THE BLOG
16/01/2012 17:44 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 05:12 GMT

How Far Should We Go in Sacrificing Our Heritage For 21st Century Enterprise?

Last month, Southwark Council approved plans for the complete redesign of London Bridge Station. As a result, a number of iconic London buildings are going to be demolished. It's not that we shouldn't be embracing change, but at what cost? Is the eradication of our heritage a sign of progress towards increasingly pressing demands or merely a blind move to generate revenue?

The buildings to be destroyed to make way for the brand spanking new glass and aluminium clad structure include the Britain at War Museum and the old South Eastern Railway offices on Tooley Street as well as a relocation of the Southwark Playhouse. Despite being met by stark opposition, the plans are going ahead, with Southwark Council arguing that a redevelopment of London Bridge Station is vital if London wants to keep up with the times and the changing needs of passengers. They argued that the station is becoming increasingly 'problematic' when it comes to train services and passenger circulation.

The redesign of the station includes three phases: a street-level concourse and a new shopping area. The second phase is the realignment of the railway tracks running through the station. The third aspect of the station redevelopment is the proposed series of undulating canopies above the new platforms. Each platform will be covered along its full length but there will be no overall station roof.

The station will be part of an overall regeneration project for the London Bridge area coined 'The London Bridge Quarter', which will be a brand new district to infuse life into an area that, according to Southwark Council, needs it.

The London Bridge Quarter will include 'The Shard', currently being built; will be Western Europe's tallest building at 310 metres high; reminding us of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, The Shard will also have a viewing platform, offices and a Shangri-La hotel. The complex will include a 40,000sq metre office building called 'The Place', along with the 'Public Realm', with 10,000 sq ft of landscaped gardens as well as a reconfigured bus station. The released plans depict a model that is similar to the redevelopment of King's Cross station and its surroundings. The new station is designed by Grimshaw architects and should be ready by 2018.

According to the London SE1 Community Website, the redevelopment plans caused an uproar with members of the public including Southwark-based architect Benedict O'Looney, chair of the borough's conservation areas advisory group, who is in favour of keeping the South Eastern Railway building which he said is "as good as any building you will find on the Grand Canal in Venice". Local historian Stephen Humphrey has also written to planning officers to plead in favour of keeping the South Eastern Railway offices: "The arguments put forward for a completely new structure do not stand up. In reality, the railway is seeking a new building because it is thought to look 'modern' and 'advanced'." He praised the building for its "warm and cheerful contribution" to the Tooley Street conservation area.

The Victorian Society has also been campaigning to keep the offices, which were built by Charles Barry Jr in 1893. Not only was Barry Jr part of an architectural legacy, his father having designed the Palace of Westminster, but he also designed London's 'Flatiron building', in homage to the iconic building of the same name in New York. Following the closure of South Eastern Railway in 1922, the building was reopened as the Churchill at War exhibition, a restaurant and a paintball complex. The society fought for listed status but it was rejected by the Heritage Minister last month.

Also part of the campaign to keep the Tooley Street offices is high-profile designer, Terence Conran. For him, "These buildings are too good to demolish - I am sure they have a quality that is irreplaceable today and should be reused". Furthermore, historic buildings and areas advisor Malcolm Woods wrote: "English Heritage recognises that the Thameslink [Programme] will deliver substantial public benefits and that Network Rail has put forward a proposal that meets their operational requirements and provides an improved environment for its customers. However, it has not shown to our satisfaction that the demolition of the 64-84 Tooley Street building is necessary to deliver such a station." Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton agrees with Woods: "I feel that in principle demolition of 64-84 Tooley Street constitutes a form of architectural vandalism".

The new London Bridge Station will undoubtedly generate huge revenue in the area, however, the locals have expressed that they want to hold on to London's essence in the shape of its original buildings as opposed to trying to catch up with some of the Middle Eastern giants like Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

This issue has caused quite a stir emotionally, psychologically and sociologically for many who are fond of London Bridge's historical heritage. However, despite the long list of opposers to the demolition of the old Southern Railway office building, which is part of what makes up London's quirky identity, the council seems adamant about moving forward and that, at any cost.