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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Homage to Highbury

By Lisa Jardine

What should we do with buildings which no longer serve their original purpose?

Arsenal Football Club played its last game at its Highbury Stadium last week. Next season they move to their new Emirates Stadium a short walk away. The day before the final match I joined the thousands wandering around Highbury, paying homage.

Dads clutched small children dressed in Arsenal strips by the hand, as they gazed intently up at the facade of the great East Stand. There was an eerie, respectful hush, broken only by the clicking of many cameras. The iconic building was the object of an almost reverential attention - filled to overflowing with memories, the bricks and mortar in the process of becoming history.

Lisa Jardine
Lisa Jardine says goodbye to Highbury
In the press, former players recalled how amazed they had been by the 1930s state-of-the art facilities: the high ceilings in the bathrooms, the under-heated floors. They remembered having been bowled over by its scale.

"I'll never forget my first sight of Highbury." Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson reminisced, "I remember coming down this tiny street opposite the main stand and thinking: 'That's unbelievable.' I was in awe. I have always said Highbury is a Cathedral, not a football ground."

Something about the sheer extravagance and scale of a building like Highbury fills the onlooker with wonder. We are dwarfed by its grandeur. It draws us in, towards the greater group which congregates there and succeeds in filling the huge space- physically, and with the roar of their collective voices.

I confess that, for me, that feeling of humility on approaching man-made structures on a grand scale is the same whether the space in question is secular or sacred.

Soaring architecture

My heart soars as I stand beneath Michelangelo's dome at St Peter's Basilica in Rome, or contemplate the dramatic skyline silhouette of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul or as I wander down the massive ramp into the former turbine hall, at Tate Modern in London.

For many in Britain, the image conjured up at the mention of "great iconic buildings" is likely to be London's St Paul's Cathedral. The image in question may well be one, especially memorable one - the dome of the Cathedral illuminated by searchlights, during the night of 29 December 1940, at the height of the Blitz, in World War two, captured by photographer Herbert Mason from the roof of the nearby Daily Mail building.

Wreathed in billowing smoke, amidst the chaos and destruction of war, the pale dome stands proud and glorious - indomitable. At the height of that air-raid, Sir Winston Churchill telephoned the Guildhall to insist that all fire-fighting resources be directed at St Paul's. The cathedral must be saved, he said damage to the fabric would sap the morale of the country.

Even before Churchill's intervention, the Cathedral authorities knew that the greatest threat to the survival of St Paul's was that of fire. It was decided to set up a company of fire-watchers, to keep watch for incendiary bombs.

An appeal went out to the Royal Institute of British Architects for volunteers, and an astonishing roll-call of intellectuals responded. In addition to well-known architects, it included prominent figures from the arts like John Betjeman, and some of the most distinguished historians of the day.


They kept vigil in shifts, nightly, sleeping in a command centre in the crypt. There is a wonderful 1942 photograph of them all, up on the roof of the Cathedral, posed awkwardly in rows in their tin hats, with their fire-fighting equipment laid out on the parapet in front of them.

There was an eerie, respectful hush, broken only by the clicking of many cameras. The iconic building was the object of an almost reverential attention
Lisa Jardine

In spite of their efforts, St Paul's did not escape unscathed. On 10 October 1940 a 500 pound bomb penetrated the choir, demolishing the high altar. Early in the morning of 17 April 1941 a direct hit on the north transept destroyed the vaulted roof over the crypt, punching a hole through the cathedral floor and caused quite shocking damage below.

The mess was hastily cleared up and the damage to the fabric patched immediately, under the most difficult circumstances -- most people never knew.

When I mentioned the bomb damage in a public lecture on Wren's St Paul's recently, a number of those in my audience were quite indignant that their cherished myth of the wartime indestructibility of St Paul's should be thus challenged.

But a lady in her late sixties came up to me afterwards to say that, the morning after the damage to the high altar, aged six, she had been carried into the Cathedral on her fire-warden father's shoulders. "Take a look and remember", he told her. "You will never, ever hear about this again."

Arsenal's Highbury is to be preserved - its iconic status for football fans world-wide acknowledged by keeping intact the familiar East and West Stands, with their glorious art-deco iron- and plaster-work, ornament and lettering.

Sense of purpose

A leading firm of architects, working closely with English Heritage, will transform the stadium into blocks of one- and two-bedroom apartments. The first residents will move in in 2008.

St Paul's
St Paul's Cathedral survived the war and remains a London landmark

Finding a new use for a redundant landmark building brilliantly serves a double purpose. It honours and celebrates the enduring sentiments a much-loved monument evokes, while once again making it a beacon for fresh activity - giving it back a purpose.

This week English Heritage launched a campaign, wittily entitled "Inspired!", aimed at saving tens of thousands of places of worship nationwide which are in urgent need of repair. Most of these are parish churches.

Most of them have dwindling congregations. English Heritage is sounding alarm-bells to warn us that the fabric of these much-loved local landmarks is in danger of deteriorating beyond hope of repair.

In their five-point plan to rescue much-loved landmarks across the British Isles, alternative use for the buildings is treated as a desperate last measure. I think English Heritage needs to be bolder.


On his way into the final game this week, one Arsenal football fan said of his beloved Highbury that, although he would no longer be cheering his team on in the Highbury stands: "It's still a legacy, standing forever." He had no qualms about celebrating his beloved Arsenal Stadium in its promised new incarnation.

