reverend Dr Gordon Giles, Canon Chancellor of Rochester Cathedral, Jamie Andrews, Head of Public Engagement, The British Library, Mark Tugman, Associate, MICA Architects and author Sir Simon Jenkins.

Dr Giles spoke of the importance of making Rochester Cathedral accessible to all and using its heritage alongside cultural experiences to draw in visitors:

'The cathedral is in Medway, part of Kent and there is a richness of tourist attraction here such as the Dockyard Museum in Chatham, which was a major employer when it was an active site owned by the Royal Navy. The area however is not wealthy but it does help to have a high speed train line which has been a good investment for region.

'Rochester Cathedral has been a cultural venue since 604, but in more recent times and just before Covid we drew some headlines in having a mini golf in the nave and this caused a scandal. We had so many visitors with lots of people saying that they had never been to the cathedral before. Our income streams are very tight and sometimes we charge to see exhibitions. We had the Lego Bridge here as well and that was very popular.

'This October we will be putting on an exhibition around a medieval piece of writing called Textus Roffensis. It makes Magna Carta look modern and useless. It is the oldest book of laws - a compilation - while Magna Carta is just a page and we have it in a special glass case. There is one picture in it of a dragon. We borrowed the Rochester Bible and Bestiary last year. Although not precise, this year is the 900th anniversary of Textus Roffensis, and are working with artist Wendy Dawes to create a huge 15-meter long dragon which will be suspended above the nave.

'Wendy works with the blind on tactile projects and the scales will be gold, silver and bronze. Visitors have been able to draw and write on them. We stole the idea from Peter Walker who designed and made the peace doves that we displayed in the cathedral. We have the highest proportion of refugees from Ukraine in the UK and the idea was to write messages of peace on the dove-shaped cards.'

Image: Typhoo factory in Birmingham that is being redeveloped for new BBC Studios, courtesy of BDP

Author Sir Simon Jenkins in his book 'England's Cathedrals' praises Rochester Cathedral for the Norman architecture, but also points in contrast to how 'cultural scruffiness' is drawing people back into cities:

'I have been writing a history of British architecture, looking at the way cities have developed or not and the future of urban renewal. There is no doubt about it, cultural renewal is bringing young people into cities. It's the bits of cities attracting people which have cultural interest. It is not just the big, glamorous cultural attractions that are popular, more the back street scruffiness that people like - Portobello Road for example is absolutely fizzing at the moment. I was walking round Bradford with its great Victorian palaces the other day with the Chief Executive of the City Council and she said 'I want Bradford to be the Shoreditch of Leeds'. The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right. If you go to Birmingham's jewellery district for instance, it is very scruffy but attractive, so I think conserving heritage buildings and districts in cities is very important.

'One mustn't worry about gentrification that can happen because of cultural attraction, how you handle it of course is a different matter. Putting up council houses will kill it. You need to save bits and preferably the poorer bits. Marylebone Lane is a good example where you now have many workshops off it. The Corporation of London didn't want the cultural bit that came with the Barbican, as it was viewed as an offence against the podium. The Barbican now has to get people back at ground level, but you cannot walk round it, it is so paved and is the death of 'the street'.

'The cultural move east in London is what happens in cities, but I think it is full of luxury flats predominantly for wealthier people. Brexit of course is a disaster on all levels, not just culture. If you rely on the state you will have trouble some of the time. I think it is terrible that tourists come into our cities and don't pay a tax but visit our museums, it is just giving tax payers' money away to tourists. What matters to me is how artists survive, where they settle and how those communities thrive where they live.'

Image: CGI of the redevelopment of Temple Works, Leeds, courtesy of The British Library

There are many interesting heritage buildings in Leeds dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and Temple Works, a former flax mill is one of them. It has seen better days, but has been taken on by The British Library, to be re-developed as a collections store and community space. Jamie Andrews, Head of Public Engagement, joined the forum to describe the challenge and importance:

'The newly elected Mayor of West Yorkshire and the Leader of Leeds City Council have been making the point that cultural anchors such as the National Poetry Centre, The British Library and the Royal Armouries are crucial in driving investment into cities, and to help with the development of new housing. As you said, the British Library has taken on this extraordinary building with an Egyptian frontage, which is Grade I listed but it's on the Historic England 'at risk' register.

