If buildings could talk: Deep Listening

“John Ruskin once remarked that every good building must do two things: firstly, it must shelter us. And secondly, it must talk to us, talk of all the things that we think of as most important and that we need to be reminded of on a regular basis”

~ Foreword by Alain de Botton to ‘Architectural Voices Listening to Old Buildings’ by David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis

Speak to any conservation architect and they will say that the only starting point for any heritage-led building project is to gain a thorough understanding of all the aspects of value on the site. Without this understanding, decisions about the future of that place shouldn’t be made.

The heritage value can be rooted in all kinds of aspects. These include the historic materials, how the building communicates the aesthetics of the period and its function, key moments in history, what it tells us about the people who built it, and also what it tells us about people and communities today.

When we listen to buildings

Given the right consideration, the building will talk to us.

If you have read some of my previous blog posts, you will know the research into a site is one of the things I find the most rewarding and valuable about my role.

My constant curiosity about our historic built environment extends into other aspects of understanding a place. I interrogate why it might have declined, what is stopping it from reaching its potential, who are the people that have valued it through its life, who values it right now, and who is missing from that picture and why.

In my day-to-day conservation architect role, this research and understanding is typically used to guide an assessment of the appropriate level of physical change that can be proposed to bring a site back into use.

But this ‘deep listening’ to the site and its custodians can go beyond the bricks and mortar. It offers an opportunity for me to use my insight into the stories of the place in other ways.

Deep listening at Islington Mill

A recent example of this was at Islington Mill, where I started working with the team in 2017. I was initially brought on board to write a Heritage Values Statement (funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund)

Creating Our Climate by Rebecca Smith.

The Statement articulated the key aspects of the site that are of heritage value. To do this I undertook research into the historic development of the site, and placed that in a regional and national context of historic mill development.

As I spoke to the directors of Islington Mill and some of its occupants, I started to understand that the value of the site was not only in its long 200-year history. It was also in the more recent custodianship and its eclectic use as artist studios.

The ‘deep listening’ that I committed to as part of this initial piece of work put me in a somewhat unique position to articulate the full value of Islington Mill, its tangible and intangible heritage. This was particularly helpful when the mill team started to pull together the application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

This kind of understanding of what is important about the heritage of the site, and also what is important to its current custodians and its community, is a crucial aspect for The National Lottery Heritage Fund in their consideration of projects.

Workshop-ing the National Lottery Heritage Fund Activity Plan with the Islington Mill team.

From listening to activity

The work I did to collate the diverse aspects of value at Islington Mill enabled me to provide the additional role of writing the Activity Plan to support the Lottery application. The Activity Plan brought together proposals of how we could engage existing and new audiences through the heritage of the site.

The initial research had indicated lots of opportunities for us to strengthen our understanding of the site through a number of projects which I will delve into in Part 2 of this blog. I further supported the team through the delivery of the Activity Plan and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to date.

Through it I witnessed ephemeral stories (which could easily have been lost) be given their true value. These stories connected communities past and present and further strengthened the sense of place at Islington Mill.

Visual scribe-ing the ‘deep listening’ and bringing together the heritage aims and objectives (credit Jack McConnell)

I’m looking forward to being able to take all the lessons learnt from working on the Activity Plan at Islington Mill into current projects such as the next phase of the Castlefield Viaduct and Ron’s Place, amongst others.

Deep listening adds value to heritage projects

And I would relish the opportunity to work with other heritage organisations who are looking for this kind of help. Perhaps it’s not a typical role for a conservation architect to provide. But I know that my understanding of place and history, alongside an ability to listen and connect to communities, means I can add a significant amount of value to the process.

The directors of Islington Mill explain: “When we started our heritage journey, we thought it was all about restoring the bricks and mortar of the building.

“Working with Bernadette, we discovered it is about restoring the cultural identity of Salford as a City Of Makers that has provided the creative lifeblood to the industries of Salford and Greater Manchester for over 200 years. That is our heritage and our future.”

Visual scribe-ing the ‘deep listening’ and bringing together the heritage aims and objectives (credit Jack McConnell)

In Part 2 of this blog I’ll share more about how we gained a deeper understanding of the site through projects such as researching the site’s social history and engaging with artists through storytelling.

Some of the projects that we developed and shared during the delivery of the Activity Plan at Islington Mill are currently on show at the exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery ‘Islington Mill – 200 years in the making’. Open until 25 February 2024.

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