How should heritage decisions be made?

College Court, Leicester: Processes and Rules versus Intuition and Interaction

college-court-leicesterJenny Timothy and Rebecca Madgin

The significance of a listed building is often imagined as a stable and fixed part of the planning process. However in College Court the collaboration between a Conservation Officer and a team of architects and developers saw the building’s meaning become more and more explicit through the process of working together. Social and emotional dynamics underpinned an iterative negotiation, in place of rules or any simple moment of ‘decision’.

‘They did all the stuff that you need to do for your application, so the statement of significance and the justification and what was happening (yet the building’s significance) never felt like it was explicit, it kind of seemed to grow as you went along; and it wasn’t actually until it was kind of all finished and we were stood there that people actually then started to explicitly say, actually this is really important, it’s a really beautiful piece of architecture, it’s a really nice building. But all the way along you could feel people’s attachment to the building growing, and the understanding of the significance of the building growing; and by turn, how much they cared about it kind of growing’.

Our past is governed by numerous rules acts of parliament, policies, local and national. There has been a system put in place to manage them, the planning system. But these rules and regulations are not an end in themselves rather they have been formulated to protect things that we, as a society, consider important. But this system is often vilified and in recent years has undergone attempts to streamline and improve it through new rules and regulations.

College Court in Leicester is a Grade II listed building designed by renowned architects Sir Leslie Martin and Trevor Dannatt in the 1960s. The building has recently been converted into a conference centre. It is successful, if you measure success by awards, business and Trip Advisor reviews. We wanted to interrogate the complexity behind the successful £17.5 million project and to understand the ways in which the personalities involved had navigated the planning system. This research strand explored the decision-making processes that informed the adaptive re-use of the listed building through site visits, content analysis of interviews with the key players, documentary analysis of the various planning documents and ongoing conversations.

One of the most interesting things is how little the planning system was mentioned as a driver in the process. What came across was the system as a blunt tool to help achieve a final outcome. For everyone involved it appeared to be more about working through practicalities on a personal and professional level than following ‘the letter of the law’. In fact no-one was even sure what the ‘letter of the law’ was, even those whose job it was to enforce it!

Another theme running through the interviews was people’s emotional response to both the project and the building and how this governed their responses, and their perception of other people’s responses. This is interesting as arguably the planning system was put in place as a reaction to people’s positive emotional responses to their past. But it is a system which tries to take emotion out of the decision-making process, making the subjective objective, it tries to make decision-making fair and transparent. But the biggest criticism of the planning system is that it is neither of those things.

Reflecting on this project made the team realise the role of emotion in decision-making. At times this was raw emotion at unveiling the beauty of the building during its stages of adaptation whilst at other times it was an emotion drawn out by decisions based on a unconscious feeling about the building. Interestingly these decisions were not explicit as the distinction between emotion and the rational action of a professional became blurred. One of the interviewees summed this up by stating:

‘I learned about historic buildings and architecture because I loved it and was passionate about it and wanted to learn more…I’ve stood there and it just it feels quite natural and iterative, but it is backed up by ten years of training and fifteen years of experience, and years of just general interest and reading books and doing that. So there is a definite background, but I think if I stopped and thought about it I think I would scare myself so I don’t.’

The project has left the team with much further reflection to take into our next projects. We are left asking: Does this prove that the planning system doesn’t work? Even when a project is judged a success is it more down to the people involved that the official processes? Or does the system give a framework to decision-making, allowing for compromise and flexibility, rather than a strict list of rights and wrongs? Is it down to how people apply the system? Who’s to say that with a different set of people, on a different day this successful project might may have failed? One thing is for certain though; the reflective research design has made the unconscious conscious through revealing that the emotion of working with a heritage building is a driver in the decision-making process.

 

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