04 December 2013

Almost Lost: London's Buildings Loved and Loathed

New English Heritage Exhibition at Wellington Arch, 4 December 2013 - 2 February 2014.

From Covent Garden to Piccadilly Circus, Soho to Battersea Power Station, many of London's most treasured historic buildings and areas were once threatened with demolition. Several proposals over the last century would have irreversibly changed the face of the capital, including a 1950s conceptual scheme for a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho and proposals a decade later to 'replan' Whitehall by demolishing virtually all the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square. Using the latest digital technology, a new exhibition presents the London that might have been and considers how the latest developments in digital mapping can be used in the future.

The 1968 draft plan for Covent Garden

The 1968 draft plan for Covent Garden, called 'Covent Garden's moving' contained very few complete, legible views of what was proposed. This view shows the south-western corner of the Covent Garden area. Much concrete terracing would have been used, with the area pedestrianised. Apart from St Martin's in the Field, no other buildings in the area would have been retained. Aerial image courtesy of Blom.

'Almost Lost' considers how we can digitise, visualise and disseminate vast amounts of data to improve our understanding of historic places and proposed developments. It explores how digital maps, models and animations can be used to combine and analyse effectively all the information considered in the planning process, and so help both communities and heritage professionals better understand our historic environment.

For the first time, the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), the register of all listed buildings, scheduled monuments, conservation areas, registered parks, gardens and battlefields, has been animated. On the animation, more than 400,000 of England's historic places which are recognised with designation are plotted on a map. From the first sites taken into guardianship, to the latest buildings added to the NHLE, this journey through heritage protection demonstrates the wealth of data curated by English Heritage, accessible to all online and enabling everyone to connect with the historic environment around them in a new way.

Digital animations in the exhibition reveal areas of London developing before our eyes showing what has been lost alongside what has survived. A model of 1840's Bloomsbury allows visitors to explore the area's development over the decades using 'Augmented Reality' on iPads which are passed over the model and display digital maps of the place as it was and as it is now.

One of the stories explored using a digital reconstruction on Google Earth is that of Covent Garden and the 1968 development plan. The local community rallied against plans to demolish vast parts of this now vibrant area led, somewhat intriguingly, by one of the planners who had worked on the original demolition proposals. Alongside the new digital aspect, the exhibition reveals that without the perseverance of thousands of individuals and organisations passionate about conservation who campaigned to save threatened places, recorded those that were lost and helped drive through protective legislation, much more of the city we know today would be lost or irreparably altered.

The 1954 conceptual scheme for Soho

The 1954 conceptual scheme for Soho, by Geoffrey Jellicoe, Ove Arup and Edward Mills which was published in the Architect and Building News, commissioned by Pilkington's Glass Age Development Committee which had been set up in the 1930s to stimulate new ideas in architecture and glass. The scheme used Soho to explore new structural possibilities and issues of housing density, traffic growth and the depopulation of city centres.

'Almost Lost' also features Pigeon-Sim. Created by the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Pigeon-Sim provides a birds-eye view of the capital's historic buildings and places with an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city, allowing visitors to soar above the London we have chosen to save. The models and animations in 'Almost Lost' demonstrate how new technology can be used to record what has been lost or almost lost, and so guide current and future debate about what should be saved.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: "Almost Lost tells the story of how lucky we have been. Thanks to the campaigning efforts of our predecessors we still have a beautiful city to enjoy. While we don't face the wholesale destruction of the 1960s and 70s we still face problems today and the sort of technology we demonstrate in the exhibition is part of the modern armoury of conservation."

Curated by Polly Hudson, the founder of The Building Exploratory charitable trust, 'Almost Lost: London's Buildings Loved and Loathed' is a collaboration between many private and public sector organisations, alongside a number of universities.