Thursday, 23 July 2015

Saving Norton Folgate

The Mayor of London has declared East London to be an "opportunity area". 
There's a building boom, with skyscrapers springing up all over the place. 
The urban fabric is changing.

The Liberty of Norton Folgate is a quarter in London adjacent to the City of London, Spitalfields and Shoreditch. It is a conservation area whose architectural character derives mainly from its Georgian houses and Victorian warehouses. British Land planned to redevelop the site, which would have meant demolishing many of the buildings and replacing them with large constructions, totally out of scale with the existing fabric

Last Sunday, we joined other supporters of the Save Norton Folgate campaign and formed a human chain around the quarter in a final public demonstration. 

It was a bright, sunny day, perfect for that sort of event. Photographs and videos were taken, and everyone had a nice time. The following Tuesday,Tower Hamlets rejected the redevelopment proposal. I was very pleased with the outcome.

This part of London has seen successive waves immigration. Protestant Huguenot refugees from France, fleeing religious persecution, arrived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Then came Jews from central Europe in the early 20th century. In the 1970s, these migrants were replaced by Bangladeshis. The former Huguenot Church in Brick Lane became the synagogue, and is now the Brick Lane Mosque. Today, there is a large Bengali community, and the area around Brick Lane is also known as BanglaTown.

Over the weekend and the next few days, I reflected a little on architectural conservation. I like old buildings and historic cities, but I admire good architecture. Unfortunately, though, I sometimes get the feeling that many in the conservation lobby are opposed to any kind of modern architecture, and that's regrettable. In some conservation areas there can be a case for replicating past styles to fit in with the surroundings, but this is the easy option. It's more challenging (and I think preferable) to build something modern which fits in, but adds something fresh.

There was another aspect which gave me pause for thought. The proposed redevelopment was presented as one which would adversely affect the local community. However, the members of that community were not very much in evidence at the demonstration. By this, I don't mean the inhabitants of the Georgian townhouses in Norton Folgate and Spitalfields, who were very much in evidence, but the wider community, in fact the majority of the people from the area, the less well off and the Bangladeshis. The event I attended was an overwhelmingly white, middle-class affair. This is all too often the case with organisations concerned with preservation and conservation. It's a pity because this is every Londoner's heritage, and every Londoner should have a say in the future character of their neighbourhood.

I'm delighted that the Save Norton Folgate campaign was a success, but it would be marvellous if in future (because, sadly, these areas are always under threat) there could be more involvement from a wider cross section of the local population. In my personal experience, it's not difficult to connect across illusory barriers such as class, religion and ethnicity. What do you think?

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