Friday, 2 November 2007

Smithfield's future hanging in the balance

A Public inquiry into the future of some of London’s most priceless buildings opens on Tuesday next week.

The three buildings, which once formed part of the world-famous Smithfield meat market, are threatened with demolition as part of the redevelopment of this desirable area on the fringe of the City district.

The controversy surrounds proposals to demolish the attractive General Market building and most of the Annexe Market.

These characterful and historic properties, which belong to the City of London Corporation, are due to make way for new, high-rise glass and steel office buildings similar to those overshadowing much of the City of London.

The CLC’s argument in favour of demolition is based on several factors including the cost of repairs, public safety and convenience, the lack of a practical alternative and other arguments. The General Market is not a listed building due to the fact that, following damage in the Second World War, it lost its old towers and the subsequent restoration was inexact.

Paddy Pugh, regional director of English Heritage which is opposing the redevelopment, said: “The General Market falls just short of being listable by a fraction because it took some war damage and was not rebuilt like for like. Even so it is a building that makes a positive contribution to the general character of the area.”

Also on the danger list is the Annexe Market, about which a similar argument could be made. This has the potential to be transformed into a unique residential and retail environment which would be an added attraction to the local area. Inside the Annexe Market and still visible by peering through its coverings is a collection of ‘inner’ houses covered by a cast-iron roofing and separated by narrow ‘streets’. Indeed, the Annexe Market was called The Village by traders who used it.

The last of the three buildings under threat is one of the world’s earliest cold stores. This is no ordinary fridge, not even by American standards.

The Red House is a Grade II listed building and therefore, under the CLC proposals, the façade will be retained. The interior, however, will be demolished and a new glass and steel ‘intervention’ structure will be installed, rising above the existing highly decorative Baroque façade and, in the view of Mr Pugh, at an inappropriate height.

English Heritage has appointed the DPP planning consultancy as one of six expert witnesses to oppose the redevelopment by Thornfield Properties. The founder of Urban Space Management, Eric Reynolds, an expert in the subject, is one of the witnesses.

Reynolds has been involved in the successful redevelopment of similar London market and community areas including Spitalfields and Camden Lock.

English Heritage will also be calling renowned architect Sir Terry Farrell. The body has created a small exhibition
explaining the history with visuals of the desired redevelopment.

Arguably the loss of these buildings could set a precedent for the future of the Smithfield market building itself. The
markets in fish, fruit and flowers have all left central London for more suitable venues on the outskirts. Large goods vehicles pose less of a problem in such outposts and at Smithfield, such traffic is arguably an
undesirable side-effect of the meat market whose sustainability has been called into question by Defra.

At the same time Smithfield’s contribution to the special character of the area is unquestionable. This character is deeply rooted in history with buildings such as Abbey Church, which dates as far back as the Conquest. St Bartholomew’s Hospital is another medieval institution of venerable repute while the Smithfield market itself is a great 19th-century structure of sturdy Victorian design.

The entire area around Smithfield has in fact seen a spontaneous regeneration over the past 10 years and is now packed with small and often creative workshops and outlets such as fashion designers, unique local shops and
interesting restaurants such as the classic Smiths café opposite the meat market and located in a former warehouse.

Mr Pugh said: “The new Crossrail link will make the area even more desirable, which is good, but together with the
constant outward push of the City, which is very much in evidence in the Liverpool Street area, if we are not careful we will see an extension of the monoculture of office buildings which could inflict huge damage on the area.” The exhibition, which is open to the public, presents the alternative. Images of the proposed restored buildings are displayed together with a film voicing the concerns of local people who love the area as well as the architectural fraternity.

The most eloquent warning came from George Ferguson, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who said: “Smithfield is a wonderful, vibrant area with a lot of independent businesses and that great tradition of markets which still imbues the area with so much activity. The march of the City office blocks over Farringdon Road is a very dangerous march.”

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