'We have roots in the city. We celebrated our 50th birthday last year, established by Act of Parliament in 1972, and right from the start we had a base in West Yorkshire - forty acres at Boston Spa. Originally it was part of a 200-acre munitions factory site employing thousands of people, mostly women from Leeds during the second world war. In the 1960s the site was acquired for The National Lending Library for Science and Technology which then became the British Library. Over the years we have invested in the region, grown our staff there to 500 people, and the vast part - two thirds - of the library's physical collection over 100 million objects is stored there.

'When we did a review a few years back on our impact in the region we decided that we were too detached from the city. We felt that the special building of Temple Works in Holbeck was right for us - and it was once thought to be the biggest single room in the world at two acres in size. The design of the frontage , by Joseph Bonomi the Younger, was based on the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The grass on the roof was grazed by sheep, historically. These associations from the first industrial revolution we want to continue, for instance on the theme of 'green roofs' in this current industrial / technological revolution.

'It's what we do in the building that will be important, including a full range of library services but with a focus on learning and innovation. There will be a particular emphasis on young people. We are part of the Leeds Transformation Regeneration Partnership including regional government and Homes England, and we expect the building's development and new use to act as a catalyst to other growth going on in Leeds, working with our partners. We won't wait for the building to open to engage more with the city community, as we are working with local cultural organisations already.'

Image: Jacobean Mansion at Hay Castle restored, courtesy of MICA Architects

Mark Tugman, Associate at MICA Architects joined the discussion to talk about the importance of preserving heritage for more isolated communities in the UK and how this could activate interest in their shared cultural spaces. An example of this has been the practice's work to redevelop Hay Castle, in Hay, Wales.

MICA has described the project:

Hay Castle Trust began to realise their vision for the preservation and sustainable re-use of Hay Castle and associated buildings in 2015. The project creates a culturally and economically vibrant centre for the arts and training at the heart of this historic town. The project rescues and conserves the critically at-risk medieval keep and the Jacobean mansion, restore and open the ancient gate - the oldest of its kind in the UK, and reinstate the vital connection between the castle and the town. A museum-standard gallery will host touring exhibitions from major collections, a platform high in the castle keep will offer stunning and historic views out from this ancient monument, and a characterful learning space will engage the young and old alike, allowing all the chance to enjoy, love and cherish this iconic castle.

Mark commented:

'The castle has been closed to visitors, derelict and impenetrable after several fires in the 1600s and with the gate shut. and it has a very large embankment closing it off from the town. It has only been used as a backdrop to the Hay Festival but one of the challenges we see with cultural organisations is the over-reliance on one major event each year, which was the case with Hay. We have tried to be sensitive to history, but also to incorporate the daily life of the town. People want somewhere different to sit, and somewhere to go and have a coffee. There have been sensitive restoration phases within the castle but we have now opened the main gate and entrance again, creating a series of paths and spaces from that to the town centre so they becomes part of the town and the marketplace.'

On the Waterloo master-plan in London, where Grimshaw is leading a project for Network Rail and Lambeth Council, Mark was asked about MICA's role in transforming the Festival Hall's riverside frontage into spaces for eating, drinking and relaxing. Mark said:

'There are comparisons to be made between the Southbank master-plan project which the then Rick Mather Architects (now MICA) worked on, and the challenges for Waterloo. As part of preserving the new cultural institutions created for the 1951 Festival of Britain, a 'podium' was made which separated the street from the river, and the Festival Hall venue was designed to allow five thousand people to leave very quickly, as with a football stadium. The design had not factored in what the building might do when concerts were not being held. The Hungerford Bridge crossing was dangerous. The river wharves had been damaged during the war. Streets need to be places where people move and stop and spend time. On master-plans, we have to careful. In the 1950s there was not the same approach. There needs to be a cultural masterplan, a civic master-plan and a commercial master-plan - and that is a microcosm of the city.'

Future Cities Forum is very grateful to its contributors for the insight and expertise which they brought to the discussion.

Image: interior renovation of Hay Castle, courtesy of Mica Architects


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