Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Past vs Present

I've been reading this blog, which is following the proposals for the redevelopment of part of Deptford. Deptford is a run down area of south east London which is certainly in need of regeneration.

However, the area which it is proposed to redevelop is historically significant. It is the site of the first Royal Dockyard which dates from the time of Henry VIII. It is also the site of Sayes Court, home of the diarist John Evelyn, and of his garden.

Those who object to the proposals argue that they do not give proper consideration to the historical importance of the area; that they risk damaging or destroying archaeological evidence;  that they do not allow for community access to and appreciation of some of the historically important aspects of the site.

Yet homes are needed, as is investment that will bring jobs to the area. How should these needs be balanced with the desire to preserve the past?

The question of past versus present can be asked elsewhere. How much should local authorities spend on archive services when services for children and the elderly may be facing cuts?

Should the owners of  historic buildings be restricted in what they can do with their properties?  Yes, it is desirable that that old buildings should be preserved whenever possible. Timber and brick are almost always more attractive than concrete.

(It would be even better if planning authorities took account of scale and context when deciding what to preserve.)  

Most houses have been altered over the years. Fireplaces and chimney stacks have replaced open hearths. Tiled roofs have replaced thatch. Extensions have been added, rooms knocked through or partitioned off or converted to different uses. New windows and doors have been fitted. Mains drainage, water, gas and electricity have been added.

Why should it be decided that at some arbitrary date in the twenty first century a building should stop evolving to meet the needs and wants of the people who live there?  


  1. Thank you for following the blog about Deptford. your question "Why should a place stop evolving?" is pertinent. However perhaps it is not clear unless for instance if you read Deptford 2020 Vision which describes very clearly I think how historic assets contribute to creating a sense of place for the future. We propose seven new bridges across the historic slips, docks,basin and mast ponds for instance, as well as a contemporary response to John Evelyn's garden at Sayes Court. You are right, places should never stop evolving but at the same time nor should they ignore their history.

  2. Continuity and transformation in urbanism as elsewhere,
    are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary: continuity
    without change implies mere inertia and eventual degeneration,
    while transformation with no continuity whatsoever spells
    disintegration and utter amorphousness. Historical monuments
    and cultural relics bear witness to continuity with the past.
    But monuments and relics could easily be both evidence of inertia
    and accessories to disintegration. Real continuity is achieved
    only when they express the sense of place that they
    represent, along with the history that produced them.

    Nak-Chung Paik, Continuity and Transformation, p.192, Anywise

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I've passed through Deptford often enough, but I had no idea so much of the Dockyard survived until I started reading some of the Deptford blogs.

    I agree it would benefit the area to make the visible remains of its history better known. And I do think the current proposals for Convoys Wharf are totally out of keeping with the area. A smaller development, more closely linked in with the existing communities, would be preferable.

    Unfortunately it never seems possible to strike a happy medium. The alternatives seem to be dereliction, preservation in a time capsule, or a large scale, unsympathetic development imposed from outside.