Why we should all care about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Image: Bell cast in 2002 to commemorate the 9/11 attacks in NY. Photograph by Kieran Doherty/Reuters.

 From the Re- Editors

Last week Tower Hamlet’s Council website crashed because of the volume of objections to a planning application by a New York hotel developer to convert the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a luxury hotel. People are always lobbying to preserve an original building or object somewhere. This is different. It’s about preserving a site-specific human practice. Centuries old, this shared knowledge offers unique participation in an extended community. It connects the modest shopfront in Whitechapel to a vast geography of time and space (its bells exist all over the world). It physically links us today with times in the past almost unimaginably different from our own. But the present is in unique dialogue with the past at the Bell Foundry because the practice is ongoing: it is this continuity that is at stake.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has been continuously hand casting giant bells for use around the world for the past 500 years or so. It cast Big Ben’s bell – the sound we still hear every day on the BBC – and the Liberty Bell, as well as bells in many cathedrals in Europe. Its casting techniques in sand and loam date back millennia. The New York-based hotel developer who wants to capitalise on this history to attract luxury clientele (see the Spitalfields Life article, below) proposes displaying the odd bell or piece of machinery on plinths or behind glass in the repurposed space. But what is unique about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry isn’t just the heavy bells themselves as objects, or even the huge weight and scale of the machinery – the vast tipping vats of molten metal, the dusty beams, floors, and workbenches, with centuries of accumulated graffiti – but the fact of the continuous human labour and skill the space itself contains. To a lay visitor, the continuity of this practice, in that space, seems to uncannily defeat the logics of time, of technological change, of generational change, of cultural change. It’s an intangible value – ironically associated with the most tangible of objects. The ongoing casting of bells there makes the activity simultaneously local and global, current and historic. It’s in East London, but has produced bells that belong to some of the world’s most famous buildings – so in a sense it is world-connected – or gathers the world in its space. But once the practice stops, and objects are removed from that networked meaning and individuated as this bell or that bell, this machine or that machine, they become disconnected memorials ‘to’ a past, mediated by their framing as ‘those’, ‘that’, ‘then’. And access to these framed inert museum pieces will be exclusive – that is part of their value. This monetisation of ‘history’ will create profits that flow to private, not public, benefit.

If the Foundry’s continuous human practice in casting was an oral tradition, it could in theory come under UNESCO’s safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. But it isn’t. It is a business, profitable for centuries until recently when new methods were discovered to fix cracked bells. This is where the plan developed by Factum Arte and The UK Historic Building Preservation Trust becomes important – not just for the Bell Foundry, but for other such efforts to keep ancient practices – technological traditions – alive.  They have a proposal that would keep the Foundry working profitably, as a Foundry, but in the modern marketplace – a commercially self-sustaining centre for historic research, as well as of production. Their plan enhances, makes more widely available, and preserves for the future the Foundry’s existing status as a unique site of practice in the history of sound.

If you haven’t already, please see below for how to register your objection to Tower Hamlets Council, join the campaign, or sign the petition.

 

The article below was originally written by The Gentle Author on the blog Spitalfields Life. We are reposting their work with the writer’s permission in the hope that we can help spread the word about saving the Bell Foundry. You can access the original post here.

 

Raycliff Capital, the developers who want to turn the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a bell-themed boutique hotel, have submitted their application to Tower Hamlets council for change of use from foundry to hotel. Now you get to have your say. Would you rather have the Whitechapel Bell Foundry converted into an upmarket hotel or would you rather it was a foundry, continuing a tradition of casting bells in Whitechapel that dates back to 1363?

A choice has to be made and Tower Hamlets council must establish which is the OPTIMUM VIABLE USE – this is a term in planning law which means the ideal purpose for a building. Since the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was built as a foundry and worked as a foundry for centuries, it is self-evident that this is the OPTIMUM VIABLE USE, not a boutique hotel.

United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (a charity with a distinguished track record in heritage-led regeneration) have announced a partnership with Factum Foundation (a global leader in the use of technology for the preservation of heritage and maker of sculptures for some of the world’s most famous artists). Together, they have the resources to buy the buildings off the developer at market value and re-open them as a foundry, re-equipped with up-to-date machinery, for the production of bells and art casting.

Bippy Siegal, the New York tycoon who owns Raycliff Capital often works with business associate Richard Caring in hotel projects. Recognising that there is a viable alternative to their boutique hotel proposal, Raycliff Capital have appropriated the language of their rivals by claiming they are actually ‘reinstating a foundry,’ meaning that bell polishing will happen in the lobby of their hotel sometimes. The reality is they are reducing the foundry use by more than 90%. In spite of this attempt to muddy the waters, I think the difference between a boutique hotel and a bell foundry is quite obvious.

You can help save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a living foundry by submitting an objection to the boutique hotel proposal to Tower Hamlets council. Please take a moment this weekend to write your letter of objection. The more objections we can lodge the better, so please spread the word to your family and friends.

 

HOW TO OBJECT EFFECTIVELY:

Use your own words and add your own personal reasons for opposing the development. Any letters which simply duplicate the same wording will count only as one objection.

1. Quote the application reference: PA/19/00008/A1

2. Give your full name and postal address. You do not need to be a resident of Tower Hamlets or of the United Kingdom to register a comment but unless you give your postal address your objection will be discounted.

3. Be sure to state clearly that you are OBJECTING to Raycliff Capital’s application.

4. Point out the ‘OPTIMUM VIABLE USE’ for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is as a foundry not a boutique hotel.

5. Emphasise that you want it to continue as a foundry and there is a viable proposal to deliver this.

6. Request the council refuse Raycliff Capital’s application for change of use from foundry to hotel.

 

WHERE TO SEND YOUR OBJECTION:

You can write an email to: planningandbuilding@towerhamlets.gov.uk

or

you can post your objection direct on the website by following this link to Planning and entering the application reference PA/19/00008/A1

or

you can send a letter to

Town Planning, Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, London, E14 2BG.

 

Contact the gentle author via @thegentleauthor or head over to http://www.spitalfieldslife.com

To keep up to date with the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry campaign, you can follow their twitter account @SavetheWbf

 

 

 

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