October 29, 2013

On Jumbo, and ruins

There's currently a heated discussion going on in our town which has reached an unpleasantly divisive political-football moment. This is on the future of the huge Victorian water tower that dominates Colchester's skyline - known locally and for obvious reasons as Jumbo.

Disused since 1987, it has passed through many hands and many more or less unviable schemes for its reuse - literally pie in the sky in most cases - including replacing its water tank with a glass-walled penthouse. It was sold for a third of a million pounds at the height of the property boom in 2006. It is Grade 2 listed - the largest surviving water tower in the UK - and on the Buildings at Risk Register categorised as C, which is sort of middle of the road: "Slow decay"- not great, but not desperate either.  We can see it from the windows of our office, and it is a magnificent, monumental piece of brickwork, certainly not decaying very fast at all.

The problems in making an enormous water tower into a financially viable development proposition are fairly self-evident. As an open-sided structure, the only accommodation is in the water tank, which has no windows. You can wall in the sides to create endless floors of accommodation but English Heritage argue this would be detrimental to its architectural and functional integrity as a historic artefact. You could use some imagination to use it for semi-temporary testbed uses like, for example, a climbing wall or a camera obscura - but that would require, well, imagination.

But with a new set of proposals - which involve glassing in the sides of the tower to make several floors of residential accommodation with, apparently, a restaurant and a museum (oh yes? funded by who?) at the top - due to go to planning committee on Halloween, suddenly the town is awash with a propaganda campaign that this is the last chance to 'save' Jumbo, and local party activists tramping the streets with sandwich boards and microphones, accosting passers-by to ask them if they'd like a 'restaurant in the sky in Jumbo, sir?' The townspeople are being told that the council and the Balkerne Tower Trust - who oppose the plans - don't care about 'letting Jumbo rot' - that if they don't have an alternative plan to 'save' it and bring it back into viable reuse, who are they to oppose the nasty glass-walled water-tower-cum-fishtank? (The glass will be grey-tinted for added dismal effect, according to the design and access statement.)

It's a peculiar one, this. We don't go to Rome and say 'oh, that poor Forum, so sad, why doesn't someone spruce it all up and make it into a shopping mall, all you'd need to do is fill in a few arches with some glass.' We admire the creativity of a past era and muse on the ephemerality and endurance of civilisation. Yet here, one of the politicians brandishing microphones used 'picturesque decay' as a term of derision. Sure, the owner wants to recoup his investment - but why should the council, supposedly the guardian of our local culture, support a cack-handed proposition that will turn a meaningful monument into a banal block of flats? Isn't it better to do nothing - or the minimal upkeep that might be required to scrape off the weeds and repoint the brickwork every few years, as they do for the town's Roman walls - while waiting for someone to come up with an idea worthy of the grandeur and sheer awesomeness of the Victorian engineers? (Worst of all is the fiction that the glass sides will be somehow 'invisible' - when is this going to be thoroughly thrown out of popular parlance? Glass is a wonderful material but transparent when used as cladding, it ain't).

So we hope that the council aren't bullied into accepting this proposal tomorrow night, that the politicians stop peddling silly soundbites, and Jumbo continues its slow - infinitesimally slow - decay as a glorious ruin until someone comes up with a plan as beautiful and stylish as the project that won the Stirling Prize this year. Next to the Roman wall, what could be more appropriate?

(Above: our office, seen through Jumbo's legs)


Blogger Unknown said...

I remember the Jumbo debate from my time at Colchester Institue. The issue with the building is the cost of maintenance and preservation (pointing & brickwork). The best solution would be for the town to own it in trust and make the space available for weddings and events and for its income to be reinvested into its preservation (maybe with a tasteful advert on it). HAT Projects should offer to instigate - it would be a showcase development in your home town!

October 29, 2013 at 5:24 PM  
Anonymous Darius said...

"Minimal upkeep"

I think the cost of a new roof might be a little more than that - also how do you propose your grandma gets a chance to see the views by "leaving Jumbo alone" -

Coz unless there is a loft shaft she might struggle?

October 29, 2013 at 11:09 PM  

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