Dockyards

by robertmcnicol

Hello both. You’ll be thrilled to hear that I’ve (more or less) settled on a subject for the dissertation. The next six months will be a rollercoaster ride following the rabbit down the plug hole of post-Naval redevelopment. Lured by majestic masonry and impressive ironwork we’ll be figuring out what to do with all those victualling yards you’ve had stashed behind the sofa since the mid Eighteenth century.

Why Naval sites? In many ways it fits in to the longer-term theme that you’ll have been exposed to as regular readers of how we treat our existing architecture; it’s all very well delighting in quoins and corbels but unless we can find ways to use our architecture then we’re effectively living in ruined states or museum cities (which is not to say that a certain amount of redundancy isn’t a necessary lubricant to the change that cities need). It’s no secret that the MoD have been selling off significant parcels of land over the last, what, fifteen years, and that this is only going to accelerate – so there’s a number of interesting sites around – and crucially there’s invariably decent, if not splendid, Georgian or Victorian architecture involved. Or if we’re talking Greenwich (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be) then you might find a little work by some jobbing Baroque architect called Christopher:

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So there’s the architecture, which is usually grand and imposing whilst having a thoroughly practical purpose. It’s clear from this view of the Royal William Yard in Plymouth that these impressive structures were efficiently designed for – in this case – loading ships with food and drink:

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Geographically speaking, there’s the seaside connection (the specialism for my Masters is “coastal” planning) but – to my mind more interestingly – the urban connection. It’s not the worst generalisation to say that for most of the history of civilisation, cities were ports, and you still don’t find big naval bases in the middle of the countryside. Well, except in Scotland.

The reprioritisation of cities under Major’s and then (more significantly) Blair’s terms of office coincided nicely with the sale of many a prime waterfront plot from the Navy, and – whilst the facts on the ground have often led to unexpected delays – we now have many cities and towns that have found a use for these sites, from the houses squished around each other at Chatham, or the recommandeered fine quarters of Woolich Arsenal to the Urban Splashed bits of Plymouth or the leisure destinations of Portsmouth.

Still, some sites remain untouched. Sheerness seems very much to be the runt of the Naval litter, with a cluster of officers’ houses, a church and quite a bit of industrial warehousing now being rudely ignored by everyone, perhaps fearful of the explosives sunk with the SS Richard Montgomery. More likely, it’s in a part of Kent with lame transport links and zero culture. A more intriguing site is Haslar hospital, which hasn’t been able to cut the sort of breaks that other more central sites in Portsmouth have.

The dissertation, of course, can’t cover all the sites and all the issues. But at this early stage my interest is piqued by a whole load of questions.

  • Why do some sites get redeveloped and not others?
  • How much public sector involvement is crucial in providing a framework for redeveloping around (including, of course, the cost of repairing old buildings)? 
  • What influence do local people have?
  • What value does historic architecture bring to a site, and when is it more help than hindrance?
  • Is the history of a site more than an asset for heritage tourism?
  • Can we consider former naval bases a tabula rasa, and – if so – does this make them unusual?
  • Is the consolidation and abandonment of Naval bases further sign of the de-industrialisation of the UK?
  • Can these sites ever give us an opportunity for social justice, or are all regen attempts bound to end in gentrification?

Just a few small questions, then. Anyway, I’ll try to keep up my posts on what I find, including some actual real-life photographs of buildings and stuff.

 

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