I think English Heritage could count on a similarly upbeat attitude on the part of church congregations. They could encourage small congregations to combine with neighbouring parishes in a shared place of worship - after all, having to travel to a nearby village to use a bank or post a letter has been a reality of rural life for many years.

A precious, listed parish church could then seek other sources of funding and then be adapted to provide (for example) a congenial meeting place for all members of the community, a library, a performance space

After the Great Fire of London of 1666, a total of 86 City churches were destroyed. Times had changed, the Corporation of London decided, parishes could be consolidated. Only 39 City churches were included in the rebuilding plans.

Proceeds from the sale of the sites of those churches not rebuilt and from the sale of their churchyards were added to the Coal Tax revenue to provide more ample funds. The result was the sublime Wren masterpieces which remain the glory of the London cityscape today.

We need to think creatively today, if we are to preserve our architectural heritage. The first of those City churches to be embarked upon by Wren, in 1671, was St Nicholas Cole Abbey. The building was badly damaged in the second world war, and subsequently entirely reconstructed. Today it stands empty and redundant.

An ingenious architectural scheme has been proposed, creating a free-standing glass box inside the shell of the church, and transforming it into a set of attractive, airy spaces for educational uses. The church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey will acquire new life and new purpose. Like Arsenal's Highbury its beauty and grandeur will continue to arrest our attention and make our spirits soar. It will be filled with memories, rich in history, a source of inspiration for those who enter, those who pause "in awkward reverence", and those who simply pass by.

The UK is becoming a giant museum. I can't believe some of the slums that have been given listed building status. Buildings like Highbury and Battersea Power Station should be knocked down. They have served their purpose. We are clinging onto too much of our past. As a nation we need to look much more to the future.
Kevin, Camberley UK

Due to falling congregation numbers the old St.Mary's church in Nottingham became run down and then abandoned. It was recently restored (at great expense) and converted into (a very nice) bar. A beautiful building has been saved and is now self funding. Chucking money at churches with a 10 person congregation is a waste of cash that can be better spent elsewhere.
Peter, Nottingham

The Soviet Union embraced this philosophy.Many churches and cathedrals became museums. They even converted one church into a swimming pool! The Soviet Union is no more. The swimming pool is once again a cathedral and Russia's churches are full again, only this time the congregation is young.
Darel Stutters, Waterlooville Hants

It depends on the circumstances, In the case of Highbury they should knock the whole lot down. It's a blot on the landscape and could be put to far better use whilst being much more aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes sentiment gets in the way of good progress, there needs to be a better way of judging things. Also what is beatiful to one person may not be to the next, it's so subjective.
Alan, Basildon

I have always liked the re-use of 'Bedlam' Bethlehem Hospital. The mad house was turned into the Imperial war Museum.
Gordon Cooke, London

If we knock down every building that has 'served it's purpose' we'll lose that connection to our past - and despite what some people seem to think, our history is just as important as our present and our future. Leaving them empty and decaying is definitely a pointless waste, but with some imagination they can all be converted to serve a new, useful purpose.
Emily, London

Re: Kevin, Camberley UK. Your comments regarding Battersea Poere Station are typical of those who have no idea about the place or the area in which it is located. Removing it, for many in the area, would be akin to flattening York's minster, just because it's old. The power station was, and still is, the biggest brick building in Europe and, even after the wanton vandalism and negelect of the Thatcher years, still stands proud, dominating the local landscape. Without it, there is no Battersea!
John Gallagher, Battersea, England

I have long thought that buildings should be like postage stamps; used, then thrown away. Naturally if re-cycling a building makes sense from the point of view sensible resource management then fine, but just to keep a building because it is old, or the first, or designed by a famous architect seems to me completely pointless.
Jeremy, Kettering. England.

Biggest problem that I can see with old buildings is that we keep the structure for historic reasons but strip out the core. Surely a power station as an item of historic interest is of no longer any value once the boilers and generators have gone? This is the same over the whole of the UK. Try going to Chatham Dockyard where there were acres of machine shops with engineering plant in all shapes and forms. There is nothing left. Not even a token toward the engineering skills of 250 years. Sad that our or future generations can only see the crumbling fabric not the true point of the place.
David Tutt, Chatham Kent UK

Giving hideous buildings such as the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester listed status demonstrates how monstrosities are kept around. Buildings should find new use or be demolished. All around Manchester one sees beautiful new architecture, and the "toilet" that was the Arndale being covered over by a new facade. This is called progress!
Dan Abbott, Manchester UK

Lets not forget that churches in the UK receive no funding from the government whatsoever, and are only maintained by the people in their congregations. It therefore strikes me as being pretty ignorant and insensitive to say to these dedicated congregations that they should simply "team up" with another church somewhere else for practical purpose, so that the historic building they have been preserving can be turned into a bar! If people cared enough about preserving these buildings in the original condition and for the purposes for which they were built, then why not attend a service and give a donation to the collection box?
Jon Clarke, London, Uk

When Southampton FC left The Dell in 2001 the old stadium was demolished to make way for flats. A sad end to a building that gave me and thousands of others many happy memories. Thanks to Mr Prescott's vision to bulldoze the entire South many old buildings in Southampton are being pulled down to make way for endless blocks of flats. It seems Prescott wants to erase our history, I bet it's not as bad in his beloved North.
Steve Reynolds, Southampton

Knock it down. Too many buildings are listed and kept for no real reason. There should also be a process for de-listing buildings, and an obligation for the state to contribute to the upkeep of listed buildings. This would make people think more carfully about what is listed.
Timothy Pillinger, Birmingham

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