Monday 15 May 2017

History versus Modern Development: The City of Bath

by Marie-Louise Jensen

I live in an historic city which makes every trip into town a visit to a byegone era. It is a privilege and a pleasure for me and for many of the thousands who live here and the numerous visitors who pass through.

By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The difficulty of balancing the every day, modern needs of a vibrant, thriving city with this historic beauty is an ongoing issue, of course. Traffic, roads, schools, housing, office space; all are constant concerns and conflict with preserving the valuable heritage we have been entrusted with. 
Bath is one of the few cities in the world to have Unesco World Heritage status. And it has been proven that cities can lose this. Dresden, which went ahead with a modern motorway bridge development too close to the city centre, did so. 
The new shopping centre that was opened in Southgate, Bath, in 2009 was aruguably an improvement on the hideous 1960s monstrosity it replaced. But it fails to do one thing that the old shopping centre maintained - the buildings are too tall and visitors can no longer see out over the hills around the city from the centre of the development - something that has always been a feature of the city. 
Now the new Riverside development of thousands of flats (many bought by overseas investors and standing empty, but that's a whole other issue) are threatening the status all over again. Tall, brash and modern, and very close to the Georgian city centre, they can be seen from every vantage point, a raw eyessore. There has been little space planned in to plant cover which would soften the appearance over time. 
Now the city council want to build a Park and Ride to the east of the city, concreting over beautiful green belt, another site that will be very visible from many vantage points; a gleaming sea of cars by day and empty tarmac by night.
Bathampton Meadows

I know a balance needs to be struck, and proponents of development say we can't live in a museum. But my inclination is to say, why not? There are other modern cities you can choose to live in if you want that. I think we are risking our beautiful city and its outstanding reminders of its past. The city in which I set my novel The Girl in the Mask, was built over and adapted by the Georgians. Perhaps people felt even then it was being damaged. But what was built was high quality, was outstandingly beautiful and has endured. Somehow, I don't think the Park and Ride and the Riverside are going to be drawing tourists in 200 years time. 


Sue Purkiss said...

Such a beautiful city...

Anonymous said...

This is so sad to hear. I'd rather live in a museum than with anything remotely modern! I don't know if you remember but we met in the late '80s, early '90s via Ros Thomas. You invited me over to lunch when you were living in Fulham and we had a high old time. I love it that you're writing for The History Girls. I think our meeting must have come via the Book Club Ros and I were part of and that you came and spoke to us about one of your early books. Memory's fading! I'm no longer living in Fulham. I spent seven years in Crete and am now living on the Isle of Wight.
Sarah (Vernon)

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps it was Wimbledon you were living in. Perhaps it wasn't you at all! I don't trust my memory these days.

Leslie Wilson said...

Our council want to build a Park and Ride on lovely water meadows in Reading. Arguably, we are not Bath (though a handsomer town than some people give it credit for), but that's not the point. We need the beauty we have. However, as far as Bath goes, it seems foolish to perpetrate developments that ruin what many visitors to the city want to see. Oh, dear.

Becca McCallum said...

I remember seeing an architecture booklet from the 50s that had comparisons of past and contemporary architecture. The Victorian buildings were described as 'hideous' and 'badly designed' while all the 'modern' stuff was 'beautiful clean lines' and 'practical living'.

I've only been to Bath once!

Leslie Wilson said...

It has to be said that when Squire Holly (I think that was his name) in Smollett's Humphrey Clinker, went to Bath, he complained of the disgusting modern buildings that were being thrown up there. Presumably the same ones that we treasure, which all goes to show. I have to say that I think some Victorian buildings ARE hideous (I was a child in the 50s and was taught to see them so, mind). And there are some amazing modern buildings with beautiful clean lines. It took me a while to get over my prejudice against the wonderful buildings in the centre of Le Havre. One day we were driving through to visit friends who lived in the city, and I thought: These aren't horrible. They're elegant. When we arrived I saw that she had a book about the modern (though now I guess fairly old) buildings, and how they had all been designed by an architect who was a follower of Le Corbusier. Our eye is taught by culture, so often. As a child, also, I didn't appreciate the many lovely buildings in Kendal. However, I think it would take a lot of acculturation to make me appreciate some of the things thrown up, often by engineers, not architects, anyway. The place that really understands how to marry the old and the new is Berlin; they're doing wonderful things there.

Moira Butterfield said...

We do need new buildings in Bath. We need to grow and become vibrant once again. Unfortunately we get either ersatz cheap 'Disney' Georgian blocks worse than dull Ikea furniture, or we get ugly new builds dictated by cost - with developers doing the bare minimum they need to do to meet sustainable building regulations and then selling the stuff of to investors. We should be demanding exciting eco-aware thinking that serves the residents.

michelle lovric said...

Then again it keeps happening that a project is given planning permission based on promises of conservation and context friendly design ... and then gets de-specified to a point of brutality, bigged up to a point of grotesqueness. This happens in private negotiations with planners behind the scenes, under their 'delegated powers'. THe scaffolding comes off and there's something to be mourned. All of us living in heritage sites face watching that happen or spending too many hours of our week fighting against it.