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Is demolition within our cities inevitable? How do we choose what is retained and what is removed?

What from our existing building fabric is worthy of conserving as we make way for the new?

These questions were highlighted during John Sparkes’ lecture on the regeneration of Sunderland and the ongoing issues with re-planning cities in the United Kingdom. This led me to reflect on the continuous editing and valuing process that sites go through as they evolve and are regenerated and the conflict which this creates with historic fabric.

Hugely influential in the valuing process of cities in the UK was the Urban Task Force, a government body chaired by high-tech architect Richard Rogers, whose primary purposes were to address the decline of inner cities and reduce suburban sprawl over greenfield land[1]. The UTF championed the compact-city theory, imposing tight boundaries on where development could occur. As a result, it was easier for developers to demolish and clear land, in many cases at the expense of historic fabric.

Therefore, the relationship between conservation and regeneration is an often troubled one, especially in post-industrial cities which are littered with derelict remnants of the city’s past success. Many would like these to be re-purposed rather than demolished, due to the nostalgia and iconography associated with them. However, reviving existing structures rarely achieves the same levels of function and thermal performance as a completely new designed structure, as they were built for a completely different function. As a result, reusing spaces can often be at the expense of a lot more money, time and resource with an outcome which is frustrating for the users.

There have been many examples of significant demolition within Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Two sides of the 1824, John Dobson designed, Eldon Square were demolished in the 1970s for its redevelopment as shopping area resulting in the warping of a historically significant square, commissioned by Richard Grainger[2]. While the regeneration was necessary to revive a dilapidated area of the city, the action taken to change the function of the square hugely changed a historical area of the city, see figures 1, 2 and 3 below.


Figure 1. Eldon Square, Newcastle, 20th century (Historic England) by Paul Perry from  – No copyright infringement intended







Figure 2 (left). Image altered by Tara Keswick, 13th January 2020, Original photo: Aerial view of Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, August 1963,  from No copyright infringement intended

Figure 3 (right). Image altered by Tara Keswick, 13th January 2020, Original photo from GoogleMaps – No copyright infringement intended

This is clear move by the local authority to prioritise the commercial and economic function of the city, to introduce the shopping district right into the heart of the city, with much of the demolished brickwork being lost to landfill. A choice to prioritise function and finance over fabric.


Through the act of demolition the energy and resource consumed through the design and construction of the original buildings has gone to waste, due to a simple matter of the function of the area changing, surely there was another site within the city which could have been developed to locate this in. I would tend to agree with the likes of Townshend and Pendlebury, that reusing, conserving and maintaining existing buildings is the most sustainable method of development[4] as the amount of resource and energy required to extract, process, transport and construct a new building is energy that has already been put into an existing structure.


(According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs[5])

Campaigns such as the Architect’s Journal’s (AJ) RetroFirst, launched in September 2019 reinforce the need for the prioritising of retrofitting buildings over demolition and rebuild. It calls for reduced taxes on refurbishment repair and maintenance, policy promoting reuse of existing building stock and reclaimed materials and procurement method that insists all publicly funded projects look at the viability of retrofit solutions first[6].

With Architects and Urban Designers working in a sector which is such a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and material waste, it is important that attitudes shift towards more sustainable methods of reuse and renovation as promoted by the Retrofirst campaign.

Attitudes towards development and conservation shifted in the 1990s from previously conserving buildings of intrinsic merit to valuing their economic role within cities[7]. While economic value is still dominant in conservation arguments, I believe that a shift is required, amid the global climate crisis to rethink how we reduce the environmental impact of the development of our cities. Match existing buildings with required functions where possible, so that resource and energy are used in the most effective way, with the added benefit of retaining buildings of social and historical significance.

As suggested by Olly Wainwright yesterday, perhaps a solution to the vast consumption of the construction industry is to never demolish anything ever again and to have no option but to make and remake our cities from what is already there[8].







[1] The Urban The Urban Task Force, Towards an Urban Renaissance (Wetherby, UNITED KINGDOM: Routledge, 1999),

[2] ‘Old Eldon Square’. In Wikipedia, 20 November 2019.

[3] , [5] , [6] Hurst, Will. ‘Introducing RetroFirst: A New AJ Campaign Championing Reuse in the Built Environment’. Architects Journal. Accessed 13 January 2020.

[4] Strange, Ian, and David Whitney. ‘The Changing Roles and Purposes of Heritage Conservation in the UK’. Planning Practice & Research 18, no. 2–3 (1 May 2003): 219–29.

[7]Pendlebury, John. ‘The Conservation of Historic Areas in the UK: A Case Study of “Grainger Town”, Newcastle upon Tyne’. Cities 16, no. 6 (1999): 423–433.

[8]Wainwright, Oliver. ‘The Case for … Never Demolishing Another Building’. The Guardian, 13 January 2020, sec. Cities.


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One response to “Generation Retrofit: Fabric, Function and Finance”

  1. Hi Tara, thank you very much for a very thought provoking read and an excellent insight into the issues surrounding conservation and adaptation. The example that John Sparkes’ used in Sunderland is a very important one to me personally and I’m glad that you referenced Newcastle in the same light too, as it’s towns such as these that do struggle with conservation the most. It hits home more so for me cos it’s true for my home town in Middlesbrough, the issue of conservation and regeneration has troubled the town for many years, and in it’s struggle there doesn’t seem to be much historic architecture remaining, with the Middlehaven regeneration killing off the rest of it. [1] The pattern here is that they’re all post industrial towns, in the north east with the same struggle.

    In terms of heritage and identity it’s devastating for a lot of towns, but as you mentioned it’s also bad for sustainability, the amount we waste on projects is horrific for the environment, that’s why must not only endorse conservation, but also sustainable methods of construction, for example modular housing reduces 90% of waste on construction by doing offsite productions, and the materials used are totally recyclable. So, should a modular building get demolished years down the line, at least waste would be kept down to the minimum and the materials would get reused for another purpose. [2]

    In the current environmental climate, it’s important to look at these aspects, not just how we as designers should reduce waste, but also prevent waste, and as you mentioned conservation is the best means of doing so. However, as you also touched on the attitude towards sustainability is more focused on the economic side of it, but what they miss is when this happens it often disregards not just the environmental sustainability, but also the social sustainability of a place. As mentioned by Kevin Lynch:
    ‘Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are consonantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own’ – Kevin Lynch (1960) [3]

    This gives extra weight to the argument of people developing the city for selfish reasons and not being considerate of everyone else, some people will just see space as what Kevin Lynch says in that quote, as just a ‘product’, a means to make profit and not a place of life. This disconnect is still dominant in design today, and the authority figures in charge need to ensure they look past the notion as structures as a product, and more so as the building blocks of millions of people’s stories.


    Evening Gazette (2018) Remember life ‘Over the Border’? These fascinating photos will remind you. [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 14/1/2020
    Evening Gazette (2019) The highs and lows of Middlehaven’s regeneration – did the ‘dream-maker’ succeed? [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 14/1/2020

    [2] Actavo (2019) Reasons why Modular is more sustainable than traditional. [Online]

    [3] Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city, Cambridge. p2

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