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Old, tired, dilapidated…

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keep A bower quiet for us,


Regular readers know I’m a sucker for a beautiful building. It doesn’t really matter of it’s a modern one or a Gothic cathedral or an elegant Georgian terrace, as long as it’s beautiful and enhances its surroundings. That said, there’s something about the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London that makes my soul sing every time I see it. The Victorians really knew thing or two about putting one brick on top of another to great effect.

Which is why the press release from those protectors of our historical built environment The Victorian Society, made me sad this morning. The Society has released its list of the top 10 buildings in the country that are “crying out to be saved” (featured on the BBC this morning). But saved for what, exactly? Museum pieces? Offices? Fancy residential developments?

Some of them are absolutely gorgeous, others are lauded more for what they say about our heritage. All are shadows of their former selves. Most of them, sadly, are ill-equipped for the needs of our modern world.

Take the former office buildings of the John Summers Steelworks on the banks of the River Dee, for example. Its exterior is stunning and who wouldn’t want to live or work in surroundings like this, but that fact that it’s in such an industrial location complicates matters. Or the Winter Gardens, Great Yarmouth. Built in Torquay, the huge glass and iron structure was then relocated by barge to Great Yarmouth in 1904. Over the years, it’s been a ballroom, a roller-skating rink and a German beer garden.

The building that really caught my eye, however, is the former Legat Ballet School. It’s near where I grew up in Sussex, and I remember being fascinated by it as a child in the 70s. In my mind it was a bit like Mallory Towers, but with more dancing, and I was desperate to go there. At least until I realised that dancers invariably have an element of grace, poise and limb co-ordination about them, attributes which, alas, Mother Nature saw fit not to bestow upon me.

The problems that these building all share is that they just don’t fit with the way the modern world needs them to work. They’re too big, in the wrong location, with poky corridors and rooms that are either way too small or way too big, always assuming the interior structures are sound.

Modern buildings, whether we are living in them or working in them, need to be adequately heated, adequately ventilated and lit. They need cabling for our insatiable need for fast communication nd information, they need parking spaces to make up for the fact that the bus routes that once served them are long gone.

Most tellingly of all, they need a proper use and they need money. Lots of money. The sad fact is that most of these buildings fell into disuse before they fell into disrepair because there simply wasn’t the return on investment available to justify the cost of fitting them out to modern standards.

Sad, but true, I suspect.




About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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