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Archaeology and development

Sir Stuart Lipton
11 June 2001

Sir Stuart Lipton, CABE chair (1999 - 2004), talks about the tensions between the demands of the archaeologist and those of the developer.

Nowhere in Britain is subject to quite the same process of eternal renewal as the City of London. I have been responsible for quite a bit of it. To some extent this renewal is an archaeologist's dream: it provides endless opportunities for investigation and discovery in one of the most archeologically rich urban landscapes in Europe. The recent demolition of the Bowring Tower at Tower Hill and to an even greater extent Plantation House have bared acres of land, all of them potential repositories of hidden treasures.

At the same time, these acres are prime real estate. In a fairly feverish property market they cannot remain fallow for long. And so there are also frustrations for the archaeologist, arising from tensions between his demands and those of the developer. The saga of the Rose Theatre in the late eighties exemplified those tensions perfectly.

Fortunately, many of us modern developers are enlightened souls, prepared to sacrifice a quick buck in the interests of fuller documentation of what lies beneath - and perhaps permanent preservation of especially important remains. Many developers would be prepared without compulsion to accommodate and even contribute financially to archaeological investigations. This has been necessary over the years, because although archaeological monuments were the subject of some of the earliest conservation legislation in the UK, dating back to the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882, preservation has often depended on good management practice among sympathetic owners. This has not always been forthcoming. Post-war rescue archaeology in historic cities was only intermittently successful and the economic and social demand for urban renewal and new housing in the 50s and 60s were powerful forces which easily outweighed archaeological interests. It is notable that under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, archaeological considerations were given very little weight in the preparation of strategic plans or in specific development control decisions. This had predictable consequences. In 1972 the site of Baynard's Castle in the City was destroyed with very limited excavation. The building in 1973 of the underground car park for the House of Commons caused the unrecorded destruction of a large part of the original Palace of Westminster.

We are, as I say, much nearer the point now where archaeological concerns are given the priority they deserve, thanks in part to a reaction against those early abuses and the issuing of guidance such as PPG16 on planning and archaeology. The subtitle of the Museum of London's own book, Archaeology and Development: a record of cooperation [1989, in association with Speyhawk] sums up the more conciliatory approach of the past twenty years.

But excavation itself is only part of the story. The separate question of preservation comes later and raises its own difficulties. Preservation of ruins is a difficult thing to do well. This is true whether they are above ground or below ground. Most of us would agree that it was the right decision to rebuild the bombed City Churches after the War. St Dunstan in the East is one of the few that remains a shell and is, I suggest, a success, having acquired a romantic and picturesque quality. But it is the exception that proves the rule that restoration is generally the better option. Christ Church Newgate Street shows the more usual pitfalls of leaving things as ruins.

For older remains, full restoration is not of course possible. What then do we do? Do we cover the remains again, to be rediscovered by future archaeologists? Do we reconfigure the perimeter line of the new building, to allow the ruin to stand open to the air? This was done for the Temple of Mithras at Bucklersbury, albeit a little grudgingly - you may agree that the Temple stands a bit forlorn in an unsympathetic environment, though we may have the opportunity to rectify that soon with the long overdue redevelopment of Bucklersbury House. Or do we seal the remains as if in a time capsule, allowing glimpses from within and around the building? That was the compromise solution for the Rose Theatre and again it is not wholly satisfactory.

There is probably no universally perfect solution. Different circumstances require different responses. What is essential, though, is that enough time is given within the development timetable to allow the best solution to emerge. And the developer should be amenable enough to allow that the requirements of posterity may not entirely correspond with his immediate financial interests - and act accordingly. With a bit of give on both sides, differences should be reconcilable. And where there is a particular pressure to build, as there often is in the City of London, perhaps an architectural quality test should be applied. Much as we have a right to expect that if a historic building is to be demolished, its replacement should be an example of architectural excellence, so we should expect that new buildings covering significant archaeological finds should represent the very best in contemporary design. That in itself might do something to ratchet up the quality of new development in the City. We should not sacrifice ancient remains below ground for the sake of short-lived dross above it.