Over the summer, television viewers were treated to a series hosted by the photogenic chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley. In Lost Buildings of Britain, Mr Thurley made a bit of a fool of himself attempting to ‘recreate’ lost architectural treasures based on old drawings and other clues. One superb building which did not feature in this series was the historic Baltic Exchange in the City of London, described in its prime as ‘a veritable fairy palace’ and demolished three years ago. But Mr Thurley will not want to remind anyone of it, as its loss was entirely the fault of English Heritage.
When it was built to house a historic shipping exchange in St Mary Axe in 1903, the Baltic Exchange’s imposing facade was of Portland stone, and the baroque interiors were covered in the choicest marbles of Europe, including some from the quarry which had been used for St Peter’s in Rome.
Almost 90 years later, in 1992, it was badly damaged by the IRA City bombing. English Heritage immediately decided that the building had to be restored. To this end it ordered that each piece of stone, marble, oak and mahogany, brass, bronze, stained glass and even plaster be carefully numbered and then removed into safe storage. The cost of that exercise totalled £6 million.
The cost of reconstruction was estimated at over £20 million, more than the Baltic Exchange could afford. When the City Corporation threatened to prosecute, the Baltic was forced to sell its historic home to a developer, Trafalgar House, which agreed to restore its classical facade and the baroque trading hall. Trafalgar House duly submitted a planning application, which was granted permission in 1995. But the City Corporation became concerned that the restored building would not be sufficiently attractive to tenants like Citibank, which it was desperate to prevent from relocating to Canary Wharf. In its increasingly macho battle with Docklands, the City wanted Brave New Buildings, not fuddy-duddy old listed ones, and it made its views known where they mattered.
The result was an astonishing bargain struck between the developers and the conservation watchdog. Trafalgar House, which stood to benefit hugely from being allowed to demolish the building instead of restoring it, secretly offered a ‘contribution’ towards conservation of between £10 million and £20 million — in return for the City and English Heritage dropping the demand that the Baltic Exchange be reinstated. The scandalous deal was cooked up by the deputy City surveyor Peter Bennett with English Heritage’s south-east director, Paul Drury, and members of its London committee at Guildhall in February 1996. It resulted in the decision to allow the demolition of the Baltic Exchange and a replacement building of ‘up to 400,000 square feet’. English Heritage had agreed to sell its soul. What followed is reminiscent of the Bernie Ecclestone £1 million tobacco advertising debacle. Once the deal was revealed (by the London Evening Standard) English Heritage could no longer accept the money. However, the volte-face concerning the building was not undone.
Trafalgar House proved very greedy. Not only had the company saved itself the massive cost of rebuilding; it began by proposing a tower by Sir Norman Foster which was five times the size agreed in the deal. This met with uproar and was quickly withdrawn, but when revised plans for what is now known as the Gherkin emerged — still much bigger than 400,000 square feet and also by Foster — the Baltic was doomed.
In spite of being told by its own officers that the Baltic could still be restored, English Heritage’s betrayal continued. Its newly adopted position was that the Gherkin was ‘of such remarkable quality’ as to ‘outweigh the limited adverse impact’ of the loss of a Grade II*-listed building.
At this point it may be pertinent to remind readers that the National Heritage Act of 1983, which set up English Heritage, states that its role is to ‘secure the preservation of historic buildings’ and ‘promote the preservation and enhancement of the character and appearance of conservation areas’. It contains no reference to the promotion of new architecture, whatever its quality.
However, on 17 March 1999 the English Heritage Commission, under the forceful chairmanship of Sir Jocelyn Stevens, decided that the ‘exceptional architectural interest’ of the proposed Gherkin should prevail over the legal requirement to protect a listed building, notwithstanding that the minutes show the meeting was told that ‘evidence had not yet been presented to justify this demolition’.
It was not only in breach of the National Heritage Act. It also flew in the face of the clear requirements of the government circular PPG15 concerning the demolition of any listed building, not to mention Grade II*-listed ones. The circular states that such a demolition should be ‘wholly exceptional’, requiring ‘the strongest justification’.
Sir Jocelyn’s motivation was made clear in his chairman’s statement in English Heritage’s annual report for 2000. In the Eighties, he recalled, ‘I asked Richard Rogers and Norman Foster why they were not working in England. They replied that it was largely because of the planning procedures and English Heritage. Now Lords Foster and Rogers have approximately 20 schemes in London. English Heritage deserves some of the credit for this; it has helped that we have taken the clamps off.’
But when it betrayed the Baltic Exchange by deciding that the ‘quality of the replacement building’ could override all other considerations, English Heritage created a powerful rod for its own back. Its own shameful argument has been used against it — successfully — at two major public inquiries which it desperately wanted to win.
When Sir Neil Cossons took over from Sir Jocelyn in 2001, I discussed the issue with him. He explained how crucial it was for English Heritage to stop the Heron Tower in Bishopsgate and the 1,000ft Shard of Glass at London Bridge Station. I told him he could only hope to do this if he distanced himself and his organisation from the decision made under his predecessor to back strident modern architecture at the expense of the heritage. I warned him that unless he publicly admitted that the Baltic decision had been a grave error of judgment, opposition to other towers would be untenable. Sir Neil smiled and declined.
Events since then have regretfully proved me right. At the Heron Tower inquiry, English Heritage’s objections were effectively dismissed by the inspector, who pointed out that, given its support for the Gherkin, opposition to Heron was ‘inconsistent’. The Battle of the Shard of Glass last November was also lost when the inspector cited the quality of the Renzo Piano design as the overriding consideration.
It is now hard to see how any developer could fail to win permission for a skyscraper in London as long as he employs the fashionably correct architect. It is equally unimaginable that English Heritage would ever again risk fighting an expensive public inquiry in defence of London’s skyline. And so when the 70-storey Minerva Tower was approved by the City planners in January, it was left to Historic Royal Palaces to protest that this latest carbuncle would badly damage historic views of the Tower of London, a World Heritage Site, from Tower Bridge. The objections from English Heritage were more a squeak than a squawk.
So the Baltic Exchange has had its revenge, pulling the teeth of its destroyer. As for its remains, they were removed from storage and given away to salvage merchants. Last spring three pairs of antique lamps from the Baltic were sold at auction for £10,000 a pair.
At the end of July, English Heritage announced that the restoration of Brighton’ ;s West Pier, one of only two Grade I-listed piers left in the country, was ‘no longer credible’. As things stand, it is English Heritage which is no longer credible. The poison it took in 1996 has finally done for it. The sooner it’s gone, the better.