………..”the place from which we remember an event shapes how we remember it”
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Have been reflecting on the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre (UKHMLC) planning inquiry, which concluded last Friday. This was a watershed, not just for the unprecedented level of participation via YouTube live stream and Teams, but for the privilege of hearing personal experiences of survivors and their families, and the intellectual, creative and emotional exploration of memorialisation and the purposes it serves provided by the architecture and design team led by Sir David Adjaye.
The discourse was refracted through the prism of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and a further stand out was the way the Inspector and each of the legal advocates rose to the event. They maintained a depth and richness of argument, accommodated over 60 individual interested party statements,and in concluding statements showed town planning addressing emotionally challenging issues at the heart of civil society. The proposition that ‘the place from which we remember an event shapes how we remember it’ is not found in NPPF. Yet it was pivotal in this case and may become more so with the World Bank predicting internal climate migration of 143 million people by 2050 if no climate action is taken.
The controversial location chosen for the UKHMLC is the grade II register park at Victoria Tower Garden, which adjoins the south elevation of the grade I listed Palace of Westminster. It is part of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square Conservation Area and contributes to the setting of the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Church World Heritage Site. The Gardens contains a number of listed memorials, including the grade I Burghers of Calais by Rodin and the grade II* Buxton Memorial commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Britain in 1834.
Inevitably heritage significance and calibration of harm was closely contested. A great deal of evidence was presented by way of the standard matrix methodology, with heritage assets catalogued and ranked, the magnitude of impact defined and the significance of harm given a value, all based on a simple differential scale ranging from negligible to exceptional. This categorisation used a baseline of asset definitions and descriptions set out in designations, conservation area appraisals and the World Heritage Site Management Plan. Given the location and the immediate proximity to a great many designated heritage assets,the assessment provided a standard of evidence that was both exhaustive and of exceptional clarity. However, such a finely granular analysis, fully aligned to the required policy tests, inevitably verged towards the myopic and felt increasingly semantic when scheme proponents and objectors fell about each other with widely differing opinions on setting. So much so key issues were overlooked that were pertinent not only to the policy tests but also broader questions of curation of the historic environment.
Okay, few would view a dignified riverside historic park with a backdrop of a neo-Gothic architectural masterpiece and see instead a flood defence and sewer, let alone give weight to seemingly mundane issues of governance and public welfare that lie deeper still in the site historic narrative. Yet for all the highly distinguished veneer of designated heritage asset of architectural, landscape or art historical interest, the genesis of Victoria Tower Garden is firmly part of the monumental riverside embankments constructed along the Thames in the period 1860 to 1933.
Created by the first modern pan-London governance institutions, this is a direct legacy of successive environmental crisis resulting in mass fatalities. The achievement not only secured Londoners’ health and urban infrastructure but also rights of self-determination. The outcome is a unique form of public realm, comprising not just the Palace of Westminster, but also its flanking and opposing monumental riverscape, in an architectural panorama representing the pinnacle of UK civic society. This constantly shifting landscape of constructed state and civic identities remains a dynamic aspect of institutional governance in which citizens explore and contest cultural values in a national discourse that forges common purpose and identity.
I felt compelled to raise this point during the Inquiry and provided a statement as an interested party. My concluding point was that any consideration of heritage significance of the Thames Embankment and Victoria Tower Garden should recognise they are first and foremost a response to catastrophes that occurred due to ignorance or neglect. They constitute safeguards that, had robust civic institutions and accountable governance been in place, or if agencies had acted early enough, would have avoided unnecessary loss of life. Whether preventing infectious waterborne disease (as in the 1831-1866 cholera epidemics) or avoiding drowning (as in the floods due to the breach of the river walls in January 1928). In this sense the separate narratives inherent to location and holocaust memorial converged in powerful and numinous counterpoint, adding to the resonances achieved by placing the UKHMLC in physical and visual juxtaposition with the Palace of Westminster.
Whatever the outcome of the Inquiry I shall take a few key learning points. The first is that people-centred narratives need to be at the core of conservation practice. Secondly, process should not become so narrow and focussed that outcomes seem dogmatic, especially with reference to UNESCO's guidance on World Heritage Sites. Thirdly we are essentially making curatorial choices that need to articulate, with equivalent specificity to place, connections between assets and broader historic and cultural trends.
All three lessons were eloquently and powerful illustrated when Kate Olley and Christopher Katkowski QC presented concluding remarks on behalf of the appellant, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Whilst addressing the various policy tests, as these must inform the Inspector’s recommendation and ultimately the decision of the Secretary of State, the core of their summation was delivered in the form of quotations from the stories and testimony of the Holocaust survivors, their families and supporters, each bearing witness in a manner far removed from the conventional experts encountered at a planning inquiry.