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Wednesday30 July 2014

The Marquis of Lansdowne

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Is the proposed demolition of the Geffrye Museum’s adjacent pub an unforgivable vanity?

The Geffrye Museum in London is not an obvious candidate for controversy. It is a much loved institution known for its period rooms and gardens. Its education programme is widely admired. And yet, somehow, the museum has got itself into a terrible mess. The story of this debacle is instructive, if only to show what happens when institutions, dazzled by big building projects, forget their purpose.

Calling itself a ‘Museum of the Home’, the Geffrye exists to foster an understanding of our domestic environments and to show changing styles in the architecture, decoration and furniture of the London home. Essentially, it is a museum about place, and those aspects of design which shape our immediate surroundings and define a sense of who we are. 

Part of the charm and poignancy of the museum is its location and context. It occupies a delightful group of early 18th-century almshouses in Hackney, about a mile from the City of London, in an area much degraded by post-war clearance. In recent decades the enlightened approach has been to rescue and repair surviving buildings and terraces, returning life and beauty to once doomed streets.

Marquis of Lansdowne

Source: William Palin

Marquis of Lansdowne

So here’s the bombshell - as part of £13.2m David Chipperfield-designed expansion project the trustees of the Geffrye want to flatten the 1830s Marquis of Lansdowne pub, a charming corner building at the rear of the site. The former pub (which is in a conservation area) is one of the few historic ‘anchors’ for visitors arriving by train at the new Hoxton station. It has an estimated market value of over £400,000 and is ripe for repair and integration into the new museum extension. Sadly, however, what to most people (including the 600-odd who have signed an on-line petition) is a valuable local survival, with a rich social history and great potential, the Geffrye sees as a worthless pile of bricks. It is, to borrow a phrase from the great historian and frequenter of east end pubs, Ian Nairn, ‘unforgivable blindness’.

The justification for demolition is laughable - it is apparently all about access ramps and floor levels for visitor circulation. In reality, the site is easily big enough for both Chipperfield and the Marquis. I would suggest that the real motivation for demolishing the pub is the fear, on the part of part client and architect, that its retention will somehow undermine the impact of the new building. Unforgivable vanity?

Marquis of Lansdowne

Source: William Palin

Marquis of Lansdowne

Everything about the proposed demolition is wrong. Anyone who knows and understands the east end, realises that it is buildings like the Marquis of Lansdowne that define its urban and social character. Pubs are touchstones, they are embedded in the collective memories of communities. The Geffrye should be exploring these connections and opening up the history of the building for visitors. That is not only the function of the museum but its duty. The fact that it should even consider destroying something real to make room for reconstructed displays or other educational material is absurd. 

The final irony of course is that should the scheme go ahead (it is due to go to planning shortly), the Heritage Lottery Fund would be paying for the destruction of the pub as part of an £11m grant. Given the potential for embarrassment, it is extraordinary that the HLF has not pulled the plug already. It must now use its influence to steer the museum away from demolition or, rightly, face a barrage of criticism.

William Palin lives locally. He is a trustee of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust and former Secretary of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

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Readers' comments (6)

  • Single Aspect

    Benny Green speaking at the junction of Stanhope and Robert Street in Euston from "London not quite the place" 1975
    "This bollard stands at the heart of what was once a notorious north London slum. Rat infested, bug ridden, no coals in the bath the locals couldn't afford coals, or baths. That was only twenty five years ago and yet all that's left is this bollard. Now I don't know if the past was any better, from what I remember it probably deserved to go under simply because it was too ignoble to survive. But now just look around you, the only trouble is that when you reshape a townscape as drastically as this, then you also reshape the lives of the people who live in it.

    I wonder what would a farmer do if he opened his door one morning and found that someone had removed the valley. Under the circumstances probably the most sensible thing to do would be to go mad, and some people do.

    See the only proof any of us have that we ever passed this way, are the pubs and the clubs and the flats and the houses and the shops that we once passed time in. Well here, every scrap of evidence has been destroyed, and the links with the past have been snapped, except for this [touches bollard, scene ends]."

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  • It doesn't look like it was ever a nice pub, or that - given the state of it - it could be even turned into one.

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  • I wouldn't blame Chipperfield; in other contexts he has demonstrated great skill at combining new architecture with old.

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  • Good article, and nice comment from Single Aspect.

    The pub is an East End survivor and represents an inner city fabric all but destroyed across much of the country - exactly what the Geffrye exists to evoke. Heritage lottery money, architectural talent and conservation expertise could surely combine here to better effect?

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  • Robert Park

    Wouldn't it be fantastic if the Geffrye used the building to recreate the exterior and interior of an authentic Georgian pub. Complete with heritage ales and fare. I would certainly make the journey to visit that attraction.

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  • The East End is full of invasive, unattractive and inappropriate creations by people who thought they knew best. Fellows Court, just next to the Marquis of Lansdowne, is a perfect example. This is not the place to shoehorn in yet another unsuitable construction which takes no account of the history of a fascinating area or the people who live in it. Fellows Court at least had the excuse that it would provide housing; a modern extension to a museum dedicated to the history of domestic environments and which seeks to destroy a Georgian pub which was probably one of the most important places in the lives of local people is a tragedy. The Geffrye Museum seems to be dazzled by the creation of David Chipperfield. The people, whose money will be paying for it via the Heritage Lottery Fund, are not.

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